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Lang’s World: Grizzlies’ Bubble Experience Can Still Give Lessons

by Lang Whitaker | Grizz Gaming GM

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly.

For a second or two, allow yourself to revel in the fact that the Memphis Grizzlies went to Orlando for the NBA restart, faced the toughest Bubble schedule, and came out the other side still in the Playoff picture.

With a 119-106 win against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Memphis Grizzlies finished their seeding schedule with a 2-6 record. They slipped from eighth place to ninth, and on Saturday will play Portland in a play-in game. Lose and they’re gone until next season. Win, and they get to play Portland again 24 hours later. Win that one, and the Grizz will play the Lakers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. But that’s way down the road. For now, let’s appreciate that with so many teams getting ready to head home, the Grizzlies are still alive. For now, at least.

For Grizzlies fans, the last two weeks were, in many ways, classic 2020. Just when you thought we were past the worst, things took a turn for even worse. As the Grizz gathered in Orlando, all healthy and ready to hit the restart button, you could be excused if your excitement got the better of you. After all, this was a Grizzlies team that wasn’t even supposed to be in this situation. A year ago at this time, the Grizzlies had just traded their two franchise players, drafted a 19-year-old point guard to run the show and hired a first-time head coach.

What did the future hold? It looked bright, sure, but the NBA is littered with rebuilding plans that for whatever reason went awry. For Grizzlies fans, all we could do was cling to hope. We hoped that Ja Morant would be even a fraction as good as we suspected he could become. We hoped that Jaren Jackson Jr. would continue his improvement. We hoped Taylor Jenkins would successfully transition from an assistant coach with the Bucks to being an NBA head coach. We hoped. We hoped.

And then the damndest thing happened: All that stuff worked out. Well, most of it. Ja Morant was a beast. Jaren Jackson Jr. was terrific. Dillon Brooks made a leap. Brandon Clarke did not play like a rookie. Kyle Anderson did Kyle Anderson things. Jonas Valanciunas served generous helpings of barbecue chicken to big men across the NBA. Tyus Jones seemingly made every floater he attempted. And on and on and on.

But once sealed in Bubble wrap, things didn’t quite work out as planned. Before the games even started, Justise Winslow was ruled out with a hip injury. Then Tyus Jones went down with a sore knee. Then two games in, Jaren Jackson Jr. had a knee injury that would sideline him the rest of the way. The Grizzlies opened The Bubble schedule with an overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, then a two-point loss against the San Antonio Spurs. Then a loss to New Orleans. Then Utah.

Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Orlando, FL - AUGUST 9: Justise Winslow #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during the game against the Toronto Raptor. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Grizzlies went 1-6 to start the bubble schedule, and if we’re being honest, it wasn’t much fun. Other than the 29-point win against the Thunder, the Grizzlies kept catching Ls left and right. They weren’t getting blown out—they were in every game for most of the game, faltering down the stretch. But they weren’t finishing games.

It wasn’t really a surprise. Once Winslow got injured, we suspected the young Grizzlies were going be outnumbered in most of these matchups. Once Jaren and Tyus joined Justise on the chilling list, we were certain they were going to be outmanned. The Grizz have played with energy and elan, but it’s been tough to sustain the effort over 48-minute stretches against a relentless schedule, against veteran teams that have mostly been in playoff mode. Their opponents played each possession like it was their last. The Grizzles played like they were warming to the bright light of the big stage.

If anything, The Bubble has served as a noble reminder of just how far the Nxt Gen Grizzlies still have to go. The Grizzlies caught a lot of people by surprise this season, and managed to force their way into the Western Conference contention conversation when most people thought Memphis being in that discussion was a few years away, if it was ever going to happen at all. Ja Morant took a Rookie of the Year narrative being driven by every huge media outlet and refocused every one of those stories right here to the 901. Taylor Jenkins snuck into Coach of the Year conversations.

All that stuff happened because these young Grizzlies believed. In each other and themselves. Along the way, they gave us something to believe in, too. Not just a core and a system, but they essentially validated a rebuilding plan, taking what was only a theoretical and proving that there’s actually substance behind all those best practices and plans.

Memphis Grizzlies Team Huddle
ORLANDO, FL - AUGUST 11: The Memphis Grizzlies huddles up before the game on August 11, 2020 at the AdventHealth Arena. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Bubble has been mostly inflated with frustration for Grizzlies fans, but that’s only because we got a taste of how great this whole #NxtGenGrz thing is when it’s humming along smoothly. While some of the teams in Orlando are priming for a championship run, Bubble life for these banged-up Grizz has mostly just been about trying to live to fight another day. The Grizzlies are gaining invaluable experience in the Magic Kingdom, being shown first-hand what it takes to win at the very highest levels of the NBA. You don’t have to win a game to learn a lesson.

The last two weeks haven’t gone as all of us Grizzlies fans had hoped they might. But look at it this way: 22 teams went to Orlando. Seventeen of them remain. And the Memphis Grizzlies are one of those 17 teams that are still there, still fighting, still leaving it all out there every day.

The Bubble experience may have left something to be desired for Grizz fans. But it also might pay dividends years from now.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

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.

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