MikeCheck: Role players embrace call to action as shorthanded Grizzlies embark on season’s longest trip
CHICAGO – Ten days, four games and three different time zones.
It equates to the longest road trip of the season for the Grizzlies, who embark on that journey just as their shorthanded roster settles into the most grueling month of the schedule. But what most would see as a dauntingly stacked deck against them – replete with nine road games and four back-to-back sets in December – there’s a reassuring veteran leader on the team who sees something quite different.
Solomon Hill was one of the last players on the squad to secure a roster spot coming out of training camp a few months back. But now count Hill clearly among the first to step up and set the record straight about the opportunity afforded this group of Grizzlies.
They may be undermanned.
But overwhelmed? Nah.
“We’ve got a job to do; period, point blank!” Hill declared. “These are the positions that everybody asks for when you come into the NBA. But these are the nights when you have to go out and make a decision on who you want to be. Do you want to be a guy who just wants to be part of something that’s easy? Or do you want to go out there, do the dirty work to lay a foundation and make something happen?”
That’s essentially the choice facing the Grizzlies (6-14) a quarter of the way through the season. And they hope to discover some answers along the way on a trek that opens Wednesday in Chicago and continues Saturday at Utah and Monday at Golden State before wrapping up Wednesday in Phoenix.
The Grizzlies are a bit short on available bodies, but there’s no lack of competitive heart and fortitude. Memphis has pressed forward without two regular starters and a total of four key rotation players the past two games, including three of their top five scorers and two of their top three rebounders.
These are the positions that everybody asks for when you come into the NBA. But these are the nights when you have to go out and make a decision on who you want to be. Do you want to be a guy who just wants to be part of something that’s easy? Or do you want to go out there, do the dirty work to lay a foundation and make something happen?Solomon Hill
Juggling the ups and downs of the season will keep their hands full on this trip, with reigning Western Conference Rookie of the Month Ja Morant set to miss his third straight game with back soreness. In addition, the Grizzlies announced before traveling to Chicago on Tuesday that fellow rookie Brandon Clarke will miss his second consecutive game with lingering oblique soreness.
Both Morant and Clarke are considered “week-to-week” by the team, but both made the trip and are expected to undergo treatment and conditioning with the training and medical staffs as they recover. The Grizzlies have also been without veterans in starting center Jonas Valanciunas and reserve forward Kyle Anderson the past two games because of an illness and heel soreness, respectively.
Valanciunas and Anderson were listed as questionable entering the trip, with their status expected to be updated closer to the start of Wednesday night’s game. Regardless of the injury report, the Grizzlies have been encouraged by the production of those who have recently stepped in to fill some of the void.
They are confident that will continue to be the case on the trip.
“What I love is that the guys, as soon as we broke the huddle in the locker room, they said, ‘Stay together. We’re about to hit the road. Road mentality,’” coach Taylor Jenkins said as the Grizzlies looked ahead after Monday’s home loss to Indiana. “Something about going on the road – it’s the world against you. It’s a great opportunity for us to go out. We’ve actually played pretty well on the road. We’ve got to find a way to keep establishing our identity. We just have to do it together. Now, you’ve got to test it when you go on the road where the cards might be stacked against you, adversity, all that stuff. I think our guys have actually embraced those moments, and I think we’ll gain a lot in the next 10 days.”
The mission is to build toward a breakthrough until healthy reinforcements arrive.
A clear focal point of the offense the past few games, power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. aims to build on the second 30-point game of his career after he scored a season-high 31 points in Monday’s loss. Persistent foul trouble has been a hindrance for Jackson throughout the season, but he’s also averaged 19.5 points on 40 percent shooting from three-point range in his last six games.
Something about going on the road – it’s the world against you. It’s a great opportunity for us to go out. We’ve actually played pretty well on the road. We’ve got to find a way to keep establishing our identity. We just have to do it together. Now, you’ve got to test it when you go on the road where the cards might be stacked against you, adversity, all that stuff. I think our guys have actually embraced those moments, and I think we’ll gain a lot in the next 10 days.Taylor Jenkins
It’s been Jackson and guard Dillon Brooks who have provided much of the scoring punch in recent games as the team has coped with frontline injuries. Jackson knows his leadership and consistent presence are vital, especially while facing some of the team’s current roster challenges.
Although his touches have increased in the absences of Morant and Valanciunas, Jackson likes the balance he’s seen as others have picked up the slack. He pointed to Sunday’s 115-107 stunning win in Minnesota, where the Grizzlies had seven players score in double figures to end a six-game losing streak.
“Everybody has to come in and have each other’s back, especially when we have a lot of guys down,” Jackson said. “So, what everybody is doing, we just have to increase that. Boost their roles a little bit. People might have different roles at different times, but whoever is in the flow, we’ll find you.”
What Jenkins found each time he looked down the bench was a player ready to step up and deliver. The Grizzlies were without their starting point guard and center in Minnesota the other night. No problem. They ended that game with third-string point guard De’Anthony Melton flirting with a triple-double and third-string center Bruno Caboclo registering a career-high 13 rebounds.
The mindset is one game can turn into two, two can turn into five and five can turn into 10. You never know. It’s a long season. We’ve got 82 games, so don’t get discouraged in the beginning, because it’s going to keep flowing.De'Anthony Melton
Melton has averaged 12.5 points, eight rebounds, six assists and a steal in 24 minutes over his last two games. He was ready for his opportunity and might maintain a rotation spot as the Grizzlies get healthy. Acquired in last summer’s trade with Phoenix, Melton learned the virtues of “always staying ready, no matter what” from former Suns teammates and career reserves Troy Daniels and Jamal Crawford.
“That’s all they preached to me – it was stay ready, because you never really know,” said Melton, who has shared the point guard duties with Tyus Jones while Morant has been out. “The mindset is one game can turn into two, two can turn into five and five can turn into 10. You never know. It’s a long season. We’ve got 82 games, so don’t get discouraged in the beginning, because it’s going to keep flowing.”
I think we’ve been playing harder and a lot smarter, within ourselves and within the system. So we’ve got to carry that on the road.Jaren Jackson Jr.
Morant’s absence has created increased roles for Melton and Grayson Allen. At the forward spots, the ailments limiting Anderson and Clarke have opened up more playing time for Hill and Marko Guduric. And Caboclo has provided a spark in the power rotation after sitting idle for much of the season.
The Grizzlies are trying to make the best of a tough situation – and an even harder schedule.
This road trip comes after the Grizzlies endured the NBA’s second-toughest schedule through their first 20 games, with their opponents combining for a .538 winning percentage. Sixteen of those games were against teams that entered the week positioned to make the playoffs.
“Now, it’s just build on what we’ve been doing,” Jackson said as the Grizzlies lead the NBA in points in the paint and rank fifth in three-point shooting over the past month. “I think we’ve been playing harder and a lot smarter, within ourselves and within the system. So we’ve got to carry that on the road.”
Even in the face of some nagging aches and pains, there have been flashes of progress.
“These are building blocks,” Hill insisted. “A little bit of adversity has given guys an opportunity. We want to keep those guys going. It’s one thing to tell guys to be ready, then they never get out there. But it’s another thing when they get an opportunity out there to play. The fruits of their labor is paying off.”
This trip is destined for the Grizzlies to take small steps on the road to recovery and growth.
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