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Lang’s World: Grizzlies off to slow start in the bubble, but all is not lost

by Lang Whitaker | Grizz Gaming GM

The NBA season has re-booted down in Orlando at Disney World, and halfway through the eight-game seeding schedule, the Happiest Place on Earth has been more like the Tragic Kingdom thus far for the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies, who came into the bubble clinging to the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race, not only got off to an 0-4 start, but the Grizzlies have also lost leading scorer Jaren Jackson Jr. to a season-ending knee injury. As I write this, the Grizzlies are hanging onto the eighth spot as desperately as a kid in the front seat on Space Mountain.

If you’re looking for positives, Grizz fam, it’s worth noting that even in the four losses, the Grizzlies have mostly been right there with their opponents. They lost the opener to Portland by two points in overtime, they lost to the Spurs by two, they were within five of the Pelicans in the fourth before losing by 10. Against Utah, the Grizzlies were tied at 102 in the fourth quarter, but eventually lost 124-115.

And while the Grizzlies haven’t been terrible, they also just haven’t been great. For the most part, the Grizzlies have spent their time in the bubble playing from behind, within striking distance in all of these games, but unable to close things out. The Grizz have been running up that hill more than Kate Bush, and it wears a team out to constantly be playing from behind. On top of that, the Grizzlies have played four games in six days, with a short bench.

The Grizzlies are still in the playoff picture, at least until they aren’t. But for the Grizz to turn this thing around without Jaren Jackson Jr., a few things will need to happen. To begin with, Ja Morant has to bring it from start to finish. Yes, it’s unfair to rest your entire postseason hopes on the slender shoulders of a 20-year-old rookie, but Ja is no average rookie, leading this Grizzlies team all season with his singular sparkling style of play. Ja has had some moments in the bubble, from catching alley-oops to creating off the dribble. But what he hasn’t been able to do thus far is play with consistent production. And I get it, it’s not easy to continually put up numbers while opposing defenses are changing coverages and rotations and gearing up primarily to stop you. But the Grizzlies need Ja to do Ja things from buzzer to buzzer if they want to turn the end of this season around.

Similarly, the Grizzlies could use some consistency with the way they approach the offensive end. Back in training camp last fall, the phrase head coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff employed was “Let it fly.” It was an attempt to help jump-start a team that for years had been among the bottom of the league in pace and offensive stats by encouraging them to not be afraid to shoot three pointers when the shots present themselves. At this point, the opposite may the problem—in the bubble, the Grizzlies have been almost too reliant on three-point shots. They’ve found success when driving to the basket, scoring in the paint and getting to the free throw line. Standing around the three-point line and jacking up contested threes has not been the answer.

While the Grizzlies’ bench was so strong through most of the season, thus far in the bubble, the bench has struggled to contribute. Other than Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen, the Grizzlies bench has scored a total of 40 points in the four bubble games. It’s worth noting here that the Grizzlies bench has been decimated by injuries to the starters; the bench rotation has been cannibalized to fill out the starting five. It seems strange to say it, since he hasn’t actually played a game for the Grizzlies, but the loss of Justise Winslow to an injury during the training period has been significant and caused a real domino effect. If Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow were healthy and starting, then Clarke and likely Kyle Anderson would be coming off the bench, as well as the currently injured Tyus Jones. So for now, the bench is robbed of three players who should be contributing big numbers. Some players who have not played significant roles thus far—perhaps John Konchar or Josh Jackson—are going to have to meet the moment on the big stage.

Josh Jackson against the Heat
Orlando, FL - JULY 28: Josh Jackson #20 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against the Miami Heat during a scrimmage. Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images.

The thing about being a young team in the NBA is that you have to learn how to win games; it’s almost as though the first 40 minutes are different from the final eight, and the way games are closed out, where the pace slows down and halfcourt offensive and defensive execution is paramount, is different than the way games begin. You can talk about it until you’re Beale Street blue in the face, but for a young team like the Grizzlies, they have to learn how to play, and win, in big games.

It’s not over until it’s over—as I write this, despite the 0-4 start the Grizzlies are still in the eighth playoff spot. Things haven’t gone the Grizzlies way in Orlando, but there’s still time.

The Grizzlies could use some good news these days, something to flip the mojo. And if the Grizzlies are hoping for a little magic to come their way, well… they’re in a good place to try and find some.

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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