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The Long View: No rust on either end

Rust? Never heard of him.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Having been sidelined for nearly two weeks, the Memphis Grizzlies had every excuse to showcase some rust in their return to action against the San Antonio Spurs. The squad didn’t play with each other for quite some time before Friday’s practice — and even then, we all know that practices are no substitute for the NBA game. Not to mention Memphis was granted no favors on the schedule in terms of their opponent in this one — the scorching San Antonio Spurs, winners of their last three, and coming off an impressive victory against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Friday.

Missing Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen due to health and safety protocols, the Grizzlies were without perhaps their second-most reliable offensive threat and one of their top shooters. The Grizzlies had just 10 active players tonight. Again, considering they were understaffed and hadn’t taken the court together for approximately half a month, Memphis could have lost this game, and almost nobody would have said boo. Fans would have chalked it up to the team’s hiatus and veered their focus on to the next one.

But the Memphis Grizzlies had other plans in mind. Once this game tipped off, the Grizzlies gave zero indication that they were rusty or lethargic. In fact, they appeared as spry as they have all season long — it’s evident that this group was itching to get back on the court, and they demonstrated this fact through their play.

For one, the Grizzlies shot the rock with superb accuracy and confidence from beyond the arc. As is characteristic of the Bears of Beale Street, their offense was predicated around the simple yet effective drive and kick. As a result, players frequently found themselves with wide-open looks on the perimeter, and they certainly capitalized on their chances. Of the 35 triples that the Grizzlies attempted in this one, a season-high 17 of them found the bottom of the net, which equates to a sizzling 48.6% clip. Brandon Clarke, whose jumper has looked shaky at times in 2020-21, was 2-for-4 from deep. Even Ja Morant got in on the fun and sank a triple — a welcome sight for Grizzlies faithful.

Defensively, the Grizzlies were leaps-and-bounds more engaged and disruptive than in their season opener against San Antonio, when they allowed the Spurs to drop 131 points. San Antonio’s guards and wings — who usually excel at carving up the defense at the rim — were denied opportunities to weave their way inside. De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, and Dillon Brooks all harassed the Spurs’ top perimeter threats whenever the ball came their way. Johnson, Murray, and DeRozan combined for just 32 points, a stat that highlights Memphis’ hugely improved defense compared to the season opener.

Memphis wreaked havoc with their off-ball defense as well. Their rotations were timely and excellent — players were darting around the court and putting themselves in optimal positioning more often than not. As such, Memphis came up with deflections and seven steals. Additionally, the Grizzlies’ interior players provided help at the rim when the Spurs’ dribble penetration led to close-range shots.

Memphis played to their identity on the defensive end, to put it succinctly — they outhustled and outmuscled the Spurs. Seemingly all of the 50-50 balls well their way. The Grizzlies are beginning to form a defense-first identity right before our very eyes. They rank among the league leaders in defensive efficiency, and it’ll be paramount that they remain in the conversation among the NBA’s best in order to sniff the postseason.

De’Anthony Melton stands out when deciphering the Grizzlies’ top performer in this one. It’s easy to forget that Melton was on the outside looking in on the rotation just a few games ago. De’Anthony responded to the uncertainty surrounding his role with perhaps his finest performance of the season, accumulating 14 points, five rebounds, two assists, and a blocked shot for good measure. He hounded the Spurs’ backcourt players throughout and was almost single-handedly responsible for them being a non-factor scoring-wise.

The Grizzlies are sitting pretty after a slow beginning to the season, as they are now 8-6 after starting 2-6. Memphis will face San Antonio once again on Monday at the AT&T Center with hopes of extending their win streak to seven.

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