The Memphis Grizzlies had an outstanding 2021. They won 2 play-in games — 1 of those being a classic matchup on the road against the Golden State Warriors. They stole a game in Utah in a 5-game first-round series against the 1-seed Jazz. Ja Morant made his latest leap in his journey towards the superstar stratosphere, and his supporting cast is rising up to keep the Grizzlies firm in the 4th spot in the Western Conference to close the calendar year.
Wohoo! Now let’s go face the Brooklyn Nets on the road!
The Grizzlies are kicking off 2022 with a big test against the star-laden Nets team, as both Kevin Durant and James Harden are expected to play. It’ll be a challenge, especially with so many players in health and safety protocols for Memphis, but we’ve seen them in these spots, so it’s nothing too different.
Now on to the other side. I catch up with Billy Reinhardt of SB Nation’s Nets Daily to talk about these teams before tonight’s game.
1) What would be your Nets New Years resolution to happen to achieve their goal of a championship?
The Nets need to use the rest of the regular season to figure out the team’s identity. With Kyrie Irving back on a part-time basis – for now – and Joe Harris soon to follow, Brooklyn will have the personnel to overwhelm teams offensively again like they did last season. However, the Nets have leaned into bigger, more defensive minded, lesser shooting lineups so far this season without Irving. Will the Nets revert to last season’s recipe for success by downsizing and maximizing the offense or will they simply try to plug Irving into what they’ve been doing? Maximizing the stars’ offensive capabilities through lineups with better spacing as they did last season is the method I’d lean towards. If Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Irving are all on the floor, flanked by snipers in the form of Patty Mills and Harris, I’d dare teams to try to match that offensive firepower.
2) What wrinkle are you looking forward to seeing this year with Kyrie on this year’s Nets team?
Aside from Harden, Durant, and Mills – to an extent – Brooklyn has had a blatant hole of backcourt shooters, creators, and players who can break down the defense. Brooklyn has been forced to rely on lineups which often have 2-3 non-shooters at a time surrounding Durant and Harden, placing an unfair load on the stars. DeAndre Bembry, James Johnson, and Bruce Brown have their strong points, but shooting and creating off the dribble certainly isn’t among them. With Irving, the Nets will return to having at least 2-3 ball-handlers on the floor at all times, allowing the ball to hop from one side of the floor to the other and improve the pace and fluidity of the Nets offense. Teams will no longer be able to load up so much on Durant and Harden as they’ll have to respect Irving’s ability to shoot and make plays off the catch. A return to an aesthetically pleasing, up-tempo offense is something for Nets fans to look forward to with Irving’s return.
3) Who is a non-big 3 Nets player that has intrigued you this year?
Mills has been the Nets’ third best player this season and seems to be the perfect fit next to the stars as a tertiary ball-handler and elite catch and shoot option. Like Mills, Johnson profiles well next to the stars as a swiss-army knife frontcourt piece, doing just about everything well besides shooting. As the Nets re-integrate Irving and Harris, Johnson’s role should only grow as his lack of shooting would be mitigated around spacers and his comfortability handling the ball in dribble-handoff actions, making reads out of the short roll, and overall versatility meshes well with the stars. However, Nic Claxton’s leap, really only over the past few weeks, has been very encouraging for the macro-outlook of this team. Claxton should play a large role against the Grizzlies as his ability to switch and guard in space will be a necessary tool against the lightning quick Ja Morant on the perimeter. Claxton’s overall improvements in aggressiveness, physicality, finishing through contact, and making reads out of the short roll have allowed him to take hold of the Nets center minutes over recent weeks.
4) How would you describe Steve Nash’s performance as a coach, a season and a half into his tenure?
Steve Nash is a good coach for the Nets situation. Brooklyn doesn’t need a hard-nosed coach or an X’s and O’s guru given the experience, intelligence, and talent on the roster. Nash has done a good job controlling the locker room, communicating with the players, and representing the organization through the media. Nash still sometimes makes some questionable rotation decisions and is painfully slow to call timeouts, but he keeps things simple for the team and allows the stars to run the ship. It’s a star’s league and Nash understands that.
5) As an outsider, what are your thoughts on the Grizzlies?
I’ve been very impressed with the Grizzlies this season, especially considering how dominant they were while Ja Morant was out. Morant has MVP potential and Jaren Jackson Jr. is among the most ‘toolsy’ and versatile players in the league. I have Morant as an All-Star this season, but for the Grizzlies to really do damage in the playoffs in the coming years, Jackson Jr. needs to take the step from being versatile and productive to being a dominant perennial All-Star. I was a big fan of Desmond Bane throughout the draft process, even hoping the Nets could snag him, but he has been even better in a high-usage role than I could’ve imagined so early in his career. Dillon Brooks is a bit too inefficient for my liking, but he fills the third scoring role nicely for Memphis at this point. Eventually, Memphis should consider pooling Brooks, other pieces, and picks to try and acquire a third star next to Morant and Jackson Jr. to truly make the leap into title contention in years to come. For now, Memphis is one of the most fun teams in the league who could even potentially make it out of the first round. Grizzlies are ahead of schedule.