MikeCheck: Drenched in camaraderie, Grizzlies soak up midseason success ahead of tough stretch run

The shower was coming, one way or another.

But not even a visionary playmaker like Ja Morant could anticipate the water pressure hitting him as soon as it did – in full uniform no less. Moments after returning to the visiting team’s locker room following a win the other night in Washington, Grizzlies players ambushed Morant and doused him with water bottles to celebrate the rookie’s first career triple-double.

Memphis’ franchise point guard then got straight to the, well, point.

Ja Morant pointing

Morant showered love on his teammates for their roles in helping the three-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month reach another milestone. He extended gratitude to the coaches and trainers who get him prepared each day for the grind of the NBA schedule.

Eventually, the charismatic but calculated catalyst thanked another group of contributors sparking these young Grizzlies along this surprising path: the doubters and oddsmakers.

“What were we supposed to win, 26 games this year?” Morant facetiously said of the multiple preseason NBA projections that set the Grizzlies’ win total in the mid-20s. “I think we just passed that. Appreciate you all who bet against us!”

With 28 games left, the Grizzlies aren’t exactly a sure bet to make the playoffs this season. But they’re better positioned to do so than they’ve been in three years. At 28-26 after Wednesday’s 111-104 win over the Trail Blazers, the Grizzlies enter this weekend’s All-Star break with a winning record for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

Ja Morant and Damian Lillard

In many ways, the Grizzlies are ahead of schedule based on expectations. According to at least one Las Vegas oddsmaker, the Grizzlies were the first team in the NBA this season to surpass their projected win total, with DraftKings Sportsbook setting their over/under at 26.5 victories.

Internally, the Grizzlies have been progressing along their own timeline. So much so that now, they don’t have to wait until mid-April to experience how it feels to compete in games with postseason implications. That process was underscored with the win over the Blazers, who now sit four games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies for the Western Conference’s final playoff seed. Memphis is also within striking distance of the Thunder and Mavericks for as high as sixth in the standings.

So expect a playoff environment the rest of the way for the Grizzlies after they return from the weeklong All-Star break. Consider it a test run amid the stretch run.

“We keep them locked in. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, what time of year it is,” said Taylor Jenkins, the NBA’s reigning Western Conference Coach of the Month. “There’s mental fatigue and physical fatigue. Regardless of the win-loss record, can you take advantage of every opportunity you’ve got? This is a critical process as you go into the break. Then, you’ve got to recharge, come back and take whatever you’ve been doing to that point up to another level.”

Memphis returns from the break to close the month with four of its final six February games against teams currently in playoff position. Then comes March, when the Grizzlies play nine of 15 games on the road. And after that, April arrives with their final five regular-season games against teams also currently in the playoff field.

In other words, the Grizzlies are locked into playoff-level competition a full two months before Game 1 of any postseason series is slated to commence. From the front office through the final roster players on the bench, this team embraces the challenge of taking on one of the NBA’s toughest closing schedules while being the youngest squad in the league.

Zach Kleiman, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations, believes Memphis is a team in transition. After opening the season flying beneath the league’s radar, the Grizzlies have become one of the NBA’s best stories. Boasting a roster with an average age of 24, anchored by 20-year-olds Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis is growing up fast.

“I think the secret’s out on the Grizzlies at this point,” Kleiman said in summarizing the state of the team on the heels of last week’s trade deadline. “I don’t think we are going to be able to sneak up on anyone the rest of the way. Just watching them night in and night out, these guys really like playing with each other. This group has already exceeded expectations many had. We are excited with where we are at this point.”

The Grizzlies are working to incorporate three new additions to the mix, with forwards Justise Winslow, Jordan Bell and Gorgui Dieng acquired in separate trade deadline deals last week. All three players went through their first practice session together with the team on Tuesday.

Winslow, the centerpiece among the acquisitions, remains sidelined by a back injury that’s limited the versatile, 23-year-old forward to just 11 games this season in Miami. His best game, however, came in the season-opening win over the Grizzlies when Winslow finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 37 minutes.

Justise Winslow talking with Ja Morant

Although neither the Grizzlies nor Winslow would set a specific timeframe on a return, both are confident he will suit up and contribute for Memphis this season. Kleiman said the injury is not a structural, long-term issue and that Winslow is already working with the Grizzlies medical and training team on a return-to-performance regimen.

Winslow declined to pinpoint the extent of the injury or how long the back issue has lingered.

“But it’s been an ongoing thing this season, and that’s the bottom line,” Winslow said. “I’m sure the Miami Heat did everything they thought was right to try to help me. Things didn’t work out. I’m here now. I wish I could tell you a date I’m expected to be back. But there isn’t one. It’s just one day at a time. I’m just grinding every day, getting acclimated to the new system. But you’ll see me this year, for sure.”

With Winslow in tow, the Grizzlies boast a potential rotation that would include four players taken in the top 10 of the NBA Draft lottery over the past five years. Winslow was the 10th pick in 2015 by Miami, swingman Josh Jackson was selected fourth in 2017 by Phoenix, Jaren Jackson Jr. went fourth to Memphis in 2018 and Morant was the No. 2 overall pick last June.

That gives the Grizzlies some intriguing options to develop now and into the immediate future. The roster also has starting center Jonas Valanciunas and reserve point guard Tyus Jones under contract for two more seasons. And the front office will prioritize re-signing backup guard De’Anthony Melton as part of a young core that includes rookie forward pick Brandon Clarke.

“We realize this group is going to be special,” Kleiman assured. “We’re building something. Guys are going to want to come to Memphis, to be a part of this team.”

That chemistry and youthful vibe are contagious. Newcomers are already fitting in.

At age 30, Dieng is the oldest player on the roster. After being with the team for two days, he said he felt as welcomed as if he’d been with the Grizzlies for a decade. The 6-10 defensive-minded big man had an immediate impact in his Grizzlies debut on Wednesday, contributing seven points, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in 13 minutes off the bench. Dieng’s direct help defense on traps forced three Blazers turnovers, and he was a plus-12 in his 13 minutes.

Dieng was acquired to add rebounding, rim protection and three-point shooting to a suddenly deep frontline alongside Valanciunas, Jackson, Clarke and Bell.

Gorgui Dieng drives against Portland

“Watching them in film, watching them win in Washington, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Dieng said of the Grizzlies’ camaraderie before he played his first game with them. “You can tell they’re very close to each other. And that’s what I’m all about. I care more about my teammates than myself. I’ll sync in right away. I feel like I’ve been here for 10 years.”

And speaking of syncing in right away, the outside world would have never gotten an inside glimpse of the team’s reaction of Morant’s feat to open the week had it not been for Bell’s timely camera work. It was Bell who took out his phone and recorded the celebratory scene in the locker room.

The story behind the viral video is as fascinating as what was captured on social media by Bell, who was a rookie on Golden State’s championship team two years ago. He was traded to Minnesota and then Houston before landing in Memphis last week.

While with the Warriors, it was nothing for Bell to see Steph Curry notch a 40-point game or watch Draymond Green post a triple-double.

“Kind of like an everyday thing,” Bell said. “So there was no celebration or water bottles.”

And during Bell’s season in Minnesota, the losses just kept piling up.

“We were kind of struggling, so there wasn’t much to celebrate,” Bell added.

Jordan Bell, Jonas Valanciunas, and Justise Winslow

But there was just a different energy brewing when he joined the Grizzlies in Washington. Because of postgame interview obligations, Morant was the last player to arrive back in the locker room after securing the triple-double against the Wizards with 27 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.

That gave teammates a brief window of time to strategize.

Bell took it all in and reacted quickly.

“I kind of just sat down, and people started passing around the water bottles,” Bell said as the scene unfolded. “And I said, ‘I’m not thirsty, but all right, I appreciate you.’ And they were like, ‘Nah, this is for Ja.’ And I had never done that, so I was like, ‘Cool, I never did this before.’”

Having just joined the team and not having strong ties to players other than college teammate Dillon Brooks, Bell said he didn’t want to “fake it” in terms of enthusiasm. And since reporters hadn’t yet entered the locker room, Bell took the initiative to contribute in a different role.

“Since there was no media there yet, I was like, ‘I’m going to tape this – Ja might want this one day, of us celebrating,’” Bell rationalized. “I threw water on him a little bit and then got out the way with my phone. It’s a memory I wanted him to have, to see how his teammates celebrate him. Just to see it, you would have thought everybody had just gotten that triple-double.”

Considering how the Grizzlies soak up every moment together this season, they all did.

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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.