I had a generic framework set for how to start the report card depending on the end result, and neither really fully captured that ending. That absolutely sucked. While the game wasn’t won or lost on one play, to see the Memphis Grizzlies scratch and claw throughout the night to have it lead to that ending stings especially in a conference where every single game is going to matter coming down the stretch.
It was a slow start for both teams, but the Grizzlies luck changed as Brandon Clarke injected the Grizzlies lineup with much-needed energy. The 2nd-year forward had a dominant first quarter scoring 12 of his 20 points, including two threes in the first quarter and was a major factor in the Grizzlies closing the quarter with a five point lead. While Ja Morant struggled early on, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, and Jonas Valanciunas picked up the slack offensively, they attempted to go blow for blow with the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic as the Grizzlies carried a narrow lead into halftime.
Turnovers and offensive struggles, whether it be bad shots or simply shots not falling, were the story of the third quarter as the Nuggets were able to swing the momentum in their favor as the Grizzlies had numerous stretches without scoring a point. Ja Morant closed the quarter with a 42 foot buzzer as the Grizzlies started to flip the switch heading into the 4th. The 4th saw big plays from Morant and Brooks alongside De’Anthony Melton and Justise Winslow as the Grizzlies went toe to toe with the Nuggets before falling just short.
The Grizzlies played a lot more good basketball than bad on both ends of the floor but it simply wasn’t enough to overcome Jokic and the Nuggets.
Let’s look at some of the good, while acknowledging the bad, with some grades.
Brandon Clarke - 30 minutes, 8-14 shooting (2-5 3PT), 20 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 3 blocks, +8 +/-
This was the Brandon Clarke that was a dark horse Sixth Man of the Year candidate last season. Brandon Clarke made his presence felt immediately upon entering a game that had been stagnant through its initial minutes. Starting with a corner three, Clarke was impactful on all levels offensively while being a ball-hawk defensively swatting away 3 Nuggets shots - including one in crunch time that gave the Grizzlies a chance.
Brandon Clarke has found a way to impact the Grizzlies in a positive fashion in the Grizzlies first two post-All-Star break outings whether it be scoring or on the boards. As the Grizzlies are finally starting to get healthy, it’s a great sign to see Clarke gel with a more solidified second unit alongside Justise Winslow.
Dillon Brooks - 34 minutes, 8-20 shooting (4-6 3PT), 20 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, 4 fouls, -12 +/-
Oh Dillon Brooks... you were so close to this grade being higher. Coming off the cusp of one of his more efficient 3&D outings of the season against the Washington Wizards, the Grizzlies’ most polarizing player did a lot of good things in addition to some head scratchers. Defensively, he was a savant making fellow Canadian Jamal Murray’s night as hectic as possible as he accepted the key wing matchup and played a massive role in Murray’s 1-14 shooting night. Offensively, early forced shots in the paint prevented him having back to back efficient nights offensively. Brooks was one of many people that played a part in the Grizzlies third quarter struggles with 3 confusing turnovers in near succession, but his game came full circle with clutch shots down the stretch to keep the Grizzlies in striking distance.
It wasn’t a perfect night by any means - I personally don’t expect perfection in sports - but it is getting harder to deny Brooks’ importance to the Grizzlies. The positives come along with a few knucklehead plays that are harder to look back on after a loss like this than after a win.
Jonas Valanciunas - 37 minutes, 7-10 shooting, 14 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, +0 +/-
The walking double-double Jonas Valanciunas had a lot on his plate coming in as he matchup up with perennial All-Star Nikola Jokic. Taylor Jenkins did his best to align his minutes with Jokic’s as not to throw too much on his backup rookie center and Valanciunas did what he could. Offensively, he went at Jokic when he could leading to successful night on that side of the floor but as expected Jokic was a handful for JV defensively as he is for opposing centers night in and night out. Valanciunas, a defender who generally doesn’t come out farther than the free throw line got caught in some actions where he simply did not stand a chance as Jokic piled up a near triple-double.
Jokic is a matchup nightmare for Valanciunas, as he is for most centers, and is going to get his stats by any means so as long as Valanciunas took advantage of him being an average defender and didn’t let Jokic drop 40 on him I am satisfied.
Those performances stood out but Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, and Justise Winslow played well also. That is another reason this loss hurts. No player in particular was “bad,” the shooting splits aren’t terrible, but a team that generally wins the fast break and turnover battle lost that tonight and the wide margin for both stats ultimately played a role in the Friday night loss. The last second Morant play will be easy to point to and use as a scapegoat to blame the officials but those 5 minute runs with no scoring are tough to overcome against a team like that Denver Nuggets squad.
GRIZZLIES GRADE - B-