If you have walked this earth, you have been in a fight.
Maybe not a physical one - hand to hand combat. But you’ve competed for a job. A raise. A position at a college or university. If you’ve played sports you’ve gone up in one way or another against a person or people trying to achieve the same thing you are. A win. A scholarship. A dream that you refuse to allow to be deferred, or at least not without every effort to prevent it from happening.
You don’t always win. In fact you’ve probably lost, maybe often. And you’ve felt either literally or figuratively as if you’re on the floor after taking a shot from a right cross right to the jaw. Down and out, sprawled out on the mat, wondering if you ever should have gotten in to the fight in the first place.
But the thing is, whether you like it or not, we’re all in for a brawl with this life in one way or another. They can hurt like hell. The question is, when your battles come, how will you respond when things come to literal or figurative blows?
The young Memphis Grizzlies are in for the bout of their basketball lives tonight in San Francisco against the Golden State Warriors. And for the first time, on this stage, they will get their biggest test of who they are and what their standard is at this stage of this era of Grizzlies basketball.
Game 4 of this series will be pretty close to a proverbial basketball Hell on earth for the Memphis Grizzlies. Across three games, vitriol and/or venom has poured out back and forth between fanbases and coaches, with physicality almost to match. From Draymond Green slapping and pulling Brandon Clarke, to Dillon Brooks clubbing Gary Payton II while in the air, to Jordan Poole grabbing and pulling Ja Morant’s knee while trying to grab the basketball, to both Steve Kerr and Taylor Jenkins insinuating dirty and/or reckless play from the likes of all three mentioned above - every game has had some moment or play to break down like the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, frame by frame. And each game has had some narrative that both sides could rally behind, stoke flames about. Feel anger toward. Spew hate over.
It’s gotten out of hand. And further away from what the focus should be on. Basketball, and how beautiful and fun it can be when played the way it’s supposed to be. We’re past that now...for now, at least.
With that in mind, the Grizzlies will be entering Chase Center with the weight of the world on their collective shoulders. Dillon Brooks returns from his Game 3 suspension after his reckless foul on Payton in Game 3 back in Memphis, and will surely be public enemy #1 among the Warriors faithful. Brooks’ return cannot come soon enough for a Grizzlies team that got completely and totally defeated by Golden State in Game 3 as the Warriors blew by them off the dribble time and again, disrupting rotations and leading to one of the worst defensive showings by Memphis in some time. Klay Thompson turned back the clock. Jordan Poole was the architect of the offensive explosion via movement on and off the ball, and Stephen Curry had a “quiet” 30 points on 14 shots. The Warriors shot 63% from the floor, 53% from three, and 90.5% from the charity stripe in a masterclass showing.
Add all of that to the fact that the Grizzlies superstar leader Ja Morant likely will not be playing due to the injury that Memphis says happened on Poole’s pull of his knee, and the odds perhaps have not ever been this stacked against these Grizzlies in this era.
Punch after punch has been landed by the Warriors. Memphis is down, feeling the heat.
But they do not have to be out.
Memphis is 20-5 without Ja Morant this season, and has shown the ability to play better team defense when Tyus Jones starts compared to Ja. The Grizzlies gave up 5.4 more points per 100 possessions when Morant was on the floor this season while Memphis allowed 3.7 less points per 100 when Tyus was there, per Cleaning the Glass. Between Tyus’ role starting (he has created multiple steals during this series, generating extra possessions) and Dillon Brooks being back in the lineup, Golden State scoring at such an elite level is unlikely.
That is not to say that the Grizzlies are better without Ja Morant - losing a player of his caliber offensively is undoubtedly a problem. Without Ja, others must step up. The aforementioned Tyus Jones has been largely absent during the Golden State series, posting miserable points per shot attempt numbers. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves Tyus never scored less than 111.1 points per 100 attempts. The most he has given against the Warriors is 50. That level of offensive contribution compared to what Ja does (140.9 points per 100 possessions in Game 3) simply is a much larger gap than Tyus’ better fit within defensive scheme. Jones has to make up some ground as a creator of offense for himself and others.
The list goes beyond Tyus. Brandon Clarke was one of the two best Grizzlies against the Timberwolves in that first round series. He was non-existent in Game 3, dramatically outplayed by Andrew Wiggins and others. Desmond Bane continues to battle a sore back, and it shows in his scoring production. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been the biggest player physically on the floor in this series and shot 4-13 in Game 3. DeAnthony Melton has lost his shooting stroke again after finding it for a glorious moment back in Memphis. If Morant is indeed gone for the time being, the impact he leaves behind must be made up in the aggregate. It cannot be done alone. These guys must pick one another up and execute.
Slash. Screen. Crash the boards. Take a charge. Dive for the 50/50 ball. Make the extra effort on a non-fouling angle on a close out off of a shooter.
Ziaire Williams, another play that must keep stepping up, is 20 years old, a rookie that time and again has been called the “project” of this young Grizzlies franchise. He has played 57 minutes against a team led by multiple Hall of Famers in or near the end of their primes, all over 30 years old. The oldest members of the Memphis roster are 28. When the Warriors won their first NBA championship in 2015 Ziaire was 13 years old. Ja Morant was 15. These players are waging basketball and sport psychological war with seasoned veterans that have been through the ringer with LeBron James numerous times and had epic successes on the grandest stages.
But they’ve also endured failure. They know what it means to be knocked down. And how to get back up.
This is a lesson that, at this level of the NBA Playoffs, Memphis still has to learn.
The question is - to what level will it be taught?
Will the Warriors do what most everyone expects them to - put Memphis out of their misery, stop this series in 5 games and humble the young Grizzlies? They’re most certainly capable - they proved that in Game 3. If Memphis does not dig deep and find their joy and pride again in who they are, the season will end soon. Especially if Morant is out.
Or, will the Grizzlies do something else they’ve done throughout their time in Memphis, and defy the odds?
Grit and Grind was forged in the flames of a 1-8 upset in the first round and a battle against the young upstart Oklahoma City Thunder led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Zach Randolph overcame suspensions and knee injuries. Mike Conley broke his face. Bumps and bruises, stumbles and falls, Western Conference Finals appearances where they were swept and massive comebacks they both endured and perpetrated. None of it was easy - almost every step was a trudge, every reach for the “brass ring” met with some sort of opposing force. At times they made it through and overcame compared to what was expected of them. Others, they came up short.
But they always - always - got up after. Together. Until the end.
Now is the time for this wisdom to be imparted on this generation of the Memphis Grizzlies. On the west coast, in California, the Warriors are in a position to give this basketball and life lesson to a group that is projected to perhaps be their heir apparent given the way the Grizzlies franchise is set up for success moving forward. Perhaps now isn’t the time for Memphis - Golden State has these Grizzlies down for now. That may well remain the case. But if Memphis is willing to step up and face the fight head on, one of two things will happen. Either the Warriors knock them down for good (again, for now) over the next week, or the Grizzlies dig back in to this series. And possession by possession, quarter by quarter, out of Hell.
Either way, much can be learned.
In any proverbial or actual fight, the one most willing to do whatever it takes - the one that refuses to stay down until they are eventually forced to - usually is victorious. Or, if they’re simply overmatched, they take something from the confrontation. An understanding of what it will take next time to be on the other, better end...and with them a bit of their opponent in the process.
Tonight, the Memphis Grizzlies have a first class ticket to basketball Hell. Who steps up, who pops up when knocked down the best, will decide how they get out.
To get to the glory, you’ve got to go through the fire.
Time to climb out of Hell.