MikeCheck: Amid midseason jockeying for West’s final playoff spot, Grizzlies keep focus on big-picture progress
No doubt, the big picture remains the focus for the Grizzlies.
As stated from the outset, this season is all about building a solid foundation and culture to carry the team into what shapes up as a bright future, stocked with assets, options and financial flexibility. These next few years are predicated on the development and meshing of a young core anchored by Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke.
Give it time and the right supporting cast, and this team will gradually grow. Eventually, these Grizzlies will grind their way into perennial contention in the Western Conference playoff race. The long view remains the right view when it comes to proper perspective on this team.
But that doesn’t mean the Grizzlies won’t zoom in on opportunities right in front of them.
“Being at home for these six games, it’s a perfect time for us to focus on where we’re going,” swingman Dillon Brooks said. “We get to settle it down, get the right treatment, the right things done, settle into who we are and really make a push into a playoff spot.”
Approaching the midway point of their 82-game schedule, simply being in the vicinity of a potential playoff spot in the Western Conference underscores the encouraging progress the Grizzlies are making. But a Memphis squad with the NBA’s third-youngest roster is right there.
With a few established teams such as the Spurs, Blazers and Timberwolves struggling through the season’s initial months, coupled with the Grizzlies hitting a recent stride, there’s a logjam around the eighth spot in the West.
The Grizzlies (16-22) continue their season-long, six-game home stand with Friday’s visit from the eighth-place Spurs (16-20) and Sunday’s game against the last-place Warriors (9-30). Entering the weekend, Memphis is one of seven teams separated by just four games for what would be the final playoff position in the conference.
We get to settle it down, get the right treatment, the right things done, settle into who we are and really make a push into a playoff spot.
But among that group, the Spurs, Grizzlies and Pelicans have posted winning records over their last 10 games. In fact, Memphis is 10-6 since Morant returned from a back injury on Dec. 9. And over the past month, the Grizzlies boast the NBA’s top offense (117.9) and field goal percentage (.491) while ranking third in three-point percentage (.381).
Each of their last three wins have come in different ways.
In Saturday’s 140-114 victory against the Clippers, Memphis set a franchise scoring record for a road game and tallied a season-high 36 assists while dominating one of the NBA’s elite teams from wire to wire. The next night in Phoenix, the Grizzlies squandered most of a 20-point lead but made enough clutch plays and free throws at the finish to survive for a 121-114 win. In that game, Memphis avoided the pitfalls that haunted it two games earlier when blowing a 20-point lead in a 128-123 loss in Sacramento.
We’ve had to hit some bumps in the road to learn and grow from, but I’m proud of how we’re going. We’re not really focused on the records; we’re just focused on the next task at hand.
And after returning home to open the homestand, the Grizzlies rallied from a 14-point deficit to overtake the Timberwolves as Brooks, Jackson and Morant combined for 74 points. Whether it's veterans such as Jae Crowder and Jonas Valanciunas leading the way against the Clippers and Suns, or the young nucleus taking charge Tuesday, Memphis is finding different ways to win.
It’s sparked a level of confidence that has this team believing it can play with anyone in the league. And that belief is based on staying true to core principles of competing every possession, playing unselfishly by sharing the ball and getting better each game on the court.
“We got off to a bit of a slow start but the competitiveness has been there night in and night out,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of the progress since losing 13 of the first 18 games. “We’ve had to hit some bumps in the road to learn and grow from, but I’m proud of how we’re going. We’re not really focused on the records; we’re just focused on the next task at hand.”
The Grizzlies have been winning games they once found ways to lose.
To many, that’s the clearest sign of maturation in recent weeks.
“Growing is not just fighting hard and losing – it’s getting the wins, too,” said Valanciunas, who leads the Grizzlies in rebounding and also has a team-best 18 double-doubles this season. “We have had to learn to win games, because that’s what we’re here to do. The progress is already there, and we’re doing a better job every game and even in stretches of games. Maybe earlier in the season, we wouldn’t pull some of these games out. But we’re learning how to execute with each other, and step by step, we’re going forward together.”
The next step could be a difficult one based on the last time the Grizzlies faced San Antonio. The teams have split the first two of four matchups this season, with each winning on the road. But the Spurs blasted the Grizzlies last month at FedExForum, scoring a franchise opponent record 145 points in a blowout victory. The Grizzlies surrendered a franchise quarter record 46 points in the opening 12 minutes and weren’t able to recover against the hot-shooting Spurs.
San Antonio has since won four of its past five games, and comes in having notched consecutive wins over the NBA-best Bucks and Celtics. So both the Grizzlies and Spurs are sort of finding themselves, albeit amid different expectations, as they press forward into the New Year.
We have had to learn to win games, because that’s what we’re here to do. The progress is already there, and we’re doing a better job every game and even in stretches of games. Maybe earlier in the season, we wouldn’t pull some of these games out. But we’re learning how to execute with each other, and step by step, we’re going forward together.
“We’re a young team and we’re going to be building this team together for five, 10 years with these guys,” said Brooks, who is averaging 23 points on .542 percent shooting from three-point range during the Grizzlies’ three-game winning streak. “It’s good we’re getting this experience, because we’re going to be in these games a lot of the times. It’s just showing that our hard work is paying off. Every guy on this team is confident in what they do, but it was just about figuring out what this or that player likes, what they don’t like, what they can get, how we can defend together. It all just builds a different culture, a more professional culture and it’s great.”
The methodical approach to building the right way hasn’t changed from Day 1 of training camp. The results are just starting to come, based on growth and repetition.
So what’s been the biggest difference lately as the Grizzlies worked out some kinks?
“I feel like we’re seeing the same situations every single game – we normally have a lead early, get a little too comfortable, then start to play slow,” Morant said. “And that’s not how we want to play. We had to learn how to keep putting that pressure on, keep the foot on the gas.”
Hence, the results against the Clippers.
No matter what, we have our own expectations around here. We didn’t care about (outside) expectations then, and we don’t care now. We want to be the most competitive team on the court that night. That’s what we focus on. Being together, unselfish and competing hard. Do that, and everything else pretty much takes care of itself.
And after getting off to that sluggish start this week against Minnesota, another encouraging characteristic about this Memphis team ultimately emerged.
“We have a standard we hold ourselves to and try to reach every time we play,” reserve guard De’Anthony Melton said. “We catch ourselves when we lower ourselves under that standard. But as long as we play Grizzlies basketball, stuff usually works out the best way for us.”
Hence, that lethal closing push against the Timberwolves.
“Be as good as we can be every night,” Jackson said of the budding chemistry and continuity as the midway point of the season nears. “No matter what, we have our own expectations around here. We didn’t care about (outside) expectations then, and we don’t care now. We want to be the most competitive team on the court that night. That’s what we focus on. Being together, unselfish and competing hard. Do that, and everything else pretty much takes care of itself.”
The potential playoff picture may grow clearer in the coming weeks.
As the Grizzlies try to maximize this homestand, their focus remains on the bigger picture.
It’s within the framework of maintaining steady progress along this process.
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