Lang’s World: As the Grizzlies start their sprint for the Playoffs, some storylines to watch
After months sheltering in place, a few weeks of training camp, and now three scrimmage games inside The NBA Bubble down in Orlando, it’s finally time to start playing games that matter.
On Friday afternoon, the Memphis Grizzlies will tip-off against the Portland Trail Blazers (3:00 p.m. CT, FSSE) in the first contest of the NBA seeding games, an eight match obstacle course that paves the way into this season’s NBA Playoffs. Most of the teams already ensconced in the confines of the Magic Kingdom know what the future holds for them—their postseason spot is all but assured. But for a few teams, including the Grizzlies, they still have to show and prove.
The Grizzlies are currently sitting in the 8-spot in the standings, which would secure them the final postseason spot from the Western Conference. The Grizz are seven games behind the Dallas Mavericks, and 3.5 ahead of the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings. So while the Grizzlies are in a good situation, these Nxt Gen Grizz understand that nothing is given. It’s Memphis vs. Errrbody, and errrbody will be watching.
As we get ready to play the Fastpass schedule and hurtle toward the Playoffs, here are five Grizzlies storylines I’ve got my eye on as the season restarts...
1. Sprint, Don’t Jog
It’s kinda trite by now, but it still holds true: The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. The usual NBA season, that is. Playing 82 games over the course of nine months requires a certain kind of mental fortitude, as well as physical stamina. Coach Taylor Jenkins understood that from day one, sprinkling in off days throughout the Grizzlies’ schedule, even early in the season, to let the players recharge their minds and bodies.
But these NBA seeding games are not anything close to a “usual” NBA season. What’s going to be of paramount importance for the Grizzlies as they fight to hang onto the eighth seed in the Western Conference is getting off to a good start. The Grizzlies’ first three games are against the three teams directly behind them in the standings: Trail Blazers; Spurs; Pelicans. It’s a small world, after all.
Win all three of those first games and you’ve likely created enough breathing room to almost cement your spot as a Playoff team. Split them one way or the other (2-1 or 1-2) and those final five games take on added importance.
The Grizzlies schedule ends, of course, with a triumvirate of Eastern Conference powers (Raptors, Celtics, Bucks). Upon the initial schedule release, I know some Grizzlies fans were hoping those teams would be load managing their way into the postseason, but I wonder if the opposite may actually be true: Instead of cutting minutes, those teams will be ramping up workloads to get their full rosters ready to play heavy postseason minutes. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: You don’t want to finish the seeding schedule needing must-wins against those teams.
I’d rather get the three wins early than need them late. And to do that, you are going to have to sprint, right out of the gate.
2. The Ja Rules
I ran out of superlatives months ago to describe the rookie season Ja Morant has turned in for the Memphis Grizzlies. Whatever you expected from Ja as he went from Murray State to the NBA, it’s probably safe to say that he’s exceeded your expectations.
Everyone suspected that adding Morant to the Grizzlies’ young core would be transformative, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how impactful Ja would be, and how soon it would happen. As my main man John Schuhmann wrote for NBA.com, the Grizzlies have gone from getting it out of the mud to running it up on the rest of the league...
From last season, the Grizzlies have seen the league's biggest jump in pace (possessions per 48 minutes), the league's biggest jump in fast break points per game, the league's biggest jump in second chance points per game, and the league's biggest jump in points in the paint per game.
And so much of that is due to Ja, and the way he is constantly looking to push tempo, to attack the rack—shoutout Aron Baynes!—and his eagerness to find teammates with open looks. (Everyone now raise your Ja-ggles.) It’s also a factor of Coach Jenkins’ read-and-react system, certainly, and the way the Grizzlies have morphed from a halfcourt team to a team constantly looking to exploit their speed.
But Ja is the straw that stirs the drink, and without him, none of this works. We all know Ja added the vaunted 12 pounds of muscle during the quarantine, which I think will aid him more in a traditional NBA season than in this shortened gig, but it can’t hurt, particularly when Ja gets inside and tries to finish over bigger players. Ja’s outside shooting is also imperative, and he’s shown a willingness to establish the accuracy of his perimeter jumper early in games, to keep defenses honest (and driving lanes open).
It’s almost unfair to place so much importance on the slender shoulders of a 20-year-old rookie, but it’s true: As Ja goes, so go the Grizz. The Nxt Gen Grizz first found their stride back in November right around the time that Ja really settled into his groove. He had a few moments in the seeding schedule, but Ja really shone in the Grizz’s 128-110 win over Miami, finishing with 22 points and 12 assists, with just 1 turnover. For the Grizzlies to make noise in this postseason, Ja must rule, right away.
3. Don’t Forget Jaren
With all the talk about Ja, it’s tempting to forget that Jaren Jackson Jr. is still a thing. He occasionally sparkled as a rookie, playing mostly in the wake of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but a thigh injury robbed him of the last third of that rookie campaign, which seemed enough to let the spotlight drift away from him. Morant’s arrival and almost instant success kept Jackson nominally on the sidelines, at least nationally, but it hasn’t lessened his importance to the Grizzlies.
If anything, Jackson has better this year than last year. At the time of the quarantine, Jackson was averaging 16.9 points per game, good for second on the Grizzlies. Jackson is the best three-point shooter on the Grizzlies, and, at 6.3 attempts per game, shoots threes with more frequency than any other Grizz. Since he’s on the perimeter so often, Jaren isn’t much of a force on the boards, despite his height. I’d love to see him continue to improve defensively, like we saw during this season. After being beset by foul trouble throughout his rookie season, Jackson managed to manage the fouls better this season, and he seemed to be finding his place in the defense when the quarantine hit.
It’s still a process, though. Jaren fouled out in the Houston scrimmage, and he hasn’t completely ended his penchant for picking up frustrating fouls—against Miami he was called for his second foul for closing out on Jae Crowder. Which is a good reminder that Jaren still has plenty of room to grow—he’s actually younger than Morant (by about a month). Five years from now, Jaren could be an elite forward in the NBA.
For the next few weeks, the Grizzlies just need Jaren to be what he’s been so far this season.
4. Point Game
Defense wins championships in the NBA, but for the Grizzlies this season, offense won them a lot of games. The Grizzlies averaged 112.6 ppg this season, and it seemed like in almost every win, besides Morant and Jackson, at least one other player would step up and have a big night. Maybe it was Dillon Brooks, who was particularly productive offensively the first few months of the season. Brandon Clarke seemed to find ways to expand his game almost week by week,
Many nights, Jonas Valanciunas was dominant on the interior for the Grizzlies, controlling the paint and averaging a double-double on the season. Kyle Anderson has looked terrific in the Bubble scrimmages, probably the best he’s looked in a Grizzlies uniform, and his increased ability to score could earn him even more playing time. And we didn’t even get to De'Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen or Josh Jackson, all players who came off the bench and are capable of giving buckets on any given night.
This Grizz team is not elite defensively, at least not yet, but when they play with pace on offense and keep the game at their tempo, they can compete with anyone.
5. Taylor’s Swift Decisions
Ja Morant took to Twitter the other day to make a case for Taylor Jenkins as a possible Coach of the Year candidate. Morant is biased, sure, but Jenkins certainly belongs in the conversation with coaches such as Nick Nurse, Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan. After all, Jenkins strolled into his first NBA head coaching gig with a franchise that had just moved on from two era-defining superstars, took over a roster full of young players, got them all to buy into his system and helped them fight their way into the Western Conference Playoff hunt.
Having watched Jenkins from the start of the season, I was immediately impressed with his poise and focus, particularly during close games. So much is happening and at such quick speeds, and Jenkins has an ability to ride those highs and lows and dwell somewhere in the middle, all while processing information and making decisions.
To me, the mark of the top-level NBA coach is one who is able to dictate rather than be dictated to. By which I mean, there are so many coaches who too often are reactionary, and find themselves on the defensive, trying to make adjustments after being caught off-guard because they’re so used to sticking to the same substitution patterns.
This is something I think Jenkins excels at: switching lineups, exploiting matchups based on who has the hot hand on any given night. With the Grizzlies’ deep bench, Jenkins has a lot of options at his disposal. While the season-ending hip injury to Justise Winslow pares back Jenkins’ choices a bit, and it sounds as though Jones will miss some time with knee soreness, there are still plenty of ways to go. Perhaps most telling will be seeing if Jenkins uses a bench rotation that skews more offensively (Allen and Anthony Tolliver) or defensively (Jackson and Gorgui Dieng).
In this bubble in Orlando, Jenkins will be tested like never before, and he has to figure out a way to get his team playing at a high level. The one thing I keep thinking about when watching the scrimmages is how closely these games resemble the NBA Summer League experience. And who won the Las Vegas NBA Summer League last summer? The Memphis Grizzlies, with Taylor Jenkins serving as the head coach.
Whatever happens in Orlando, the Next Gen Grizz worked hard this season to score an invite to sit at the big kid’s table.
They got in the door. Now it’s up to them to make some noise.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.