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The NBA Play-in: The moments the young Memphis Grizzlies grew up

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Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Play-In Tournament Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The play-in games were a resounding success for the National Basketball Association. Obviously, single elimination games have this fascinating mystique around them. With it added into the NBA, and with fans entering the arenas again, it made these situations that much sweeter.

The play-in games were a resounding success for the Memphis Grizzlies as well. They had great tests in both games against teams with riches of playoff experience compared to this young squad. San Antonio had Gregg Popovich — arguably the most successful NBA coach of the 21st century — and a good blend of battle-tested veterans (DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, to name a few). After a strong win there, they had to enter the Chase Center to battle Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and the rest of the Warriors on the road.

It was no small task ahead, but the Memphis Grizzlies prevailed and grew immensely from it.

Now after a month since the play-in tournament was played, let’s take a look at the different themes from these two games that illustrated growth for the Grizzlies.

In both play-in games, the Memphis Grizzlies got off to such strong starts. It wasn’t uncharacteristic for them to do so, as they were 11th in first-quarter net rating (+2.6) and 5th in first-period defensive rating (108). Granted, rating rankings have a slim separation statistically. Nonetheless though, it suggests they’re a pretty good first quarter team.

However, for most young teams those first 12 minutes of playoff-intensity games can be nerve racking and could start slow starts. The Grizzlies’ strong starts demonstrated great poise for a young team, as they outscored their two opponents 68-48 in those minutes. They also amassed incredible runs in those stretches as well — including a 19-2 run against the Spurs, and a 14-3 one against the Warriors.

Starting with the home game, the Grizzlies utilized the meaning of home-court advantage — a beauty that we actually got to experience in this COVID-ravaged season.

Ja Morant pulled the offense out of the 4-on-4 fast break. Jonas Valanciunas runs the floor since DeMar DeRozan oddly enough didn’t already beat him down the floor. Since Jakob Poetl — the primary rim protector — was playing the potential screen from Jaren Jackson Jr., there was an opening for Valanciunas to rumble down the lane for a thunderous jam. That’s always something that’ll get the crowd going.

Then, there was the resounding fast-break jam from Dillon Brooks that was probably the staple of the Grizzlies 1st-quarter run.

It was the classic “turning defense into offense” — a sweet way to get the momentum rolling on your end and away from the opposition. Brooks corrals the steal, audaciously looks off Morant, and throws down a vicious tomahawk slam right over Dejounte Murray.

In that same quarter, we saw the flashes from Jaren Jackson Jr. that make him such a tantalizing offensive prospect.

This sequence illustrates the duo potential of Morant and Jackson. Morant is going to garner attention off of the drive, like most good finishers. Poetl tags Morant, while Lonnie Walker — his original man — goes over to help. Since Keldon Johnson has to play help to prevent the Valanciunas bucket, Jackson relocates to a window Ja could whip a pass through for the in-rhythm 3.

This recognition from Jackson was ridiculous. He curls so far out that he’s not even in the frame here. It has to be 30 feet out! Johnson is caught ball-watching here, while probably waiting for Anderson to make the pass over to Valanciunas in order to make a deflection.

Though that 1st quarter lead vanished and didn’t seem as impactful in the process, it helped the Grizzlies establish a tone to energize the crowd, while also get its other franchise cornerstone going early.

The Grizzlies continued their excellent 1st quarter starts on the road against Golden State. That one was extremely imperative, as road games against the Warriors can still be dangerous for slumps. They possess the greatest scorer of all time in Steph Curry, and it seems like an avalanche whenever he’s humming.

However, the Grizzlies did an excellent job staying composed, setting the tone, and establishing an aggressive mindset. When it comes to those 3 things, this play pops to mind:

Dillon Brooks sent a message here that the Grizzlies were going to swarm defensively, and they were going to win every 50-50 ball. Again, turning defense into offense is a great way to find your footing early in high-stakes games.

With that in mind, this is probably the sequence most Grizzlies fans would appreciate the most:

Limited sample size, but Jaren Jackson Jr. nearly doubled his offensive rebound percentage from last season to this one (3.6 to 6.9). Though caught near the perimeter, Jackson chases the long rebound — probably gets away with a little bit of an “over the back” call — and gets reward with a trip to the line following an aggressive take to the basket.

Moving over to the offensive end, Ja Morant got going from deep en route to a career night from downtown.

Curry or Kevon Looney did not pay a single bit of respect to Morant on this jumper. Curry decided to go under the Valanciunas screen, while Looney stayed in drop coverage to play the roll. It allowed Morant to step into a 3 in rhythm to knock down his 2nd triple of the game, instilling more confidence in his outside game.

Young squads could get rattled early in playoff situations, especially when it’s unfamiliar to them. We even saw it a bit from the Grizzlies in the Utah series. Their composure and poise in the play-in games demonstrated maturity and growth from the young Memphis team.

SFCWarriors Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

How the Grizzlies defended their opponent’s go-to scorer was one of the defining moments of the play-in games.

It served as the prelude to Dillon Brooks’ 2021 postseason breakout. He was tasked with defending DeRozan and Curry, and he lived up to his role as “defensive stopper.” He held DeRozan to 2-10 shooting as the primary defender, and Curry was 5-12 against him as well. The Curry numbers may not be as glorious as his other strong matchup data points (see: Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard or Luka Doncic), but he made it difficult for him to get shots off with a vigorous face-guard.

He surely does get more individual praise for his defensive performance against DeRozan, and rightfully so. He forced him into tough, uncomfortable shot attempts, while not falling for too many fakes.

While Brooks is fighting through the screen here, Valanciunas hedges the screen a bit until Brooks is over the Poetl pick. Once he’s free, he flies into DeRozan’s shot to force him into a rough miss.

There was another good hedge moment here between Valanciunas and Brooks late in the game. Off the high screen, Valanciunas does a great job of moving his feet until Brooks could recover. As the big man returns to drop coverage, DeRozan is forced into a tough sideline floater with a defender flying through to contest the shot.

Brooks’ physicality remained a strong trait in another resumé-building performance as a defensive stopper — the good (tough contests like this), and the bad (5 fouls).

This defensive epitomizes Brooks’ performance on DeRozan. Here, he bodies up DeRozan just enough to bother him, but not too much to create the foul call. Once he gets to that step-back, Brooks makes sure to get in a spot where he’s in his airspace without being completely in his landing spot — which would’ve given him a foul.

It wasn’t just Brooks tasked with stopping DeRozan. The Grizzlies put together an awesome scheme centered to stop him, leading to an uncharacteristic 5-21 night for the veteran star. It really ended with Jonas Valanciunas here. He’s often criticized on that end for his inability to guard out on the perimeter, but he was able to use drop coverage to a strength more against the mid-range maestro.

This sequence triggered evergreen memories of my basketball coach growing up screaming at our team to cut off the baseline. Jonas Valanciunas demonstrates one of the potential pluses in doing so. He has to hedge off the Dieng screen before Desmond Bane could recover. In the process, he forces DeRozan baseline which sends him to “no man’s land” and generates a turnover.

Again, Valanciunas showcases fantastic verticality here:

He helps off the DeRozan drive, and he maintains good rim protection instincts. He stays in control as the driver decelerates looking for contact, and he goes up with textbook verticality to swat the shot.

Switching over to Steph Curry, it was a bit of the opposite. Instead of a tough shooting night (still 13-28), the Grizzlies did a great job of blitzing him, forcing the Warriors into making quick decisions, and putting the supporting cast in positions to make plays without its star. Curry finished with 7 turnovers, the 6th time this season turning the ball over 7 or more times.

Before getting into Curry’s parade of turnovers, I want to showcase the defensive versatility of Jaren Jackson Jr.:

Jackson switches onto Curry off the screen and stays with him the entire drive. He forced him into the paint, where Xavier Tillman was ready to help. Both big men went straight up to swallow Curry’s shot and send it out of bounds to a Grizzlies’ possession.

Carrying on.

Ja Morant does a great job of stepping up into the switch, and Brooks tags the roller well too. Kent Bazemore is not the roller Curry is used to — story of the 2020-21 Warriors, right. Curry instinctually slips the short-roll pass to…nobody...leading to a turnover.

Xavier Tillman takes on the switch here and is really good at staying attached to his hip and in a spot where he could strongly contest the shot. The Grizzlies add extra pressure with Brooks stunting and Morant providing help. Curry is then forced to a mid-air decision, and the closest person near him is Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Morant is there for the steal.

The Grizzlies continued to swarm Curry and force him into quick, mid-air decisions that are either going to result in a wild shot, pass, or a travel.

Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson — the team’s two best perimeter defenders — blitz Curry out of the dribble hand-off. What is Anderson’s alternative? A Draymond Green 3? Though he splits between the two defenders momentarily, Anderson recovers to offer a strong enough contest — coupled with Valanciunas’ presence as well — to get him to pass cross-court out of his shot.

This play could’ve gone badly. Brooks probably should’ve played Andrew Wiggins’ roll, while Grayson Allen should’ve returned over to Steph Curry. Ja Morant saved the day here defensively though. Curry sees a sliver to whip a pass to Wiggins — and it’s a smart call, because an easy 2 for an athletic 6’9” wing is good offense. He was a bit too loose with the pass, and that — along with the pressure off Ja’s help defense — forces Wiggins to bobble the ball and turn it over.

In one of the largest possessions of the game, the Grizzlies come up with a massive turnover off of great defensive tactics. Tillman hedges the screen and forces him to the sideline, while Brooks recovers. It leaves Curry in a rough spot.

Let’s marvel at the defensive placement here:

Grizz defense -> curry turnover

Tillman and Brooks are trapping. Morant is in the corner, taking away further drives or a pass to the corner. Anderson is playing the roller and taking anything away in the middle. Grayson Allen is playing a free safety role — ready for anything baseline or crosscourt. It leads to an errant, crosscourt pass that goes over Green’s head for the turnover.

This was just a wonderful display of defensive strategy that forced their opponent into tough decisions the whole night.

Defending veteran stars like Steph Curry and DeMar DeRozan helped the Grizzlies grow in multiple ways. It illustrated the importance of locking in to create turnovers and to help your teammate tasked with stopping that player. It helped Dillon Brooks grow as a primary stopper in playoff situations. It was also a growing opportunity for Taylor Jenkins to learn, adjust, and get crafty with defensive schemes.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Play-In Tournament Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The biggest area of growth for the Memphis Grizzlies during the play-in games was in late-game execution. It was definitely a nervous spot, as the Grizzlies had close games with playoff contenders over the course of the season, and lack of experience typically led to losses. Those regular-season moments served as learning opportunities to set them up for success when it mattered most.

The late-game execution, for the most part, was really good — aside from that non-challenge on the Jordan Poole 3 that would’ve sent all areas of Memphis Grizzlies coverage into a frenzy if they lost.

One thing we learned in these moments is, it always pays to have floor spacing around Ja Morant. He’s the driving force of the offense, and one that savors the opportunity to make big moments. If you give him space to operate, he will do so. Others, too, have the chance to shine and contribute whenever the defense collapses on Morant.

In both plays, there are at least 3-4 defenders that are geared towards what Morant is doing at the rim. Rightfully so. Morant’s vision and poise are assets here, as he’ll dish out passes you don’t think he’ll make. In both dimes, he rises up and contorts his body in a way to sling a pass over to the lone corner man for an easy 3.

Something else to highlight with this young team is the amount of winning plays made late in the game from the role players. Xavier Tillman and Grayson Allen both made an impact down the stretch, whether it was big 3’s or hustle plays. One I want to particular point out is this put-back from Desmond Bane.

Bane tracks the ball as soon as it leaves Morant’s hands, leading to an easy put-back. No groundbreaking analysis with basketball terminology there. However, it was a momentum-swinger that ultimately changed the trajectory of the game. With that put-back, the game goes from becoming a 2-possession game to 3. When there are only 90 seconds left, that’s massive.

Another cool aspect from the Warriors game, especially in crunch-time, was the Grizzlies’ willingness to let the other guys beat them. They were not going to let Curry be the one that put the dagger in. That was evident with hilariously bad missed bunnies from both Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green. They were going to make this supporting cast create for themselves and win them the game.

Both Brooks and Anderson played the dribble handoff extremely well, preventing any sort of look for Curry. Green is forced to turn to Poole, who dribbles it off his foot in a massive possession. Against top-heavy teams, there are two cases defensively: 1) let the star cook and worry about the other guys, or 2) stop the star and let the supporting cast beat you. Though Curry toughly got off his shots, the Grizzlies did an excellent job of forcing the ball out of his hands when it mattered most.

All of these particular executions wouldn’t be possible without a pure go-to closer. Every team has them. There are stars who face the moments head-on and live with either rising or falling in the process. Ja Morant got his first crack at the clutch, go-to moment on the road in a playoff environment.

It’s safe to say he rose above the moment.

Ja Morant got the switch he wanted, credit to the screeners for helping him do so. He was in a spot where he could hit the move that’s most comfortable for him: that hesi-dribble into the drive towards the left, then the right-handed floater. It’s absolutely money.

With a chance to ice the game, Morant didn't falter under pressure. He sizes up Toscano-Anderson and gets back to that sweet spot where he wants his floater. Off to Cancun the Warriors go.

Yes, there were some inexperienced blunders. However, it didn’t break the Grizzlies this time. The Memphis Grizzlies grew from regular-season heartbreak to execute in the clutch when it mattered most. Role players saw the dividends from making the simple play. Coach Jenkins found the right combinations to ensure good half-court offense, while coming up with great defensive schemes. Then, its franchise point guard Ja Morant had his first moment to be a go-to scorer down the stretch in a playoff atmosphere.

These clutch moments are what expedites the growth process for a young team.

2021 Play-In Tournament - Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

All season long, Taylor Jenkins preached the importance of growth opportunities. Whether it was a losing in the clutch to a contender, dropping a game against an inferior opponent, or a big-time win over a bonafide playoff team — the vision of sustainable success was preached repeatedly throughout the year.

Those close losses to Milwaukee and Denver back in March prepared them to perform in the clutch in a “do or die” situation.

Dillon Brooks’ battles against the league’s elite prepared him to do so in games where the best players are expected to unload the clip.

All season, the players and coaches preached locking in for all 48 minutes, and that was backed up with strong 4th quarter play and staying active with the defensive gameplay.

For a season full of growth opportunities, the play-in tournament was a growing experience you cannot beat. The young Memphis Grizzlies grew up a lot in those two games — as well as the Utah series — and they’re more ready for whatever lies ahead.

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