When you’re growing up, one of the most important lesson that you (hopefully) learn is to always be yourself. Yet while that may be a fairly generic life lesson, you start to realize how counter-cultural it is as you get older.
America may be the land of opportunity, but it’s also the land of comparison. The price of living in a competitive, merit-based society is that it’s not only easy, but also seemingly necessary to compare yourself to others. And when you find yourself not measuring up to those around you (both literally and figuratively) for whatever reason, it can be destructive to your identity.
No matter what it is that you’re trying to do in life, one truth remains constant: If you’re not good enough to find the success you crave, then compromising who you are probably isn’t going to change that. It’ll just make you feel worse in failure.
In the opening round of the 2022 playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies found themselves with their back against the wall courtesy of the Minnesota Timberwolves from nearly the very beginning. And the reason for it was simple: they seemingly couldn’t play the way they had all year against them. With his lack of lateral mobility, Steven Adams appeared to be a massive liability against Karl-Anthony Towns. So barely a full game into the series, the Grizzlies decided to change their identity and embrace small-ball.
In retrospect, this was the wrong decision, or rather, an initially wise decision that the Grizzlies clung to way too much. I think of the Grizzlies postseason obsession with playing small like deciding to drink chocolate milk: It can be great for you in the right circumstance like after a workout, but if it’s all you drink, you’re going to become fat.
Adams very well may have been unplayable against Towns, but his penchant for skilled passing and screening as well as dominant rebounding should have earned him at least a reduced role in that series. Instead, the Grizzlies decided to remove him entirely from the rotation and give his starting job to Xavier Tillman, who—despite a solid performance here and there—just isn’t a starting-caliber NBA player. This mistake didn’t cost them the series, as Memphis’ superiority in both talent and will allowed them to advance.
It did, however, cost them in their current series. To be fair, Adams was out in COVID protocols in the first two games, but I think it’s unlikely he would have played in them even if he was available. After all, the Warriors gashed the Grizzlies on the glass in the first two games, but that didn’t compel Taylor Jenkins to play him in the Game 3 rotation.
Through the first three games, the overall results were painful: the smaller Warriors outscored the the Grizzlies in the paint by 48 points, and they out-rebounded them by 16. The Grizzlies tried to play their game, and while they may have the athletes to do it, the Warriors are the ones who revolutionized basketball by playing small. It’s extremely difficult to beat them at their own game.
Fortunately, it appears like Memphis has realized this. Since the Grizzlies re-inserted Adams into the starting lineup and made it a clear priority to feed Jaren Jackson Jr. in the post, the Grizzlies have punished them in the paint and have simply been the better team over the last two games. During that time, they have out-rebounded the Warriors by 12 and out-scored them in the paint by 28. If not for a Dillon Brooks meltdown in Game 4, the Grizzlies would be up 3-2 instead of down 3-2.
Still, the circumstances are what they are. Even after one of the most dominating performances in playoff history, Grizzlies will still have to win on the road tonight against a great veteran team to force a Game 7 at home, and they won’t have Ja Morant. The odds are definitely not in their favor.
Yet whether they win or lose, the Memphis Grizzlies will compete by embracing the Grit and Grind ethos that has defined them in the past and continues to be their identity now. Whether they fall short as they rage against the dying of the light or ascend to new heights in victory, they will be exactly who they are and will not compromise an inch any longer.
The Warriors may very well beat them, but they will have to bend to their will in order to do so. Seven years in the past, they were able to exploit Tony Allen’s offensive deficiencies to keep Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph from owning the paint; no such solution exists for them now. In fact, it is now the Grizzlies who employ a similar strategy against Draymond Green. The Warriors simply lack the adequate size to defend Jaren Jackson Jr. in the post and keep Steven Adams off the glass, while also keeping account of all the other ways that Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, and Brandon Clarke among others can hurt them.
Win or lose, the Memphis Grizzlies are going to be themselves. And win or lose, a reeling Golden State Warriors team needs to be thankful that Memphis didn’t decide to do so sooner.