The Memphis Grizzlies are done with their 1st road trip of the season — and luckily for everyone around, there aren’t any more West Coast games until Christmastime, and they won’t have another road trip this long until the middle of January.
Though there was a mixed bag, a 2-2 split should be considered a good accomplishment through this road trip. This was no slouch of a journey either. The Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors are two trendy picks to represent the Western Conference in the Finals, and the latter of the two hadn’t lost until Thursday night’s contest against Memphis. Then, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers are two teams in the same position — fighting for 5th/6th seed to avoid the play-in.
Anyway, you have to be impressed with what they did on this road trip. The young Grizzlies displayed great resiliency, and they made quality adjustments as well. They responded extremely well to the Portland blunder by wreaking havoc defensively in the next game — flying and swarming their way into 25 stocks (steals + blocks) in Thursday’s victory.
Overall, it was a good business trip, especially considering the quality of competition faced over the past week. However, like any .500 road trip, you’re going to get the good with the bad. So let’s break down a few of the good, the bad, and the ugly from this West Coast trip.
The Good: Ja Morant splitting and slicing defenses
Ja Morant was a bonafide superstar on this West Coast road trip — averaging 28.8 points with 52.7/42.9/83.3 shooting splits, 8.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in 36.5 minutes per game over these 4 games. It’s a tall task to be the best player on the floor when stepping up against All-NBA talent such as LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook. Ja Morant rose to the occasion and did just that though.
Morant’s emergence as a 3-point shooter has definitely helped him do so, but he’s really been at his best getting downhill towards the basket. He’s elite at finishing in the paint, as only Anthony Davis is scoring more points in the paint than Morant (16.0 points in the paint per game).
What’s been so impeccable about Morant’s downhill abilities though is his knack for finding attack points in the smallest slivers of space.
It didn’t matter whether it was in the pick-and-roll, in transition or in half-court offense, Morant did an excellent job at identifying gaps and navigating his way through to get to the cup. It’s a strong, crucial skill for him, as he continues to hone his craft as a pick-and-roll manipulator, and as defenses try to throw different looks at him in those coverages.
Ja Morant even wowed opposing arenas when he’s put his defenders in spin cycles. It’s just a beauty to see him just put the moves on his guy, leaving him stranded on his way to an easy bucket. It’s also just a great reminder of his patience and poise getting to his spots, and his craftiness once he’s inside the paint.
With his elite ability to finish inside, it makes it even easier to do what he loves to do: find his teammates. Whenever he’s getting downhill, he has the defense’s fully-focused attention.
I mean, LOOK AT THIS:
All 5 defenders are laser-focused on Morant. He has the dump to Brandon Clarke, though not the best shot here. Then, there’s De’Anthony Melton — who had already hit 4 three’s in that game — waiting at the top of the key. The beneficiary here was Jaren Jackson Jr., who had a clean look for the final dagger since no defender can close out quick enough to his shot.
Through this, he’s showing this uncanny wizardry of making decisions at the split last-second. It came at a fault at times, especially when Portland blitzed him into 9 turnovers and 2-6 shooting inside the arc. For the majority of the trip though, he did an excellent job of finding quick openings for his teammates, even at the last possible millisecond.
Ja Morant absolutely bends defenses. He can get into the paint against anyone, and finish around everyone. The added mid-range and 3-point shots elevated him from a great offensive weapon, to nearly a “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him” juggernaut. On this trip, he identified gaps into the defense, sliced them up, and even put some of it into a blender.
Sounds like the recipe of an All-Star shake.
The Bad: Jaren Jackson Jr. inside the arc
Jaren Jackson Jr. has gotten a lot of shade, and it’s kind of understandable. He’s the newest member of the $100M club. He’s struggling offensively, unable to find his shot.
(I’d like to add that all’s not lost either. One, he’s 22. Also, the Grizzlies are drilling opponents when Jackson plays, outscoring their opponents by 19.1 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the glass. It’s a testament to his defensive versatility and how he defends in space.).
But yeah, unable to find his shot.
It’s crazy that his skeptics are suggesting he tries to go inside when his outside shots are going, considering he’s shooting even worse inside the arc. So far this season, Jackson is shooting 28.6% on 2-point attempts; and on the West Coast trip, he shot 5-18 (27.7%) inside the arc.
There a few reasons why this is happening, but before I do that. It’s fair to highlight that he’s also just had some bunnies that don’t have much explanation beyond them just bouncing the wrong way.
It could be bad bounces, or maybe him pressing for shots. These are shots that will fall through. I wouldn’t fret.
Now, there were several instances where he didn’t respond too well to contact either. Granted, some of these probably could’ve gotten a whistle — though I don’t like crying “foul!” when analyzing. If you want to draw it down to him, he could change his contact absorption by flailing a bit less on these shots and going straight up a bit more. You could go either way on these shots.
Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t a lost cause here though. You can critique his performance, but it’s not an indictment on who he’s been, how high his trajectory is, and how much money he will receive. He has a good track record of 2-point scoring, as he’s shot 66% or better from the rim each year, per Cleaning the Glass. Right now, it’s at 46%. He’s going to see a progression to the mean in these areas.
Nonetheless, they should look to get him going inside the arc to build his confidence. His teammates need to find him whenever he has post mismatches. He needs to get put in sets where he has a clean runway to the basket — recently, they’ve run these cool off-ball screen and rolls from the high post with him and either Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke.
Jaren Jackson Jr. did not have a good trip inside the arc, but I wouldn’t fret over it all at the moment.
The Good: Desmond Bane’s live-dribble confidence
Ja Morant has captured the everyone’s attention with his All-NBA play, but the leap from Desmond Bane has been sick. The work he put in during a more normal NBA offseason and within the developmental opportunity in the Summer League is paying off.
Over the West Coast trip, Bane averaged 18.5 points with 48.3/42.9/75.0 shooting splits, 5 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. He’s currently doing stuff in terms of scoring volume and 3-point accurarcy that place him in elite company.
Desmond Bane is attempting 9.5 threes per 75 possessions and shooting 40.0% from three.— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) October 28, 2021
Among players with 50+ minutes, CJ McCollum, Evan Fournier, Buddy Hield and Stephen Curry are the only ones who match or exceed both marks.
(Georges Niang is shooting 55.6% on 9.1 3PA/75).
While his explosiveness from 3 and his willingness to let it fly at an elite volume are eye-popping, his confidence off the dribble has been so impressive. Bane went down to Summer League this past August to enhance his game off the dribble, and the dividends are paying off.
Because of his improvements off the bounce, he’s becoming more of an offensive weapon. He’s developed more moves that he could deploy when defenses try to run him off the line, or go over on screens. In that, he’s improved as a navigator in pick-and-rolls to find his spots in the mid-range. It’s quite a pleasant development.
Bane also has become more aggressive looking for more shots at the rim, an area he admitted he needed to improve upon his rookie season. In the Portland game, he showed this nifty high-glass floater.
Desmond Bane is working to become more than a shooter. He’s doing just that, while revving up his 3-point volume to transform into one of the league’s elite from downtown. In due time, he’s going to mold himself into a lethal offensive weapon in this system.
The Ugly: Perimeter Defense
The Memphis Grizzlies has been pretty subpar. They’re in the bottom-5 in Defensive Rating (112.1), and they’re also in the bottom-3 in opponent 3-point percentage (39.3%). The teams on the West Coast had a parade from there.
- Los Angeles Clippers: 13-39, 33.3%
- Los Angeles Lakers: 16-30, 53.3%
- Portland Trail Blazers: 15-36, 41.7%
- Golden State Warriors, 14-40, 35%
To condense, I’m only going to focus on the pure ugly of this segment with two parts.
The first being Carmelo Anthony’s 3-point onslaught. Carmelo turned back the clock to burn the Grizzlies from the outside, drilling 6 of his 8 three pointers. The second was the Blazers’ 2nd half slashing on Wednesday night.
There was a common theme in this parade of 3’s. There were times of just personnel lapses — rotating over to guys like Austin Reaves and Dennis Smith Jr. to leave Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum open, or drop too low instead of switching on a Damian Lillard pick-and-roll. Also, the rotations weren’t crisp, and the closeouts weren’t exactly textbook either.
Ultimately, the Grizzlies are going to be fine in this regard. There’s too much of a track record from the past two seasons that suggests they’re a good defensive team with this personnel, and they’ll be getting their best point-of-attack defender back soon with Dillon Brooks. They also had excellent defensive activity Thursday night from deep. Even though Curry went 7-20 from deep, and obviously he hits that many 3’s because of the laws of averages, they did a good job of managing the Warriors’ perimeter activity.
Even with saying that though, the defense is still noteworthy to point out as a general area of improvement, given the competition out West and the Grizzlies’ reputation on that end of the floor.
It wasn’t the perfect road trip, but it’s one that presented great opportunities.
The Grizzlies played extremely well in 3 of the 4 games against strong competition. When adversity hit, they continued to fight, and they also made adjustments in those moments as well.
This West Coast road trip also presented a measuring stick early in the season to see where they may stack up against 4 really good teams in their conference. Through the lessons learned, corrections going forward, and the bright spots in the brightest lights — this was a successful road trip to kick off the young season.
Clips and stats found on NBA.com/stats and Cleaning the Glass