MikeCheck: Grizzlies doing ‘everything in their power’ to shake off rust, rev up for Orlando trip
MEMPHIS – The travel itinerary is set, practice plans are in place and the priorities are clear for the Grizzlies as they depart to Orlando this week to prepare for the NBA’s restart.
After a few weeks of individual player workouts and initial health testing, the Grizzlies remain on track to travel Wednesday with their full roster of 17 players and their entire coaching staff.
Over the weekend, the NBA released scrimmage schedules for the 22-team Disney field, with the Grizzlies set to face the Sixers (July 24), Rockets (July 26) and Heat (July 28) in tune-ups.
After four months of relative inactivity, the Grizzlies are a step closer to picking up where they left off when the NBA season was suspended March 11 amid the global Coronavirus outbreak. Once they arrive on Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, the Grizzlies will have two weeks of practices and the three scrimmages to prepare for their July 31 restart opener against Portland.
“When we do get to Orlando, yes there’ll be some rust we naturally have to shake off,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of his team’s quest to regain chemistry as quickly as possible. “But they’ve done everything in their power, given the circumstances, both in the weight room and on the court, to really push themselves. They know the challenges they have to overcome. We’ve got a couple of days left, then we’ll ship off to Orlando and take it up another level.”
Coming out healthy is huge. But our big message to the team is to go out there and compete, play together and get back to that high standard of basketball we had been playing.
The Grizzlies (32-33) will carry with them a 3 ½-games lead for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race. They’ll play eight “seeding games” for the chance to secure that position outright and reach the NBA postseason for the first time in three years.
And they’ll go against plenty of familiar faces along the way. The Southwest stands alone as the NBA’s only division in which all five teams are represented in the Disney restart. Houston and Dallas are essentially locks to advance to the 16-team playoffs. Memphis holds the inside track on the eighth seed, with New Orleans and San Antonio each trying to catch the Grizzlies or remain within four games of them in the standings to force a potential play-in series.
“We really have to test ourselves in the scrimmages against the Sixers, Rockets and Heat... three great opponents to get us ready for our eight seeding games,” Jenkins said. “Coming out healthy is huge. But our big message to the team is to go out there and compete, play together and get back to that high standard of basketball we had been playing.”
There is no shortage of initial storylines heading to Orlando, where nearly a quarter of the field is comprised of arguably the NBA’s most dynamic division. Our Southwest Roundtable series continues as division Insiders examine some top team priorities once they regroup in Orlando.
What does your team aim to accomplish during the seeding games? And what’s the overall goal?
The Grizzlies finally get to integrate Justise Winslow into the system. Winslow was limited to just 11 games this season because of a back injury that kept him sidelined after he was acquired at the February trade deadline. The versatile forward was on the verge of making his debut March 12 at Portland, but the NBA suspended the season the previous night.
On top of that, fighting to maintain a playoff spot and potentially advancing to the first round will make every game Memphis plays in Orlando feel like something major is at stake. The Grizzlies didn’t put themselves in this advantageous position by fluke.
The goals are pretty simple and clear: Clinch a playoff spot ASAP and try to re-establish rhythm and cohesion under these unusual circumstances before the playoffs start. Stay healthy of course and that means the typical injuries any NBA player faces and, obviously, avoid COVID-19. Moving up in the standings would be a plus.
The Western Conference is so tough (again) but the Lakers and Clippers seem to be a level above the competition (as the top two seeds). I just want the Mavs back in the playoffs after missing the previous three seasons, but ideally you would like to avoid those teams.
The Rockets see these eight seeding games as a chance to potentially move up the standings. If they win and get a little help, they could go from a No. 6 seed to as high as a No. 3. Utah, with Bojan Bogdanovic sidelined by injury, seems the most vulnerable (to drop down in the standings). And we also don’t know how the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert relationship will play out on the court in Orlando.
From Day 1, David Griffin stated that a primary goal for ’19-20 was for a mostly inexperienced New Orleans team to get the chance to play in meaningful games, whether that was in the race for a postseason berth, or actually competing in the playoffs. These eight contests will be the most pressure-filled NBA games that early-career starters Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson will have played so far.
The most realistic goal is to earn the No. 9 seed and a spot in the play-in round. Overtaking Memphis at No. 8 also should be on the radar, but only if New Orleans can make some early progress in reducing a 3 1/2-games deficit. Other than fans of Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix, who wouldn’t want to see a Pelicans-Grizzlies play-in, featuring the NBA’s two most exciting rookies?
What impact, if any, did the extended hiatus have on your team’s health?
Few teams have actually benefited from the hiatus as much as the Grizzlies. At the time the season was suspended in March, Memphis was down four rotation players because of injuries to Winslow (back), Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee), Brandon Clarke (quad) and Grayson Allen (hip).
Winslow, Jackson and Clarke overcame varying injuries during the break and will be ready to go when 5-on-5 workouts ramp up in Orlando. Allen’s status remains in question. The challenge now is to fit all of the pieces together again. Assuming health, coach Taylor Jenkins could easily go 12-deep in a rotation anchored by Jackson, Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas.
The best news is Luka Doncic was really banged up from a heavy workload and nagging thumb and ankle issues. So those are much better now. Unfortunately, Dwight Powell (Achilles) and Jalen Brunson (labrum) are still out with injuries suffered in January and February, respectively.
Courtney Lee also suffered a bad calf injury during the hiatus and will be out. That is most unfortunate because he had carved out a spot in the rotation in late February and early March, providing solid 3-and-D minutes. He's a very well-liked and respected veteran voice in the locker room who will be missed on the floor.
Houston indirectly has benefited from the time away. James Harden and Eric Gordon look leaner in social media posts. P.J. Tucker, who’s always in the top 10 of the league in minutes played, is totally refreshed. Russell Westbrook has remained healthy most of the season. Not playing back-to-back games has had a positive effect on his play since the turn of the calendar.
New Orleans was actually far healthier by mid-March than it had been early in the season, when two frontcourt starters (Williamson and Derrick Favors) were sidelined for lengthy stretches. Shooting guard JJ Redick and combo forward Kenrich Williams were close to returning to action when the NBA suspended play on March 11, so it was a plus that neither had to miss any additional games.
Due to ongoing injury/rehab efforts, Williamson and Williams were granted exemptions to continue working out in the team’s practice facility during the hiatus. A key reserve on the 2018 playoff team, Darius Miller is now 10 months removed from an Achilles injury. By all indications, he’s focused on preparing for ’20-21.
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