There is no question the Memphis Grizzlies are in the driver’s seat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Yet there is some question about whether they’re behind the wheel of a Porsche or a Pontiac.
The eight-game seeding schedule in this NBA season reboot was created almost specifically to determine their fate and ability to put distance between them and those teams in hot pursuit. In the basketball vernacular, the Grizzlies must execute a quick and everlasting first step off the dribble and leave the others with shattered ankles and playoff dreams.
Yet, let’s repeat: Are the Grizzlies actually more vulnerable to become victims of a Pelicans or Blazers or Spurs takeover instead?
It’s really the only seeded-schedule drama with any pulse in Orlando. Yes, there can and will likely be a shuffling of the order in the standings of both conferences, but since home court is no longer an advantage -- no fans, remember -- doesn’t that kill the vibe a bit? There is no significant difference between the first and second seed, or fourth and fifth. Meanwhile: With the eight playoff spots in the East virtually assured -- Bradley Beal skipping the Wizards’ Disney trip made that a wrap -- the suspense swirls exclusively around Memphis. The Grizzlies are bringing the projected Rookie of the Year and a comfy 3 1/2-game lead cushion as the No. 8 seed to the argument … and a precarious grip on the buttery pole as well.
This has folks beyond Beale Street sensing one thing, and those inside the Grizzlies’ foxhole thinking something altogether different.
Jaren Jackson Jr., the boyish wonder of a power forward, brings a message to anyone who dares to raise doubt about Memphis. He mentioned a collective “chip on our shoulder” and added: “We know we can get even better.”
Taylor Jenkins, off to a quick start as a first-time coach, was pleasantly encouraged by the amount of spunk that accompanied the trip from Memphis.
“Coming into this situation with the hiatus, I came hoping for the best and our guys have had an unbelievable ability to reconnect,” Jenkins said. “These guys came here with an aggression. Hopefully that translates into the seeded games.”
And Ja Morant, whose unique name is currently being spell-checked by the engravers as they ready the trophy for the league’s top rookie, gave the most compelling reason for folks to press pause on any ideas of a Memphis collapse: “This team goes as I go.”
The Grizzlies have reason to be a bit ornery and feel the sting of disrespect. They had a solid season before the coronavirus stoppage, hiked the entertainment level considerably in a home arena raised on a grit-n-grind history, and produced better than expected composure and results from a mostly youthful roster. After a 6-16 start, Memphis recovered and went 26-17 to put itself in position to avoid the draft lottery. Then the pandemic hit.
Morant in particular has been an eyeful, issuing nightly challenges to opposing players with longer bodies and resumes and earning their respect. He is averaging 17.6 points, 6.9 assists, demands the ball in moments of truth and evidently ordered takeout from Rendezvous barbecue during the shutdown because he’s almost 15 pounds more chiseled. Bluff City, meet Buff City.
“I took the time off to focus on my body,” Morant said.
That’s all nice. Yet we’d all be remiss to dismiss some rather meaningful factors that could see another team replace Memphis for that eighth spot or, in the event the Grizzlies don’t finish at least four games ahead, force Memphis into a play-in game (or two) for that last spot. And that's before factoring in the season-ending hip injury suffered on Monday by veteran forward Justise Winslow, who has yet to play a game for Memphis since being acquired from Miami earlier in the season.
The Grizzlies have the toughest seeded games by far. Almost every night they’ll either see one of the teams they’re trying to fend off or an established winner. Any prolonged slump could have fatal consequences.
The Pelicans are peaking at the right time, or at least they were before the interruption. Also, they’re America’s Choice for that eighth spot because, well, Zion Williamson, assuming he returns in time from his leave of absence and actually plays. The NBA’s TV partners, trying to recoup lost millions, are certainly all slobbery over the prospect of selling us Zion vs. LeBron in a tasty first-round matchup.
The Blazers -- remember them? -- were in the conference finals just last summer and if you ask them, they believe they can make a return trip. Carmelo Anthony has been a mid-season revelation and now the Blazers welcome back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from the injury shelf. Oh, yes, there’s also Damian Lillard, too.
The Spurs qualify as a tougher sell without an injured LaMarcus Aldridge although they can play spoiler, and you bet against a Gregg Popovich-coached team at your own risk. They do have a 20-year playoff streak riding on this, you realize.
Those three are the most likely candidates to spoil the mood in Memphis and yet the playoffs are the Grizzlies’ to lose at this point. Morant and Jackson don’t appear to be the type to allow their teammates to relax and take anything for granted, and this hasn’t escaped the notice of Jenkins.
“Since day one I always talked about the leadership of our team and it doesn’t matter where that comes from,” Jenkins said. “But to see two young guys taking the onus to be more vocal in practices and team meetings and on the sideline … these guys have been dialed in. And it’s infectious. It’s all about supporting one another.”
The Grizzlies are bringing Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks to the young mix; both have shown plenty of pop in spurts. Then there is Josh Jackson, once a No. 4 pick just three (very long) years ago who has triumphantly kicked off a personal Reputation Tour with this career-saving stop in Memphis.
“We’re all healthy and deep in the roster,” Morant said. “I feel that’s a plus for us.”
The Grizzlies also believe the playoffs would quicken the maturity rate for this team and get the players to develop a thirst for winning and leaving the rebuilding process behind. What better way for youngsters to grow up rapidly than to feel the weight of LeBron and the Lakers in a seven-game series? You can’t learn that by watching from home.
But first, the Grizzlies are battling twin forces: The desperate teams trying to catch them and the notion that Memphis wouldn’t be a sexy enough date for the Lakers and LeBron in the first round. If there are fans on Planet Basketball who’d rather have Memphis over the other choices, the Grizzlies haven’t heard them, or think they actually exist, and if so probably won’t believe them anyway.
Such is another log for the fire than burns within. The Grizzlies know full well they’re the team with the target here in Orlando and how they must fight to earn the desire of a skeptical public. Therefore, it’s Memphis vs. Everybody, so it seems.
“We can’t live or die by one game, no matter how it goes,” Morant said. “We just need to continue to play our style of basketball.”
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