In a week that was literally the best and worst of times for the young Memphis Grizzlies, we can learn a lot about the overall state of the roster as the season enters its second quarter. A seven game winning streak reached its apex as a full showcase in San Antonio of the Grizzlies Standard at work. The next night it came crashing own, a reminder of the fragility of success and the impact such a condensed season during a pandemic can have on any NBA squad, much less the youngest one in the NBA. It all serves as an example of how far the Grizzlies have indeed come in year two of the post Grit and Grind Era, and just how far they still have yet to go.
Beginning with the good...
Selflessness shines through in San Antonio
In two blowout victories for the Memphis Grizzlies over old foes the San Antonio Spurs, the team had a combined seventeen out of twenty players score in double figures. That staggering 85% of Grizzlies converting at such a level offensively is a testament to the beautiful style of play that Head Coach Taylor Jenkins has installed in Memphis. The team prioritizes attacking the paint offensively off of quick passes and playing as one unit defensively, and that was on display in all its glory against the Spurs.
It was most obvious in the play of Memphis’ unselfish superstar Ja Morant, who only averaged 16 points across both contests against the Spurs but impacted the game as a facilitator and creator of offense for others. 19 assists in two contests as he continues to find his wind and timing coming off the team’s COVID season pause as well as his own injury is nothing to look down on just because he didn’t take over as a scorer. That isn’t the point of what is being built in Memphis. Yes, Ja is the straw that stirs the drink. But he doesn’t have to be the only item floating in the glass.
He can depend on Tyus Jones, who posted a staggering 22 assists across the two games, to carry on the creative cause as he sits and rests. He can count on the likes of Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks to be there defensively most nights, fighting and competing on the glass and on the perimeter, respectively. Ja can believe in young rookies like Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman, or end of rotation pieces like John Konchar and Gorgui Dieng, when their numbers are called to produce. Up and down this roster, the idea of “next man up” isn’t just talked about. It is on full display when Memphis is at their best.
It makes for a fun brand of basketball...and one that fans everywhere can take pride in. For it is one that helps cultivate a winning, and caring, culture among players and coaches. That is what an organization like the Grizzlies needs to build sustained success.
Pacers and Rockets give Grizzlies perspective
As well as things went for Memphis during their seven game winning streak, with the big Spurs exclamation mark, things came crashing down almost as quickly Tuesday night against the Pacers and then the Rockets Thursday night. There are reasons for this - the third game in four nights coming off such a long layoff on Tuesday, two rotational players (Grayson Allen and Jonas Valanciunas) still being out due to the league’s health and safety protocols, Indiana simply being really good at basketball.
It all fits. But beyond that, the way that the Grizzlies were run off the floor by the Pacers Tuesday night in particular served as a reminder of how much more work is still to be done for Memphis. While watching the game, it was easy to think that inserting a Jonas Valanciunas would have negated some of the impact that Pacers bigs like Myles Turner (five blocks) and Domantas Sabonis (32 points on 15 shots and 13 rebounds) had on the contest. On the glass, that holds true - it is hard to imagine that Jonas would’ve allowed for Memphis to be dominated in the paint so strongly. But the shortcomings of Valanciunas - pick and roll and perimeter defense in particular - still would have been taken advantage of. And Indiana likely still would have won.
What do you make of such a statement? Is it meant to be a slight at Jonas? Of course not - Indiana was just better on Tuesday night. It is a reminder, though, of the circumstances the team finds themselves in. Assuming Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow are starters, the team was without three of them against Indiana. They also didn’t have Jenkins rotation staple Grayson Allen in the fold, meaning four key cogs in the Memphis machine were absent for the bludgeoning at the hands of Indiana. It can be argued this helped the Grizzlies against the Spurs - less front court talent and size than the Pacers - but hampered them against Indiana. Maybe that is fair - depth should allow for flexibility of rotations, and perhaps Taylor Jenkins would have done things differently if he had his full compliment of talent at his disposal.
But the reality is that everyone is playing a condensed schedule, not just Memphis. The Grizzlies had their best player on the floor, and Ja Morant played arguably his worst game of the season...until he played his worst half of the season in the first half of the loss against the Rockets. Even with a “good Dillon Brooks” night in Indiana and a strong homecoming for Desmond Bane followed up by another great game for the Rockets, Indiana and Houston had their way. Without their star being a star, and without the defensive energy that paced the winning streak, Memphis simply wasn’t good enough to compete against a higher level of team...or even a comparable squad in the Rockets. Ja’s better third quarter against Houston even wasn’t easy - tough shot after tough shot as he works his way back in to health and condition post injury.
Will the idea that Memphis’ overachieving nature means weeks like this past one continue to hold true? Or will the Grizzlies continue to prove doubters wrong as important pieces debut and return?
The answers will become clearer in the days ahead.
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