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MikeCheck: On solid ground at All-Star break, Grizzlies seek their stride in season’s stretch run

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Summing up the Grizzlies progress through the first half of a turbulent and complex NBA season is a rather simple task.

Here’s the short of it: They haven’t lost any ground, yet they’ve gained plenty of perspective.

Despite facing one of the NBA’s most difficult early schedules, a health-and-safety protocol pause that parked them for almost two weeks and players having missed nearly 150 combined games to injury recovery, there’s another encouraging and enduring truth for Memphis.

The Grizzlies are well positioned to keep building toward a second-half breakthrough. A team that has already withstood a full season worth of adversity will return from the break staring at the most demanding closing stretch in the league: 40 games in a span of 68 days.

But the goals remain intact amid that gauntlet of scheduled games.

With a lot of different things that have been thrown our way, I think our resiliency, our togetherness, our positivity throughout all of this has been unbelievable. It’s good to fill our cups back up, get a little break from basketball, clear our minds. But then come back . . . keep riding the momentum and find ways to get better the next few months.

Taylor Jenkins

With a 16-16 record, the Grizzlies are currently positioned to qualify in the Western Conference for the NBA’s expanded 10-team play-in/playoff field. And barring any developments or setbacks, star power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is projected to make his season debut in the coming weeks after recovering from last summer’s knee surgery.

So, yes, the Grizzlies appear finally headed for wholeness. But first, this five-day, All-Star break is a chance to rest and regroup before returning to resume the relentless grind next week.

“When you head into the break, just take a minute to think about what we’ve accomplished in the first 32 games,” coach Taylor Jenkins told the team after Thursday’s game. “With a lot of different things that have been thrown our way, I think our resiliency, our togetherness, our positivity throughout all of this has been unbelievable. It’s good to fill our cups back up, get a little break from basketball, clear our minds. But then come back . . . keep riding the momentum and find ways to get better the next few months.”

Aside from Jackson’s presence, the only element missing from the first half of the season for the Grizzlies has been consistency. Their .500 record basically underscores the up-and-down nature of the season so far.

Chris Paul and Ja Morant
MEMPHIS, TN - FEBRUARY 20: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies plays defense during the game against Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Case in point: A season-best, seven-game win streak with wins over league frontrunners Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Antonio was directly followed by a season-long, four-game skid that saw the Grizzlies’ defensive rating dip from second to 17th in the NBA in that span.

Overall, Memphis has seven victories this season over teams with better records but also posted seven losses to teams currently with worse records than it has in the standings.

But breaking even at the break is a testament to a team that has found a way to adapt to constantly evolving circumstances. The Grizzlies have used 10 different starting lineups this season as Jenkins has had to mix and match combinations. But a positive from that is the Grizzlies have a stronger bench, and have had 11 different leading scorers in games this season.

Multiple franchise records have been set, and several players are on pace for career seasons.

That trend continued in Thursday’s one-point loss to the Bucks, when Ja Morant became the first player in franchise history to score at least 35 points in consecutive games. The Grizzlies started the week by setting another franchise record with 85 bench points on the way to a 49-point win at Houston, which was also the most lopsided victory margin in team history.

I feel like as long as we continue to play like that each and every night for 48 minutes, we'll win a lot of basketball games. Each and every night, I got confidence we're going to win the basketball game.

Ja Morant

“We have so many guys that can play, who can be on the court to give us a chance to win,” second-year forward Brandon Clarke said. “It’s a challenge the coaches have, but as players we just love playing together. There are so many rotations that can be put out there at any time. It’s kind of cool to play with different guys and see who finishes games against certain teams.”

The break arrives just as the Grizzlies were gaining some semblance of continuity.

Small forward Justise Winslow has played six of the past seven games since making his long-awaited Grizzlies debut late last month. Winslow has averaged 10 points, five rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes as he works off the rust from 13 months of rehab from back and hip injuries. His 20-point game, which included two blocks, on Feb. 28 against Houston offered a hint of the two-way versatility the 6-foot-6 swingman brings to the rotation moving forward.

And Grayson Allen could be ready to return next week after missing the past three games under the NBA’s concussion protocol. Allen took an inadvertent shot to the face while defending Paul George during a Feb. 26 loss to the Clippers. Other than Jackson, Allen had been the lone other primary roster player listed on the Grizzlies injury report as the first-half schedule closed.

Morant pointed to how the Grizzlies rallied from an 18-point deficit to take the lead in the final seconds of Thursday’s game against the Bucks as an example of his team’s toughness. No matter what the Grizzlies have faced, they’ve found a way to fight back and respond.

Now, it’s about finding the strength to finish.

“We were down, came out in the second half playing very hard and how we need to play and (put ourselves) in a position to win the game,” Morant said. “I feel like as long as we continue to play like that each and every night for 48 minutes, we'll win a lot of basketball games. Each and every night, I got confidence we're going to win the basketball game.”

The formula won’t change when the Grizzlies return to action.

They intend to build on a defense that ranks at or near the top of the league in steals, deflections and points scored off turnovers. And count on the pieces to continue to fall in place with an offense that tops the in NBA points in the paint, assists and second-chance scoring.

“It’s not all about the wins and losses as much as it’s about how hard you’re playing, how well you’re playing,” Jenkins said of the budding chemistry. “I think we’ve done that. It’s allowed these guys to find ways to get better and remain competitive every single night.”

That blueprint allowed the Grizzlies to break even at the break.

And in many ways, this squad is only getting started.

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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