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MikeCheck: As national spotlight grows, streaking Grizzlies determined – not distracted – amid season’s stretch run

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

For so long, Ja Morant has been fueled by the narrative of being the overlooked and underappreciated budding star thriving just beneath the national radar.

But that dynamic is drastically changing.

In just the past week, Paul Pierce declared on national television that the Grizzlies’ electrifying point guard should be an NBA All-Star – this year. And the other night, Tracy McGrady anointed the rookie No. 2 overall pick as someone who will win a league MVP and emerge as the best player in the NBA at some point during his career.

That insight comes from a Finals MVP and NBA champion in Pierce and a Hall of Famer in McGrady, who both shared their thoughts on Morant during ESPN’s NBA programming. Whether it’s national podcasts, website features or sports highlight shows, it’s safe to say Morant and the Grizzlies have been the talk of the NBA in recent days.

Ja Morant NBA TV interview
JANUARY 14: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies is interviewed after the game against the Houston Rockets on January 14, 2020. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Yet, it’s even safer to say all that talk hasn’t gone to their collective head. The Grizzlies insist they’ve remained grounded in the midst of the lofty praise during their stunning midseason run. And that cue comes from their playmaking catalyst.

“Stay humble,” Morant said of his mindset amid the widening glare of the national spotlight. “Just continue to be me and go out and play the same way I’ve been playing. Just let everybody else do the talking but me, and allow my game to play it out on the court.”

The Grizzlies (20-22) intend to keep making statements with their play as their season-long, six-game homestand wraps up this holiday weekend. After beating the Cavaliers 113-109 on Friday, the Grizzlies are set to face the Pelicans in Monday’s MLK Celebration Game. The timing couldn’t have been more ideal for Memphis to hit its stride this season.

Having won seven consecutive games and nine of their last 10 at FedExForum, the Grizzlies are seen nationally as a young team that’s performing well ahead of pace right now. And as they’ve climbed into the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings, positioned to make the playoffs, the widespread attention has only intensified on Memphis.

Just continue to be me and go out and play the same way I’ve been playing. Just let everybody else do the talking but me, and allow my game to play it out on the court.

Ja Morant
Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke on the sideline
DECEMBER 28: Tyus Jones #21 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies wait to enter the game against the Denver Nuggets on December 28, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images.

The spotlight will shine even brighter just before Monday’s game at the 18th annual Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium at FedExForum, where the Grizzlies, NBA and National Civil Rights Museum honor this year’s award recipients in Sheryl Swoopes, Doug Williams, Robert Parish and Caron Butler.

Expect an entertaining, enlightening and empowering atmosphere throughout the arena Monday. That’s especially the case now because of another reason. With both the Lakers and the Jazz suffering recent losses this week that snapped their respective double-figure winning streaks, the Grizzlies are the NBA’s hottest team. The seven-game win streak is their longest since 2015.

And if the Grizzlies beat the Pelicans to sweep the homestand, they will match the longest streak in franchise history at eight straight wins. It will also mark the first time the Grizzlies have ever gone unbeaten in a homestand of at least six games.

Not bad in-season progress. Especially for a team that entered the season having revamped its front office, hired a new coaching staff and set a development plan in place for a roster anchored by six players with three or fewer seasons of NBA experience.

Obviously, it’s great that these guys are getting recognition for how they’re playing. We’re playing a great style of basketball.

Taylor Jenkins

Aside from a bit more attention shifting to Morant as No. 1 pick Zion Williamson was sidelined for the first half of the season with a knee injury, the Grizzlies largely developed under the national radar. But that’s no longer the case as the Grizzlies continue to emerge with Morant’s highlight-reel plays, as Jaren Jackson Jr. drains threes and blocks shots at a historic rate and as the Grizzlies play at one of the league’s fastest paces.

Memphis entered the weekend 11th in the NBA in three-point shooting (.360), 10th in steals (7.9), ninth in scoring (113.6), ninth in blocks (5.4) sixth in field goal percentage (.470) and first in assists (27.9). Across the board, the Grizzlies have pushed their way into being a top-10 team in production.

It’s headline-worthy material.

But this isn’t a team too caught up in its press clippings.

Team celebration after win
OCTOBER 27: The Memphis Grizzlies celebrate after the game against the Brooklyn Nets on October 27, 2019. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

“These guys carry themselves with a humble mentality, and we’ve talked about that from the beginning of this season, even when we were just getting a couple of wins here and there,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Obviously, it’s great that these guys are getting recognition for how they’re playing. We’re playing a great style of basketball.”

The approach hasn’t changed as more pundits and mainstream analysts have taken notice. Just in the past week, two players have been involved in national commercial shoots. Three more have been the focus on reputable, international NBA website features. And TNT, ESPN and The Ringer have sent correspondents to Memphis to spotlight the Grizzlies.

They’ve all discovered the same thing, whether it’s a game night at a buzzing FedExForum or a work day of building on habits at the practice facility.

You can get lackadaisical and not focus and let a team come beat you. We’ve been looking at the standings a little bit, but you can’t pay much attention to that because you have to take this thing one game at a time. You can’t look forward to an opponent or dwell on losses. It is a new challenge with the winning streak and getting national attention. But I’ve been at the highest pedestal, and it takes a lot for a team to hone in on that one prize in front of you. And that’s winning the next game.

Jae Crowder

“The fact is we just come in every single day and know what we need to work on, but also focus on us and that growth mindset,” Jenkins continued. “So these guys have carried that mentality from Day 1. Hopefully, we’ll keep winning ballgames and there’s more attention coming. But they’ll just keep sticking with that same work ethic approach that takes you day in, day out.”

For the first half of the season, the Grizzlies were able to simply develop in relative solitude when it came to the national media. But as they embark on the second half of their 82-game schedule this weekend, the next challenge is to continue to shine in the growing spotlight.

It’s the next step in the maturation process for a fun and fledgling team.

Jae Crowder high-fives during pregame
JANUARY 4: Jae Crowder #99 of the Memphis Grizzlies high fives teammate, Grayson Allen #3 before the game against the LA Clippers on January 4, 2020 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s a new test, for sure,” Grizzlies veteran forward Jae Crowder said. “You can get lackadaisical and not focus and let a team come beat you. We’ve been looking at the standings a little bit, but you can’t pay much attention to that because you have to take this thing one game at a time. You can’t look forward to an opponent or dwell on losses. It is a new challenge with the winning streak and getting national attention. But I’ve been at the highest pedestal, and it takes a lot for a team to hone in on that one prize in front of you. And that’s winning the next game.”

In other words, don’t get it twisted.

The Grizzlies aren’t exactly basking in the newfound spotlight. But now that it’s here, they’re determined to continue building within its glow.

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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