MikeCheck: Hustle riding big-shot momentum into second round of NBA G League playoffs against Rio Grande Valley
With an airline boarding announcement blaring over the intercom in the background, Jay-R Strowbridge raised his voice as he explained which task presented the biggest challenge.
A night earlier, the journeyman guard nailed the game winning three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left to lift the Memphis Hustle to their first NBA G League playoff victory in franchise history. And now, Strowbridge was with his teammates on a commercial flight, pushing through a travel day that started at 5 a.m. the next morning, to take them from northern California to southwestern Texas.
Jay-R Strowbridge #5 of the Memphis Hustle celebrates a three point basket against the Stockton Kings during the NBA G League Playoffs on March 27, 2019 at the Stockton Arena in Stockton, CA. Photo by Rocky Widner via Getty Images.
It’s the survive-and-advance nature of the G League postseason, which continues Friday night when the Hustle (28-22) face the top-seeded Rio Grande Valley Vipers (34-16) in a second-round single elimination game. The winner advances to the Western Conference finals next week. The Hustle, who won five of their final seven regular season games to make the playoffs, now seek their second upset in three days.
“Without a doubt, we believe we can keep this going,” said Strowbridge, whose only points Wednesday came on the shot that beat the Stockton Kings. “We know we’ve got shooters. We’ve got guys who can get downhill. We’ve got screeners. And if everybody plays well, plays to their skill set and lock up on the defensive end, we’re going to continue to keep going. Our mind is to go into (Friday’s) game swinging.”
The Hustle will also have something else they lacked in their first-round upset victory: Reinforcements. Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff confirmed after Friday’s practice that point guard Jevon Carter and swingman Julian Washburn were assigned to the Hustle for Friday’s game and would then rejoin the Grizzlies on Saturday in Phoenix, where they open a four-game trip against the Suns.
The Hustle will also have the support of fans cheering them on from Southaven, where the organization is hosting a Hustle Budweiser Watch Party at Buffalo Wild Wings. The game starts at 7 p.m., and fans who attend will receive a Hustle Playoff Rally Towel and get treated to happy hour pricing as the playoff matchup’s Facebook feed is broadcast on several TVs around the bar.
We know we’ve got shooters. We’ve got guys who can get downhill. We’ve got screeners. And if everybody plays well, plays to their skill set and lock up on the defensive end, we’re going to continue to keep going. Our mind is to go into (Friday’s) game swinging.Jay-R Strowbridge
A similar fan experience gathered inside the Bud Light Lounge at FedExForum after the Grizzlies’ game against the Warriors on Wednesday to watch the Hustle’s roller coaster performance against the Kings. The Hustle were ahead by 18 points midway through the fourth quarter before Stockton rallied with a 22-2 run to take the lead. The Hustle ultimately had possession in the final seconds of a tied game when coach Brad Jones drew up a set for Grizzlies Two-Way player Yuta Watanabe to drive to the basket.
Strowbridge was actually the fourth option on the play.
Jay-R Strowbridge #5 of the Memphis Hustle celebrates with teammate Yuta Watanabe #12 against the Stockton Kings during the NBA G League Playoffs on March 27, 2019 at the Stockton Arena in Stockton, CA. Photo by Rocky Widner via Getty Images.
“So Yuta tried to penetrate, and then he kicked it to Markel Crawford, who passed it to Kyle Casey,” Strowbridge said of the teamwork involved in the play that won the game. “Kyle saw my defender sink in off me, so he passed it to me in the corner. My only focus was to try to catch the ball and lock in on the rim. And after that, it just went to muscle memory.”
Strowbridge confessed it was the biggest shot he’s made in a career that has seen the 31-year-old vet play for three different teams in college before stints with minor league pro teams across the globe.
“That’s definitely number one, without a doubt,” Strowbridge said of where he ranks the shot. “I hit a few big shots. But to be on the road in the G League playoffs, just knowing how the season started, and to come through the trials to be on this team and this group of guys, that was definitely number one.”
Jones insists his team has been resilient throughout the season, and has gained confidence despite coping with attrition and injuries along the way. The Hustle just might be peaking at the right time.
“We’ve had quite a roster change over the past week – a couple of the Grizzlies guys haven’t been with us the last couple of games,” Jones said. “To our guys’ credit, they were able to figure it out as the game went along. Instead of folding their tents, they regrouped like they’ve done all year long and made plays down the stretch. We’re a fun group like that.”
To be on the road in the G League playoffs, just knowing how the season started, and to come through the trials to be on this team and this group of guys, that was definitely number one.Jay-R Strowbridge
The plan is to continue to play free of pressure and have fun. That’s what underdogs tend to do, and the Hustle have thrived in that role in recent weeks. They’ve also split the four-game regular season series with the Vipers, with both teams winning the home games.
“We’re just trying to stay true to who we are and control what we can,” Strowbridge said. “I’m looking forward to it, because Rio Grande Valley was the first team I played with my rookie year. They gave me the opportunity. So I’m definitely looking forward to it, going back again.”
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