Over the last two days, the Memphis Grizzlies showed their age in the best way possible while also displaying a wonderful maturity after one of the biggest regular season wins of this #GrzNxtGen Era. On a Wednesday night, they showed the value of strength in numbers as the whole squad was able to overwhelm superhuman basketball performances from two generational talents in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Grizzlies did this on national television, with the eyes of the NBA world fixed firmly upon them after various ESPN shows and crews followed their every move for the better part of 48 hours. They did it without surely the largest reason the likes of Michael Wilbon, Adrian Wojnarowski, Stephen A. Smith, and others were there as their superstar Ja Morant sat out. And they did it while showing the nation - and basketball world - what Grizzlies have seen all season. This team boasts a remarkable level of togetherness and energy, a genuine love for playing together you usually only see in college or high school teams. Not professional ones.
Then, the very next night, Memphis - who would’ve had every reason to suffer a set back after such an emotionally charged victory, took care of business against a hapless Indiana Pacers team. The Grizzlies were supposed to win that one handedly - and they did. But usually, a younger team would not have been so dominant. There would’ve been slip-ups.
But youth does not always equate to immaturity. The Memphis Grizzlies are the personification of that reality.
They’re not perfect, of course. Silly fouls happen from the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. There are poor performances against inferior opponents. But for one of the NBA’s youngest teams to not have suffered a losing streak longer than three games all season long is remarkable. They do it in a way that Memphis can be proud of, as well - it isn’t that they know all the answers. It’s impossible for them to - they don’t have the experience. The Grizzlies snap streaks through sheer will - how else do you explain being 1st in rebounding (and 1st in offensive rebounding by a wide margin), 1st in steals, 1st in blocks, all while playing at the 5th fastest pace in the entire NBA and shooting the most attempts among the league’s 30 teams as well?
Scheme matters. Chemistry matters. But sometimes, it is as simple as playing the hardest. And no one in the NBA plays harder more consistently than the Memphis Grizzlies.
It shines through in players like Steven Adams, who gobbles up rebounds and seemingly dives on the floor for almost every rebound. It is crystal clear in the efforts of De’Anthony Melton, a creator of havoc on the defensive end whose confidence offensively has never been higher. John Konchar, when given the opportunity, has made up for his flaws in terms of defensive lateral movement with attention to the glass and timely shooting. These aren’t the most key Grizzlies - they’re role players who understand their jobs and execute them to the best of their abilities.
But that standard - the willingness to give complete and total effort far more often than not - is present in the best players as well. Ja Morant is a walking highlight reel, but he has made a concerted effort to try to improve as a turnover generator defensively. Jaren Jackson Jr. impacts games defensively at times in very Rudy Gobert ways. And Desmond Bane has become not just a creator of offense from range for himself, but also the very dribble penetrator and facilitator for others that Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins values so much in this free motion offense.
They don’t just accept being good enough for where they are in their development. They won’t be appeased by those saying they’re doing so well considering the fact no one older than 28 has played for them this season. There is overwhelming precedent that has been set over the years regarding youth and reaching the NBA’s mountaintop - Memphis would be only the 2nd team in NBA history to win a title with an average age of 24, the first since the 1976-1977 Portland Trail Blazers. And the Grizzlies front office has not made moves aligned with the idea of going for a championship - in fact, their last trade transaction was seen by many at the time as a step backward in terms of personnel (although it’s safe to say now that Steven Adams has been a wonderful addition, despite the fact that Jonas Valanciunas is superior offensively).
It doesn’t matter to the players and coaches. Nor should it. They remain unsatisfied.
Taylor Jenkins is on record as saying that he doesn’t care about seeding. His goal is to see this team improve as much as possible between now and the end of the regular season, when it is assumed (hoped?) that Ja Morant will return and the playoffs will begin. But a moment to reflect on that truth - the Memphis Grizzlies aren’t a play-in team anymore, they’re a playoff team after clinching their spot with the win over the Pacers Thursday night - should be allowed, regardless of satisfaction levels. Memphis moving forward walks a fine line between the possibilities of championship contention and the probabilities of postseason exposure of flaws. From Jaren Jackson Jr.’s foul troubles reappearing of late perhaps meaning Memphis’ best defensive weapon may ride the pine at inopportune times to the continued overall struggles of the halfcourt offense threatening to stagnate the high-level scoring of the Grizzlies, there are reasons for thinking that Memphis is more likely to lose in the 1st round against a Minnesota Timberwolves or Denver Nuggets team than make the NBA Finals.
But this franchise has defied logic and expectations every chance they get. What rebuilding team pushes the Portland Trail Blazers in the Bubble for a playoff birth? What roster with glaring weaknesses knocks off Steph Curry in Golden State to secure the 8 seed and a chance to earn valuable postseason scar tissue against a “win-now” Utah Jazz squad? At all the various twists and turns of this generation of the Memphis Grizzlies, they have not been interested in resting on their laurels. That isn’t what makes them special. They’ve been chosen to be part of this franchise in large part because of the chip on their collective shoulder. It establishes a culture of overachievement. Most, if not all, of them have been told throughout their entire basketball careers what they can’t be or become.
Why start listening to “reason” now?
The Memphis Grizzlies are on a collision course with the toughest stretch they’ve faced in years. They’re staring down an immediate future that includes showdowns with some of the very best the NBA has to offer to close the regular season without their best player. Then, assuming Ja Morant returns by the postseason, they will come face to face with something none of them have had to deal with since this new era of Grizzlies basketball began - expectations. For whether they are the 2 or 3 seed, they will be favorites in that series. Therefore, a loss - even with the context of what this team truly is, arguably the best rebuild in the last 10 years (and perhaps beyond) but still a rebuild in terms of youth - would be a disappointment.
Get through that challenge, and one of the very best the NBA has to offer awaits - likely the Golden State Warriors. And an opportunity to once again be the underdog, hoping to shock the basketball world on your way to the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals since 2013...and a likely date with the juggernaut known as the Phoenix Suns.
An appearance there, with one of the league’s youngest rosters that has not played their best players together much this season due to COVID and injuries, would be enough to likely make this the greatest Memphis Grizzlies team in the history of the franchise... with a title window only now beginning to open.
But this team would not be satisfied. They likely never will be. That’s why they are here, on the precipice of history. And it’s why they’ve earned the love and admiration of this fan base so quickly. They don’t accept what is.
They strive for what can - and if their own past of both separately and together overcoming the odds is prologue, will - be.
For more Grizzlies and Hustle talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.