The 2020-2021 NBA season has come to an end for the Memphis Grizzlies after their five-game series against the #1 seed Utah Jazz. For Grizzlies fans with dreams of reliving the magical 2011 playoff run of Super-ZBo’s #8 seeded Grizzlies that brought together the entire city of Memphis, this was a bit of a shock to the system. But for even those most optimistic of supporters, this series was a stretch for Head Coach Taylor Jenkins’ squad to hang in. The Utah Jazz were the most prolific three-point shooting team of the NBA’s regular season, and aside from an icy Game 1 performance (with Donovan Mitchell out) that carried through this entire series. Memphis simply did not have the ability to sustain offensive runs, or limit those of Utah, for long enough to make the series competitive once Mitchell returned.
That’s OK. Because this season was a massive success once the Grizzlies got out of Golden State as the “winners” of the 8-seed in the Western Conference Play-In Tournament.
If Memphis fans learned anything this season, it was the value of perspective. It tested patience at times, to be sure - some choices were made that were not in the best interest of the here and now as the “long view” was prioritized. But aside from a rogue hot take or two, most fans were appreciative of the growth the franchise displayed and the development of many individual players. The organization, under the newly solidified leadership of GM Zach Kleiman, has a ton of options to improve both from the outside and from within.
That’s a wonderful thought to ponder when you’re sad about how the mighty Jazz squashed this promising campaign for Memphis.
What do we now know better than we did seven game ago? What did this postseason teach us about the young, but now all of a sudden wiser and playoff tested, Memphis Grizzlies?
Ja Morant is the man
Over the span of seven postseason games (two Play-In games, five playoff games) Ja Morant shot a more than solid 47.2% from the field (77-163 shots), and a much better than his career average of 31.7% from three as he went 17-46 from beyond the arc for a 36.9% mark. He scored the basketball at an extremely high volume and maintained career best efficiency, while also accumulating 53 assists compared to 26 turnovers. A 2-1 assist to turnover ratio isn’t elite...but considering just how much Ja Morant was asked to do for Memphis as an offensive scorer and facilitator, his ability to create for both himself and others led the Grizzlies to this moment. He attacked the likes of Rudy Gobert time and again - sometimes with success on a floater, other times with a stuff on an ill-advised dunk attempt. But the willingness to even try - and continue to do so after being rejected numerous times - speaks to his mentality and how that audacity has crept in to the psyche of the Grizzlies. He’s the leader of Memphis both on the floor and in the locker room. He sets the pace in terms of play and approach to the game. That’s a lot to carry for someone so young.
But he’s proven that when the moment gets big, he can be bigger.
His scoring went through the roof. His ability to get to the rim was unstoppable. The Spurs, the Warriors, the Jazz...they all knew what was coming. And yet, there was Ja Morant - inevitable as ever. While still being only 21 years old.
He has room for growth to be sure. The defensive woes of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Jazz series can be connected to him just as much as a certain Lithuanian big man. A lot of space and overcompensation/overhelping came off of Ja’s inability to get over screens and losing his assignment due to ball watching and other issues. Despite the recent run of success, a larger sample size says he has to improve his range to be a viable threat offensively on a nightly basis. And so many of his attempts (to his credit) are insanely difficult - he must prioritize learning how to use his body to create the right kind of contact at the rim (like he does around the foul line on a nightly basis) to get more free throw opportunities.
None of this is an indictment of Ja Morant. He’s 21. While it was already true, his performance in the last seven games solidified what we already knew - Ja is the undisputed star of this franchise. The Memphis Grizzlies are his team. They’re in very good, capable hands.
Dillon Brooks is more valuable now than he has ever been
Multiple Grizzlies have improved their standing in the NBA at large over the course of this season. Kyle Anderson had his best year as a pro. Grayson Allen went from fringe NBA player to fringe NBA starter on a playoff team. The list goes on and on of guys that secured, or increased, their spots in the Association and/or in Memphis.
But the last seven games, no one did that quite as well as Dillon Brooks.
Dillon, a career 42% shooter overall, shot the ball at a remarkable 67-140 clip (47.8% from the field) on an average of 20 attempts per game. From three he went 8-27, performing at a less than admirable 29.6% rate, but the fact he did so well inside the three point arc - at the rim, in the midrange - is truly impressive. Consider also the fact that against Golden State he shot 7-22 overall, and in the Play-In Tournament as a whole he went 0-7 from three across two games, and the strength of his performance offensively as a whole against the Utah Jazz in particular comes in to focus. He was the legitimate #2 option next to Morant for most of the Utah series...and he did not hurt the Memphis offense while doing so.
That’s new...especially if you remember the Bubble from 10 months ago.
Brooks was exposed defensively by one of the toughest covers in the NBA in Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. He still fouls entirely too much, and he must continue to grow as a creator for others in an offense where assists/creation off of passes and the dribble is key. But the Memphis Grizzlies do not get as far as they did without Dillon Brooks. He is, arguably, the heart of this team. His swagger, his never-ending confidence, his belief in himself and his teammates...the roster took after his mentality and embraced it. In less than a year, we’ve gone from “how are the Grizzlies going to grow with him?” to “how would they be able to move forward without him?” being a legitimate question.
He’s under contract for multiple seasons, so the latter isn’t a concern. Yet the truth is that Brooks is more of a core piece for this Memphis organization now than he has ever been before, and thus less likely to pop up in trade rumors than he’s ever been. That’s a testament to his postseason run...and the work he put in before it to be ready for the moments where his team needed him.
Memphis has been weighed and measured by the absolute best
There’s tremendous value in lining up against a title contender. It lets you know just how far you’ve come as an organization, and just how far you still have to go. As far as the current state of things in the NBA Playoffs, the Utah Jazz are the absolute best. They have a superstar in Donovan Mitchell who can take over games. They have a defensive all-time great in Rudy Gobert who they run their system through. They have a cast of talent around those two, led by Grizzlies icon Mike Conley, that can supplement production and execute the schemes of Quin Snyder quite well. That’s not to say they’re impervious to criticism - Jazz fans should be nervous about what the Morant/Brooks backcourt did to them compared to what a Chris Paul/Devin Booker crew could do in a possible Western Conference Finals, or a Kyrie Irving/James Harden NBA Finals.
But re-read that sentence. Western Conference Finals. NBA Finals. That’s where the Jazz should be. And they should be confident in how their team will respond in those moments thanks to how these young Grizzlies tested them. The final scores are deceiving - Memphis gave Utah issues until Game 5. The Jazz just rose up and met the challenge every time. All credit rightfully goes to them - they’ve got a championship organization.
From a Grizzlies perspective, we saw that Memphis is still a “dude” away. Yes, Ja Morant is “the man” - but can Jaren Jackson Jr. be his #2? Injury clouded this answer in a season of “data collection”, and we still don’t know the answer for sure. If he cannot, Memphis needs a #2 - Dillon Brooks’ production was awesome, but it likely isn’t sustainable compared to his career numbers. Jackson Jr.’s development in to that “right hand man” would be great, but still...the team needs a wing capable of lightening Morant’s load offensively on a consistent basis. That player is probably not on the roster right now. How you get him - trade, NBA Draft, free agency - will be a topic for another feature or two in the offseason.
Defensively, Taylor Jenkins has some room to learn and grow himself. The drop coverage that he implemented throughout the NBA season did not work against the Jazz. Utah had wide open threes for a reason - and it’s not just because they were that much better than Memphis physically. Grizzlies guards struggles getting around screens by Rudy Gobert and others, and helping off of shooters to account for that instead of having Jonas Valanciunas (who was largely/understandably held in check against Utah by Gobert but overall had a very productive season) hedge/come up and help instead of dropping to the lane crushed their chances. This is somewhat surprising, because against the Spurs and Warriors Jonas showed flashes of improvement in terms of his lateral movement. He may well have been able to meet that challenge...or at least do well enough to try the adjustment.
He just never got the chance.
Jenkins, to his credit, always talks about ways he can improve and being self-reflective. Outside of official call challenges (less important) the main area is series/seasonal adjustments, from game to game - which is not too surprising when you consider that Coach Budenholzer in Milwaukee was his main/most recent mentor. Utah had Memphis figured out defensively by Game 2, and offensively by Game 5. There must be a counter-punch in there somewhere. Perhaps Jenkins chose to ride with what he knew his young team understood and did to get them to that point - “what got you to the dance”. There’s some truth in that.
But elite coaches like Snyder are going to take away what you do best. You have to have an answer. For a multitude of reasons (roster, inexperience, etc.) those answers never came. They have to for the Grizzlies to take the next step.
Perhaps most importantly, the postseason for the Grizzlies reminded us just how important the team is to the spirit of Memphis. Seeing images and videos from Memorial Day weekend as our country slowly but surely comes out of this pandemic of fans on Beale Street and in FedExForum enjoying the sights and sounds of a Memphis event again made for a more than welcome sight. The Grizzlies were only on the outside looking in of the playoffs for four years, but it felt longer at times - especially before Zach Kleiman and company took over the franchise. When you lack direction and purpose, without the ability to have your eye on something grander off on the horizon, apathy can develop. And hate/love are well and good when compared to a lack of energy or care for the future.
Now, as mass movements of smiles and loud music once again fill our senses for the first time in a long time, we move forward in to an exciting place that we’ve both been to before and never experienced. Expectations have returned...but just how good can the Grizzlies be next season? How big of a leap can they take? And what choices will be made in the months ahead to help with the next step?
Even after such valuable lessons like the Memphis Grizzlies were taught over the last few weeks, there is still so much to learn. The journey continues.