As the final seconds ticked down and the Memphis Grizzlies watched another game fall out of their reach, two fairly important figures in the future of the team - both in the short and long term - were conspicuous by their absence. Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and rising star Ja Morant had both been ejected from the contest, becoming the latest victims of official Tony Brothers’ and his combination of suspect officiating and quick tempered nature (this is purposely putting it mildly - please do not eject me Mr. Brothers). The New York Knicks controlled much of the contest, but Memphis was able to get their lead (that was double digits throughout much of the second half) down to five at one point in the fourth quarter.
Then, after a Derrick Rose bucket (who turned back the clock on the Grizzlies and looked almost as he did when he was a Memphis Tiger inside FedExForum) made it a seven-point Knicks lead and a questionable no-call against Morant, Jenkins had seen enough and was ejected after letting the officials know of his frustrations. Julius Randle made both technical free throws. Nine point game. Then, Rose scored again to make it a double-digit lead once more for the Knicks. After that? Dillon Brooks with the tech. Ja Morant with two techs and ejection. Three made technical free throws by Reggie Bullock.
From 106-101 to 115-101 in 1 minute and 9 seconds of play. With five of those points coming off of five technical fouls. While Brothers is undoubtedly part of that, the Grizzlies bear responsibility for the collapse more than an official with a grudge. The game was still within reach, and Memphis let their frustration get the best of them (Morant and company shot six more free throws overall than the Knicks for the record, but Ja was understandably angry with the lack of respect on his drives and finishes with regard to contact).
While the Grizzlies had a rough night as a whole, it was a particularly challenging one for both Morant and Jenkins. With regard to Ja, while he did not play his “worst game ever” as he found other ways to make an impact he was clearly impacted by New York mentally and physically. Yes, he dished out six assists, snagged five rebounds, and powered through what had to be a test of his endurance as he was on the floor for almost the entire second half after only sitting out the last two minutes of the third quarter. He hasn’t been asked to do that too much this season, and at some point given the schedule the bill comes due for tired legs.
That does not change the fact that the Knicks, who were clearly prepared for Ja after his big game against them last month and focused much of their game plan on limiting Memphis’ ability to kick out to shooters off of dribble penetration, took him off his scoring game. A 2-14 shooting performance is not something a team’s best player can afford to do if maintaining play-in positioning is the focus. Beyond that, allowing for a referee to get you so unfocused in a game that you can put yourself in a position to be disqualified from said contest - and then going on social media to criticize the official, setting yourself up for a fine - is not the strongest display of leadership in that moment in particular.
But Ja shouldn’t be held accountable for that any more than Taylor Jenkins, who started the technical foul fiesta. Jenkins also could not figure out how to get Ja Morant better looks offensively, or how to counter punch what Knicks Head Coach Tom Thibodeau and his staff had set up to stop Memphis. To Jenkins’ credit, defensively there were adjustments - an abysmal 44 point quarter for the Knicks was followed up by a 49 point second half, giving the Grizzlies a chance to get back in the fight.
Yet Randle, the Knicks star player, rose up to the task at that point however and either scored the ball brilliantly himself or facilitated enough offense for his teammates to keep Memphis at bay. And Morant, that player for Memphis, could not. Ja bears some responsibility there - a particular awful turnover off the back board that led to a New York bucket stands out - but it is Jenkins who should have gotten Morant slashing and cutting off the ball. It is on the coach, as Jenkins himself described earlier in the day in a media availability, who must speak with his staff and determine what is working and what isn’t. Defensively, that happened. But the offensive wheels never quite got going from a point production standpoint for Ja, and the Grizzlies simply cannot win without that output from their 21 year old superstar.
Morant needs to learn how to get his shot even when the opposition is keying on you. Jenkins needs to better adjust to the defensive prowess of the opposition. And both need to maintain composure and prioritize controlling what they can control so that the ending to last night’s game doesn’t occur again. These are things that more often than not can’t be learned in a conversation or film session. They must be experienced.
It wasn’t all bad for Memphis. Dillon Brooks displayed his grit and determination throughout the contest, attempting to check the much larger Randle defensively while also pacing the offense in the absence of the scoring of Morant. Desmond Bane showed another layer of his development, posting a career high in scoring while not just shooting threes but creating off the dribble and crashing the glass to the tune of eight rebounds, another career high. In the first half especially Jaren Jackson Jr. looked like he could very much be getting back to his place as arguably the best two-way player on the Grizzlies.
So even in the darkness of another loss, of losing two leaders who were outperformed on this night by their counterparts, there are glimmers of light. And while it doesn’t feel like it now, that carries more weight than anything moving forward. Both the bad and the good.
In losses oftentimes there are larger, more significant lessons than their are in wins. Especially for a young team - both Morant and Jenkins are in their second seasons in their respective roles - there are missteps are going to be taken. The stumbles feel more significant right now because they’re happening in the midst of a postseason race, and when you fail there are larger/more direct consequences. Memphis is, for now, no longer the #8 seed in the play-in tournament, which would make their path to the playoffs that much more difficult if it held. The Grizzlies have lost four of their last five games and seem to be regressing at a time where they should be accelerating. That leads to understandable fan frustration.
But no other team, in either conference, is in the same situation that Memphis is with regard to the play-in. In the Western Conference it is especially evident - of the six squads currently most in the play-in mix (Lakers, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Spurs) Memphis is the youngest, and also lacks a veteran star player and/or coach that has garnered the necessary experience that comes with those tumbles and tough times. The same is true of the East - outside of perhaps the currently 8 seeded Hornets (probably the fairest comp to Memphis - but even they had Gordon Hayward, who has played a majority of their games and makes over twice as much as the top paid Grizzly Jonas Valanciunas), the Heat/Celtics/Pacers/Wizards all have some combination of talent or coaching expertise that the Grizzlies simply do not possess at this stage of the franchise’s rebuild from Grit and Grind.
It will not always be that way. Memphis is positioned to add such star-caliber players (preferably veterans) in the future. But more importantly, the coaching experience and teachable moments for those currently on the roster who figure to be around for a while is coming now. It’s not the best time for it to occur, but you can run from reality or embrace it. They’re generating their NBA scar tissue and lessons while also trying to compete for a playoff birth. That balancing act can lead to one end of the scales tipping and tumbling over. That’s what happened last night...and has been happening over the last five games in particular. Rotation movement, reintegration of injured players, cold streaks, tired legs...it all is crashing down in the here and now.
Responding to this moment of adversity will be the most important part of this growing pain process moving forward. There are two choices - accept the current state of things and limp to the finish, or pick yourself up off the mat and endure. You can let these moments of strife and failure define your (to this point successful) season, or you can allow for them to become part of the greater story of a team that is achieving at a higher level than many expected - one better than last season in terms of record - despite all sorts of adversity and the reality of their current roster’s age and limitations. Barring a complete collapse, the Memphis Grizzlies will be in the play-in tournament. But will they come in with a position of strength? Or will they look defeated before they ever take the floor?
The answer to that question will not necessarily be an indictment of the future. The Grizzlies have been set up in a way for them to thrive beyond this spring, regardless of the outcome of this sprint to the postseason. But the undertaking ahead of them will help define the answer to that “what does it mean to be a Memphis Grizzly?” question as the next great Grizzlies team rises in the months and years to come. Dillon Brooks’ swagger and tenacity have played a role in this process, as have many others. But the two people arguably most responsible for establishing that culture had rough nights last night.
How they move forward from this current run of growing pains will help shape what comes next.