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Jaren Jackson Jr. against the Pistons

MikeCheck: After consecutive losses, Grizzlies know path back to winning starts with defensive mindset

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

DETROIT – The Grizzlies know a thing or two about streaking.

They entered the week powered by one of the NBA’s most prolific offenses and riding a season-best, seven-game winning streak. And after two straight defensive letdowns, the Grizzlies close the week hoping to address some slippage and avoid a three-game losing streak.

The ebb and flow of an NBA season, especially for one of the youngest rotations in the league, features its share of ups and downs through an 82-game schedule. The Grizzlies are now tasked with stabilizing themselves through this dose of turbulence by digging in defensively.

“On the road, you’ve got to have an edge, you’ve got to set a tone defensively,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins insisted. “I’ve said all season long that our defense fuels our offense, where we get stops and then get out and run and push the pace. It’s an urgency. I don’t think we had that at the beginning of the season. But over the last month and a half, we started to find it a little more. Can we get back to consistently setting that tone defensively to spark our offense?”

Ja Morant against the Pelicans
JANUARY 20: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against the New Orleans Pelicans on January 20, 2020. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images.

That’s the question the Grizzlies (20-24) face as they wrap up a two-game trip Friday against the Pistons (17-28) seeking to regain that spark. Memphis is coming off consecutive losses to the Pelicans and Celtics, teams that combined to average 122.5 points, shoot 43.8 percent on threes and knock down a total of 35 shots from beyond the arc in those two games.

Because the Grizzlies routinely play at one of the NBA’s top-five fastest paces, which triggers an increased number of possessions each game, it’s not uncommon for scores to soar well into the hundreds. But some issues have surfaced this week that have magnified recent problems Jenkins and the team have spent the past two days addressing in film sessions and workouts.

I’ve said all season long that our defense fuels our offense, where we get stops and then get out and run and push the pace. It’s an urgency. I don’t think we had that at the beginning of the season. But over the last month and a half, we started to find it a little more. Can we get back to consistently setting that tone defensively to spark our offense?

Taylor Jenkins

“We have to get back to establishing ourselves and playing with more force defensively, because that’s what really made our offense special,” said forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who has accounted for six of the team’s 11 blocked shots the past two games. “If we can get stops, we can create a lot more opportunities for everybody to get going, get their rhythm and easy buckets instead of forcing it in the halfcourt.”

The Celtics, one of the Eastern Conference’s elite teams, gave the Grizzlies fits on both ends of the floor in Wednesday’s 119-95 win. Not only did Boston’s stifling defense hold the Grizzlies below 100 points for only the sixth time this season, it also ended their streak of 14 consecutive games having scored at least 110 points. That had been the longest active streak in the NBA.

They just got into the ball a lot more, they were in the passing lanes, the driving lanes; we just couldn’t seem to find the open guy or hold onto the ball. We didn’t get our rhythm shots that we needed, so it was just great learning for us, as unfortunate as it is. But you strive to play at that level.

Taylor Jenkins

That game included an extended offensive drought for the Grizzlies, who watched Boston go on a 23-0 run at the end of the first half to seize control of the game. Memphis entered that game ranked first in the league for January in scoring, assists, fastbreak points and points in the paint. But the Grizzlies emerged from that game with a stern lesson in elite-level defense, the likes of which Jenkins wants his team to eventually emulate as it continues to grow together.

The Grizzlies now look to bounce back from an outing in which perimeter starters Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jae Crowder combined to shoot just 3-for-19 from the field, scored just 11 points and committed eight turnovers. Boston scored 22 points off 19 Memphis turnovers and limited the Grizzlies to just 42.4 percent shooting from the field.

Jae Crowder taking a shot against the Celtics
JANUARY 22: Jae Crowder #99 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics on January 22, 2020 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s great for our guys to experience, especially our young guys, an entire team playing elite defense like that” Jenkins said of Boston’s example. “They just got into the ball a lot more, they were in the passing lanes, the driving lanes; we just couldn’t seem to find the open guy or hold onto the ball. We didn’t get our rhythm shots that we needed, so it was just great learning for us, as unfortunate as it is. But you strive to play at that level.”

A young Grizzlies’ team is learning that it can’t always rely on a prolific offense to mask some of the defensive challenges that have surfaced, especially against better competition. As much as it was difficult to get anything accomplished in Boston to start the trip, there were also defensive issues that haunted the Grizzlies in Monday’s home loss to the Pelicans.

In that game, New Orleans set a franchise record with 21 made three-pointers and also made 21 of 24 free-throw attempts. And those are two areas specifically where the Grizzlies rank among the bottom third in the league defensively. The 126 points by New Orleans marked the 15th time this season Memphis has surrendered 120 or more points in a game, which is seventh-most in the league.

“That game against the Pelicans, they hit a bunch of threes and those are shots that are a little bit deflating,” Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen said. “A lot of them we thought we had a good contest on, others we could have had a little more activity. Our offense likes to play at a tempo, so when a team hits a three on us, it slows us down a little bit. What we want to do is get back to taking pride in defense so we can play the way we want to play. Teams are going to get hot, guys are going to make shots, but we have to talk it out and be active and have a good next-play speed. Get on to the next thing.”

Jaren Jackson Jr. and De'Anthony Melton
JANUARY 14: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 and De'Anthony Melton #0 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during the game against the Houston Rockets on January 14, 2020. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Grizzlies are now focused on getting better defensively in the next game. It was the message after the loss in Boston on Wednesday and the last topic of discussion at Friday’s team shootaround before the game against the Pistons.

A lot of them we thought we had a good contest on, others we could have had a little more activity. Our offense likes to play at a tempo, so when a team hits a three on us, it slows us down a little bit. What we want to do is get back to taking pride in defense so we can play the way we want to play. Teams are going to get hot, guys are going to make shots, but we have to talk it out and be active and have a good next-play speed. Get on to the next thing.

Grayson Allen

“All losses hurt, but you have a little more perspective,” Jackson said of coping with this week’s slide. “When things are going well and you have a couple of losses in a row, you just have to go back to remembering how you were playing, what got you there and keep going from there.”

To get back on track, the Grizzlies know they must get back to defending.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace 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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