Clap your hands...everybody...the Memphis Grizzlies...beat the 76ers! It’s not always pretty but the Memphis Grizzlies extended their winning streak to four thanks to their 106-104 victory over Philadelphia. Saturday night saw the return of the Ja Morant to the starting lineup after an 8 game absence. Morant couldn’t catch a break early but he made his presence felt to begin the 2nd quarter with an electrifying dunk that under normal circumstances would have blown the roof off of FedExForum but instead probably ruined a few living room floors as Grizz fans jumped out of their seats with excitement. The first quarter was less than stellar as it felt more like a feel out period for the Grizzlies as they adjusted to Morant rejoining the starting lineup.
I’ll be the first to say that the 8 game stretch without any of their star players was huge for the development of the Memphis Grizzlies. The 2nd youngest team in the Association was forced to grow up as they were thrown into the fire and held their own over the stretch as they played respectable .500 basketball. The growth showed early as the Grizzlies bench - a weakness early this season - showed up early led by Grayson Allen & rookie Xavier Tillman Sr. making up for starters that couldn’t remove the imaginary lid from the rim. The Grizzlies (and the 76ers) struggled from the perimeter nearly across the board but once again it was the Grizzlies play in the paint offensively and scrappy play on defense as they lived in passing lanes causing 15 steals as a part of their 22 forced turnovers.
This defensive effort to go along with their ability to take care of the ball themselves against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA was a huge factor in their victory as they finished +11 in the turnover margin.
As the game continued, the Grizzlies got more comfortable with each other and made big plays at the right time. Coach Jenkins got to utilize some lineups that we had yet to see including Ja Morant & Xavier Tillman Sr. sharing the NBA floor for the first time together. Then for the first time this season the Grizzlies used a Morant-Allen-Brooks-Clarke-Tillman Sr. closing lineup that saw the rookie step up and force a key turnover by Tobias Harris to all but seal the game for the Grizzlies. As the Grizzlies continue to finally get healthy their depth will really begin to show and that started tonight in a grit and grind-esque victory over one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
Ja Morant - 31 minutes, 7-14 shooting (0-3 3PT), 17 points, 6 assists, 1 steal, 3 turnovers, +6 +/-
Shoutout to the Memphis Grizzlies training staff & that red clay because thanks to them Ja Morant was able to return on the early part of his timeline. With his return, he was back like he never left! The sophomore point didn’t miss a beat last night moving as if he was still in game shape as he flew around in ways you wouldn’t expect someone fresh off an ankle injury would move.
The Grizzlies looked like a totally different team with the injection of their star point guard back into the rotation. Tyus Jones did a good job holding down the fort in his absence but there’s just a gear that Morant can take this Grizzlies offense when he is on the floor that others simply cannot take it.
He struggled in the first quarter finishing the quarter 0-3 as the rim didn’t want to let him be great as good looks simply wouldn’t fall. After an emphatic dunk to start the 2nd quarter, Ja Morant turned it on shooting 7-11 for the final 3 quarters.
There’s still some kinks to work out for Morant to return to his pre-injury form as he regains chemistry with his teammates. The turnovers will subside and the threes will start to fall again. This being said, after a 3 week absence Taylor Jenkins and the Memphis Grizzlies couldn’t have asked for a better return to the floor for their star point guard as he helped lead them to a win.
Grade - A-
Xavier Tillman Sr. - 28 minutes, 7-13 shooting (1-5 3PT), 15 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, +5 +/-
Look at him, he is the backup center now - out with Gorgui Dieng and in with Xavier Tillman Sr. The play of Xavier Tillman Sr. has been the story to watch over the course of the last 3 games as he has been a nightmare for opposing second units as he begins to get comfortable. Last night was no different as it didn’t matter whether he was running with the first unit or with the bench unit, Tillman found a way to make impact plays on both ends of the floor. Before the season started, I wrote about how his play on both ends of the floor could help him evolve into “Weapon X” - the signs of this best case scenario are starting to show as Zach Kleiman and company may have made another draft night heist.
Tillman Sr. just made the right plays. Offensively, he found the open man and took advantage of mismatches of his own to make plays for himself including a “Dream Shake” that got Jaren Jackson Jr. out of his seat and caused my jaw to drop.
Defensively, he was a force making the 76ers uncomfortable and having active hands causing 4 steals. His play through the first 3 1/2 quarters provided Tillman Sr. the opportunity to close out the game and make an impact in “winning time” and the rookie stepped up in a big way - unfazed by the situation forcing a turnover to seal the game for the Grizzlies.
The future is bright for the rook if this trend continues and I think it will.
Grade - A
Grayson Allen - 26 minutes, 3-9 shooting (3-5 3PT), 12 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, +6 +/-
He saw the tweets.
While some may see 3-9 shooting for a bench player and ask “If he saw them wouldn’t he play better than 33% from the field?” & I would respond that simply evaluating Grayson Allen off of his shooting numbers wouldn’t tell the whole story. Grayson Allen and his role has become a much discussed topic as De’Anthony Melton returned from the injury report, Desmond Bane continues to ascend, and Justise Winslow waits in the wings. The beginning of the season for Allen was a struggle and thats putting it lightly as he shot below 30% from the perimeter. As someone who was supposed to be a 3&D player - whether It be starting or off the bench- that was less than ideal. Wednesday night’s contest against Minnesota saw the return of Grayson Allen from the bubble as he scored 20 points off the bench and provided an improved effort on the defensive end. While he does need to finish better in the paint, Allen played well on both ends, crashing the boards defensively while finding the open man on offense and taking the open threes presented to him within the flow of the offense.
If he takes advantage in the paint, he easily eclipses 20 points once again. If this is the renewed normal, Allen isn’t leaving the rotation anytime soon and deservedly so. There is a world where Allen, Bane, & Melton can co-exist in the bench unit & as all three round into form I hope they find a way to maximize the talent on their deep bench.
Grade - B
The scrappy, young Grizzlies have found a way to string together 4 wins in a row as they start to finally clear some names off of the injury report. Just like that, the Grizzlies went from a lottery team to a team right back in the thick of it in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies took advantage if finally catching a break schedule wise as they caught the 76ers without All-Star center Joel Embiid. Now they enter one of the most emotional games of the season in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day game in a nationally televised contest against a Phoenix Suns team that will be playing their first game in a week due to COVID-19.
National TV games have been the bane of the Grizzlies existence recently but hopefully with their current streak the tide can finally turn on national TV on a very important day in the city of Memphis.
GRIZZLIES GRADE - B+