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A defining moment for the Memphis Grizzlies

All will not be lost if the Grizzlies don’t win this series, but it will certainly feel like it if they do.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

In the visitor locker room of the FedexForum before the start of Game 4 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals, there was an undeniable tension in the air for the Golden State Warriors. And how could there not be? For as transcendent as they had often looked throughout a season in which they had the league’s best record, the Memphis Grizzlies had made them look even more inept as they had mercilessly grinded them to a 2-1 lead.

There’s an old quote from that time that has stuck with me, and I don’t remember who said it. It may have been a fan or a local columnist. Regardless, it fit the vibe of that series perfectly: “How are the analytics going to save you when Zach Randolph comes to beat your ass?”

The prevailing narrative was that while the Warriors may be more talented, the Grizzlies were just too mean. Too physical. Too well-prepared. Sure, the Warriors were an incredible team, but they weren’t really built for this like the Grizzlies were.

Steve Kerr, however, had a different perspective. “Every champion,” he told his team with a wry smile in the minutes before Game 4, “has been where you are now.” The Warriors won that game 101-84 and would not lose another game in that series before later winning the championship.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

What Kerr understood that many people did not, before his team went on to win three of the next four NBA championships, is how incredibly talented the NBA truly is. To be sure, the Warriors were the league’s best team, but the Grizzlies were a superb team in their own right—and one that happened to be a nightmare matchup for them. He wasn’t shocked or panicking when his team began to struggle. Instead, he rallied them to greatness (and schemed an injured Tony Allen out of the series by having Andrew Bogut “guard” him, but I digress).

That is, of course, the opportunity that now lies in front of the current iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies. While they are the better team in this series, they have hardly played like it, as the Minnesota Timberwolves—and the...questionable officiating—have often made them look like a shell of themselves.

To be fair, the situation is nowhere near as dire for the Grizzlies as it was for the Warriors all those years ago. With the series tied at 2-2, it is now essentially a best-of-3, with the Grizzlies retaining home-court advantage. It also won’t take an audacious adjustment like Steve Kerr made for them to win the series.

They just simply need their two best players to start playing like it.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

In both this series as well as throughout the entirety of his career, the best comparison I can give for Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t another player, but rather pizza. He is pizza. And that’s because even when he’s bad, which has been the case in every game throughout this series outside of Game 2, he’s still pretty good. He’s been a total dumpster fire offensively, as he’s averaging 10 points on 37% shooting along with 6 rebounds and 5 fouls. Yet because of his versatile and imposing defense, the Grizzlies have a +4.5 net rating when he’s on the court.

The obvious problem for both him and the Grizzlies is that he can’t stay on the court because he seemingly fouls everything that moves. The absurdly tight officiating has been a factor in that, but let’s not pretend that fouling isn’t a foreign concept to Jaren.

I’ve been been writing columns about how much of a handicap his fouling issue is since his rookie year, and frankly, I’m bored of talking about it. There’s really no adjustment that I even know to suggest; it’d be one thing if he just needs to show his hands on defense more, but he’s slapping dudes in the face on loose balls and giving WWE-esque elbows half the time when he drives. If it’s still this bad at the end of his fourth year in the NBA, it’s likely always going to be an issue for him, no matter how talented he is in other areas.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Christine Tannous-USA TODAY Sports

He has been better at managing his fouls this year as a whole though, and he’s capable of doing that in this series. For all his struggles, the Grizzlies don’t need Jaren Jackson Jr. to be good; they just need him to be present. No one’s asking him to play 40 minutes a night and only have 2 fouls. But if he can find a way to stay on the court and play 60 minutes over the next two games, his ability to simply impact winning basketball for the Grizzlies should allow them to win this series in 6 games.

However, that is also contingent on Ja Morant being Ja Morant once again. As Chris Finch said after Game 4, the Grizzlies go as Ja Morant goes, and well, he hasn’t been going very well. The Wolves have managed to frustrate him in a way that no else really has this season, as they are holding him to just 20.5 points on 40% shooting.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Many have pointed out that Ja looks hurt and lacks his normal explosiveness in getting to the rim. Yet while I don’t think that’s necessarily inaccurate, I don’t think it’s the main reason that he’s struggling. The Wolves are blitzing him to get the ball out of his hands, stone-walling the paint when he does have the ball in his hands, and trying to force him to shoot.

To be clear, I said that the Wolves are trying to make him shoot because they haven’t been successful in that. And that’s only because he won’t shoot at all; he hasn’t even attempted a single mid-range shot in this series, and he’s attempted only 10 floaters through 4 games. That’s not even to mention his anemic three-point shooting. If he can’t get all the way to the rim, which the Wolves have gone to great pains to prevent, he doesn’t even look to score.

Granted, the defensive attention that Ja’s received has opened the floor for his teammates. He’s averaged 10.8 assists, and it’s not an accident that Desmond Bane has been as electric as he has been over the last two games. Something has to give for the Minnesota defense.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

But for the Grizzlies to survive and advance, compromise can’t be an option for Ja Morant. He has come into his own as a superstar, but superstardom brings a burden of expectations. And the expectation for him going forward is simple: he must find a way to be himself once again.

Because if he and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies don’t rediscover themselves and win this series, there will be consequences. There will be questions as to whether Jaren Jackson Jr. can ever truly be a franchise cornerstone with his deficiencies. The nagging taunts about how the Grizzlies have generally been better without Ja Morant will only get louder. And the rest of this group will receive a scathing indictment that they can’t win when it truly matters.

Tonight will go a long way in defining this era of the Memphis Grizzlies. But if the mesmerizing comeback of Game 3 in Minnesota is any indication, they will uphold the Grizzlies Standard when it matters most and persevere through adversity like so many champions before them.

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