The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 132-121 on opening night in FedExForum for the 2021-2022 season, and there was much rejoicing. Ja Morant looked ever bit the part of superstar. Role players like De’Anthony Melton and Desmond Bane thrived. Even Steven Adams - yes, the much-maligned by some Steven Adams - appeared not washed at all on his way to an almost double-double. The fans of the Grizzlies were back in full effect, and aside from the masks worn by everyone except the players it was an almost-normal evening in Memphis.
How I long for that return to “normal”.
Of course, if you have followed this franchise for some time the way the Grizzlies won last night isn’t exactly normal for Memphis, nor is the win on opening night (the first one for the Grizzlies since 2017). And it wasn’t as easy as the final score dictates - Collin Sexton, Jarrett Allen and the Cavaliers gave a real fight right to the end as Cleveland was within a point of the lead with two and a half minutes remaining in the contest. The best player on the floor - Ja Morant - took over at that point and saved the game for the Grizzlies. Memphis won via offensive explosion - not something Grizzlies fans are accustomed to - and while there was a massive amount of positive to take from this victory, there is also much room for improvement.
Which is a good thing. This young team - the third youngest in the NBA - can get better.
Time to give out some grades.
Ja Morant - 34 minutes played, 37 points on 17-29 shooting (1-4 from three), 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 turnovers, -6 +/-
Morant is a superstar. The best talent the Memphis Grizzlies have ever had. The scariest part of this game, at least for the other 29 teams in the NBA, is that while Morant has always had this level of ability...
Look at this block by Ja Morant!! pic.twitter.com/hjALPVJkqk— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 21, 2021
hi hello all sports shows across the whole wide world:— Jessica Benson (@jessbensontv) October 21, 2021
you can go ahead and lead with this Ja Morant dunk tonight pic.twitter.com/rgieZ6Kc2K
...in this game, and dating back to the play-in tournament and playoff series with the Utah Jazz this past spring, he is harnessing that athletic talent within the NBA game at an elite level. At no point last night did Morant look as if he was unsure of himself, or out of control. He toyed with Cleveland much of the night. He understood exactly where his teammates were supposed to be off of his almost constant dribble penetration. He led the team in minutes played and shots taken - as he should. He’s their best player.
I rarely give A+ grades. But after hearing Ja say he knows his defense needs to be better (more on that in a moment) this season and he prefers the above block over the highlight dunk? A+ it is.
GRADE - A+
JAREN JACKSON JR. - 31 minutes played, 13 points on 3-12 shooting (3-8 from three), 6 rebounds, 4 blocks, 2 assists, +16 +/-
Jaren had a rough offensive night, especially from inside the three point arc (he did not make a single two point shot). He struggled with the massive size and length of the Cleveland front court - seriously, Lauri Markkanen started at Small Forward - and between Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen he did not have the strength/weight advantage in his favor to play on the block. But Jaren’s +16 mark despite his poor shooting is an indicator of the other things he did well - the four blocks, the ability to stay out of foul trouble, the activity on the perimeter. He didn’t limit the offense while making the defense better in the time he was on the floor, helping the Grizzlies build leads.
No, he didn’t have it on this night scoring the ball. But he - alongside Tyus Jones (+17), De’Anthony Melton (+17), Brandon Clarke (+15), and Ziaire Williams (+13) provided the right combination of free-flowing offense and impactful defense to help the Grizzlies pull away when they were on the floor. Jaren’s shot will come along. Defense can always travel - and that’s perhaps where “JJJ” has the greatest potential.
GRADE - B
- The demise of Steven Adams has been greatly exaggerated. No, he isn’t a scoring threat in most senses. The good news is that that is OK. The shots Jonas Valanciunas once took now belong to Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and other Grizzlies like Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton. Those are four names that will likely be in Memphis for some time. Perhaps the same can be said of Adams, who does exactly what the Grizzlies need him to do - rebound (14 boards in 32 minutes), impact the game defensively (1 block and 1 steal don’t fully show how well he slowed Cleveland’s onslaught at times), and be an excellent screener. Morant’s scoring wasn’t an accident - while Ja is already elite at getting to the rim, he had a ton of room to work with off of Adams screens. The three assists are icing on the cake - if he can maintain that production, while the Grizzlies will miss Jonas Valanciunas at times for his offensive dependability most nights they won’t miss him elsewhere. And that will make the trade that much better for Memphis. GRADE - B+
- If only it were physically possible to combine two players. De’Anthony Melton would benefit heavily from the consistent stroke of fellow wing starter (for now) Desmond Bane, but alas he does not have Bane’s shooting pedigree. On this night, it did not matter - Melton shot 4-6 from downtown and posted an impressive 20 points on 14 shots to go along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists. Bane did a better job getting to the rim, but Melton was more protective of the ball (3 turnovers for Bane, 0 for Melton) and Melton was tied for the team-best in +/- with Tyus Jones at +17 while Bane was a -7 on the night. Of course much of that is who you played with/against within any given game. But for one night at least, if the eventual choice once Dillon Brooks is healthy has to be Bane or Melton, it’s safe to say round one went to Melton. GRADE - A
- The low point of the night was Team Defense. Morant said as much in his post-game remarks - there were too many open shooters on the perimeter. But even beyond that, interior defense was lacking. Jarrett Allen was 11-11 from the floor. Evan Mobley was 7-13 in his first career NBA game. Cleveland shot over 50% overall from the field without a scoring wing that is a real threat (the Cavaliers are one of those away from being really good). This should be a point of emphasis over the next two days, as Memphis is about to play some teams that have such scorers on their upcoming West Coast swing. The defense made plays down the stretch when they needed them most. But the Grizzlies will not always shoot 53% from the field and 42% from three. The defense must improve. GRADE - D+
The Memphis Grizzlies will return to action on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Clippers. Tipoff is scheduled for 9:30 PM CT.