The Memphis Grizzlies ended their regular season road game slate with quite the whimper on Thursday night. The Denver Nuggets were playing for their playoff lives, hoping to avoid the play-in tournament that the Minnesota Timberwolves (who won themselves Thursday) are fighting to claw out of themselves. A confirmed playoff spot as one of the NBA’s top-12 seeded squads holds much more value in this play-in era - Memphis understands that better than most - and Nikola Jokic and company were clearly not interested in giving Minnesota help. The Grizzlies, who of course have already clinched their postseason fate as the #2 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, played the part of disinterested title contender late in the season well in this game.
They didn’t do much else well, however, which is why the Nuggets blew Memphis out in this game in Denver.
Some quick takeaways from a game we will all want to forget as soon as possible.
The November defense was back
Denver is a good team, with the reigning (and potentially repeating - he’s phenomenal) MVP Nikola Jokic, and they were motivated to achieve in this game so they could lock in several days of rest before the playoffs - something play-in teams do not get the luxury of. Combine that with the fact Memphis had played the Jazz to overtime two nights prior and the Grizzlies playoff fate is already secured? The Nuggets winning here is not surprising.
What was disappointing was how Denver did it. As the 4th quarter began the Nuggets were shooting over 60% from the field as a team and over 50% from beyond the arc. The Memphis defense was out of sync all night, with blatant communication issues and missed rotations. It was a flashback to the the issues the Grizzlies were having earlier in the year - you remember, when silly fans wanted to fire Taylor Jenkins and trade Jaren Jackson Jr. as the team struggled early. Those problems in large part centered on inefficient/ineffective defensive play. This edition of “back to the future” was not enjoyable.
It goes without saying that such missteps will lead to a playoff failure if they carry over to the postseason. But it is hard to measure this performance on the same scale as previous games. Right or wrong, the team is not as motivated right now. They’re human beings who know they cannot improve their seeding. Many, if not all, of the Grizzlies are probably more concerned with their health than winning or losing right now. That’s understandable.
But that doesn’t make poor showings like this one any less difficult to watch.
There were some positives!
Brandon Clarke looked much more comfortable offensively than he has in recent games, attacking the rim and getting to his spots in and around the paint. Desmond Bane racked up three steals and showed flashes of being more disrupting in passing lanes and on the ball as a defender at times. Kyle Anderson racked up double-digit points while also stuffing the stat sheet in terms of rebounding and assists. And even in the face of a almost certainly insurmountable lead, the Grizzlies did not quit. John Konchar, Santi Aldama, and Xavier Tillman Sr. all showed attention to detail and energy that was lacking from the starters more often than not in this game.
It’s hard to leave this contest feeling “better” about the result. But the Grizzlies were in a position to completely lie down, and they did not. Throughout the struggles, there were flashes of things to make you think this was more “one game aberration” than “sign of things to come”.
Thank goodness for that. Because that was tough to watch at times.
- The 3-6 series out west is going to be FUN. Jokic is remarkable, and probably should win MVP again. He may not - Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have also been special this season in particular - but the eye test lines up with the amazing numbers that support “The Joker” and his candidacy. Whether it is Stephen Curry and the Warriors or Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, that playoff series should go 6 or 7 games, even if Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. both sit. The fact Denver is in the spot they are without those two is just another testament to Jokic’s greatness. Ja Morant has had an amazing season, But combining longevitiy with production, Jokic is on another level.
- A surprisingly inefficient showing from Tyus Jones. 2-8 from the field, only 4 assists that were paired with 2 assists. A rare 2:1 Assist to Turnover ratio night for Tyus, whose success is oftentimes so closely intertwined with that of the Grizzlies - especially without Ja. Jones was especially important in Utah Tuesday, pacing the Memphis offense. Perhaps the gas that the team ran out of against the Jazz in overtime carried over to this one.
- More is needed from Jaren Jackson Jr. He will likely be the first one to tell folks that. But Jaren took only nine shots, only snagged two rebounds, and among a group of players that seemed disinterested at times appeared most disinterested. He’s a leader on this team, especially on the floor when Ja Morant is absent. Aside from a red-hot run against the Jazz for a few minutes, this was not a good road trip for Jaren. Here’s to hoping home cooking helps this weekend.
The Memphis Grizzlies are back in action at home Saturday night (hopefully with Ja Morant back on the court) against the New Orleans Pelicans.