MikeCheck: Through 20 games, Grizzlies grinding through adversity in search of their groove
MEMPHIS – Typically, this is the point in the NBA schedule when a team starts to gain an adequate grasp of what it has, where it’s headed and what’s needed to help it get there.
But this is hardly a typical NBA season.
So the traditional norms associated with reaching the 20-game mark of the schedule don’t necessarily apply amid the numerous challenges and changes that have defined the league’s first two months of this season.
All things considered, the Grizzlies arrive at this juncture of the schedule in decent shape, though hardly healthy overall. At 10-10, they’ve essentially treaded some choppy waters to carry a .500 record into this weekend’s two-game trip to California, where they face the defending champion Lakers on Friday and the Kings on Sunday.
Along the way, coach Taylor Jenkins has navigated the NBA’s second-youngest playing rotation through the high tides of a seven-game winning streak followed by a four-game losing skid that ended with Wednesday’s record-setting home victory over the Hornets.
You just keep trusting it. I told the guys that this is (about) staying the course after some hard times. It happens in the NBA season, but we’ve had a great spirit. That’s one thing we talk about at length – your spirit’s got to be there whether you’re winning or losing. You’ve got to stay the course.
So how should these Grizzlies assess themselves with nearly a third of the truncated, 72-game season behind them? Encouragingly incomplete.
“We’re built the right way,” Jenkins said of his team’s resilience. “You just keep trusting it. I told the guys that this is (about) staying the course after some hard times. It happens in the NBA season, but we’ve had a great spirit. That’s one thing we talk about at length – your spirit’s got to be there whether you’re winning or losing. You’ve got to stay the course.”
The course through their first 20 games has required the Grizzlies to adapt to some level of adversity on almost a nightly basis. That treacherous terrain continues this weekend as the team is forced to adjust to another lineup shift.
Rookie sharpshooter Desmond Bane is expected to miss both games of the trip for what the team listed as personal reasons. Bane referenced the recent death of his grandmother on his social media posts this week. Averaging 10.3 points on 48.2-percent shooting from three-point range (fifth-best in NBA), Bane was elevated to the starting shooting guard spot this week and was coming off a season-best, 18-point effort in Wednesday’s game against Charlotte.
Jenkins will reshuffle his opening lineup yet again for a team that has already used seven different starting units through the first 20 games. The Grizzlies also continue to be without their two most energetic and athletic defenders in power forward Brandon Clarke (calf) and combo guard De’Anthony Melton (shoulder) because of nagging injuries that have kept them out of the past few contests. Both are considered day-to-day but will miss a third straight game.
In addition to the season-long absences of expected starters Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee surgery rehab) and Justise Winslow (hip displacement rehab), the Memphis roster entered the weekend with players collectively missing 98 total games to injuries this season.
Yet, the Grizzlies keep finding a way to grind forward.
On Wednesday, that meant capitalizing on a scintillating shooting performance in which the Grizzlies knocked down a franchise-record 23 shots from three-point range on the way to scoring 130 points. In that game, Memphis also matched its season high of 19 offensive rebounds and 26 second-chance points.
Five different players made at least three shots from beyond the arc, and six players recorded at least three assists on a night when the Grizzlies finished with 34 of them. And for two straight games, Memphis produced a 70-point outburst in the first half to set the tone.
Carrying those tendencies and that rhythm to California will be essential, with the Grizzlies now down to nine available players in the midst of eight games over a span of 13 days.
“We have a very unselfish group,” said point guard and All-Star candidate Ja Morant. “We pass up a good shot for a great shot. We were able to get back to it and share the ball. But it’s also learning from the film, the extra passes we had open in previous games, we made them (Wednesday) and guys knocked down shots.”
We (haven’t) put all 48 minutes together yet, but that’s what we’re working towards every day until eventually we’re a 48-minute team. But we’re headed in the right direction.
Morant’s playmaking wizardry landed him on the NBA cover page of ESPN’s website Friday morning, with esteemed analyst Zach Lowe featuring the Grizzlies’ catalyst in his weekly column. Even in victory, Morant’s focus remained on digging himself out of a relative shooting slump. Moments after the game against Charlotte, Morant returned to the FedExForum court, removed his shirt and began putting up extra shots in a workout with trainers and assistants.
That level of accountability and leadership serves the Grizzlies well as they push forward in the face of adversity. They’ve posted a .500 record in a stretch defined by injury recoveries, COVID-19 safety protocols and one of the NBA’s five-toughest schedules to open the season.
“We’re just trying to make that stride,” said veteran forward Kyle Anderson, who has already set his single-game and single-season highs for made three-pointers just 20 games into the schedule. “We (haven’t) put all 48 minutes together yet, but that’s what we’re working towards every day until eventually we’re a 48-minute team. But we’re headed in the right direction.”
Things could have easily fallen apart as the Grizzlies endured such early season trauma, especially for a team that still hasn’t quite yet put all of its key pieces together.
But they’ve remained strong enough to break even.
Through 20 games, that’s an accomplishment in itself during a season like this.
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