MIAMI – This time a month ago, the notion of watching the NBA playoffs after their team was eliminated in the first round was almost too much to comprehend for the Grizzlies.
The pain was still fresh from that six-game series loss to the Lakers. Emotions were still raw from faltering so fast in the postseason despite being the West’s No. 2 seed.
The disappointment, at the time, clouded the view of a bigger picture that revealed what the relatively young Grizzlies still must learn about playoff success.
“It’s always hard, but I’m sure I’ll be able to pull myself up to watch a game or two, here and there,” Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane had said. “At this point, it’s about us reflecting on the season we had and what we can do to get better. But it’s also important to learn from others.”
Turns out, there are no bigger students of these NBA Finals games than some key members of the Grizzlies.
Watch closely enough, and the Grizzlies should see some familiar characteristics they share with the teams locked in an intriguing battle for the NBA title. After splitting the Nuggets and Heat split the first two games in Denver, the Finals shift to Miami for games Wednesday and Friday.
In just the past week, Bane attended Game 2 in Denver to take in the Finals. And earlier this week, Grizzlies forward and NBA Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. shared insightful thoughts on the Nuggets and Heat in an appearance on NBA star Paul George’s Podcast P Show.
Jackson described the bittersweet taste he carries from being a spectator at this point in the postseason. More importantly, he charted the steps the Grizzlies must take in their maturation to learn from shortcomings and to reach their goal of claiming their own spot in the NBA Finals.
“I think getting humbled was the best thing for us,” Jackson said on George’s podcast. “We got leveled (in the first round). We’ve got to sit at home with that all summer. We were done (before) May. You’re like, ‘Damn, I’m watching the other games, really not happy, just tripping.’ It’s going to be the best thing for us. We’re going to come back, going to have that edge. We’re going to remember that all the way to (next season’s) playoffs, and we’re going to get it done.”
The realness, rawness and reflection that Bane and Jackson are displaying offer encouraging signs that the Grizzlies are taking the right mindset into the offseason as they chart next steps.
As the Finals play out, the Grizzlies still face plenty of questions that must be resolved before regrouping for next season. The status of suspended star point guard Ja Morant is expected to be further clarified after the Finals, with the league preparing to announce disciplinary action against the Grizzlies’ catalyst for flashing a gun on social media for a second time since March.
The Grizzlies are also preparing for the June 22 NBA Draft, currently holding the No. 25 pick in the first round in addition to two second-round selections. Key decisions on potential trades and the July start of free agency also loom over a franchise that finished the regular season second in the West the past two seasons and posted the NBA’s best home record (35-6) this season.
Beyond that, Grizzlies assistant Darko Rajakovic has reportedly emerged among three potential finalists for the Toronto Raptors head coaching position. So on multiple levels, the Grizzlies are both paying attention and receiving quite a bit of it as the NBA Finals unfold on the global stage.
They also hold a unique perspective on the two teams vying for a championship. The Grizzlies went a combined 2-3 in their five regular-season matchups with the Nuggets and Heat, with four of those games decided by double-figure margins.
As the Grizzlies learn what’s required to get to title contention, they can take solace in both the Nuggets and Heat viewing games against Memphis as pivotal points in their respective seasons.
The Grizzlies remained in striking distance of catching Denver for the best record in the West for much of the season before the Nuggets clinched the No. 1 seed in the final week. In their head-to-head matchups, the home team won each of the three regular-season games.
But Nuggets coach Mike Malone often reflects on a turning point in his team’s season that included a 112-94 setback on Feb. 25 at FedExForum. A Denver team that led the NBA in field-goal percentage and 3-point shooting percentage was completely throttled by the Grizzlies.
In that game, Memphis held Denver to its lowest scoring total of the season and led by as many as 35 points, which also represented the Nuggets largest deficit of a breakout campaign. As the Grizzlies were flexing their defensive potential as a top-three unit in the NBA, Malone was questioning the mindset of a Nuggets team he believed needed a wake-up call.
“They came in and just put it on us,” Malone said of the February game against the Grizzlies. “I felt there was a stretch where they were into it more, they were playing harder. I told our guys, ‘We’ve beaten this team once, we’re in first place, they’re in second place. Whoever gets that second win is going to own this series, which I assume will be pretty big down the stretch.”
A week later, the Nuggets secured the season series with a 115-97 win in Denver. Beating the Nuggets at home is one of the most difficult tasks in the league, according to Jackson. But becoming a better road team overall is one of the biggest challenges the Grizzlies face after posting a 16-25 record away from FedExForum this season.
Continuity has been a key component in Denver finally reaching the Finals for the first time in franchise history, a quest the Grizzlies are also ultimately pursuing.
The Nuggets persevered through major injuries that shut down Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) for extended stretches the previous three seasons. But Denver remained steadfast through injury setbacks, Malone’s stewardship and Nikola Jokic’s development from a second-round pick to a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
That seven-year journey has paid off with a breakthrough season and run to the Finals. This Grizzlies core of Jackson, Morant and Bane has only been together for half that time under coach Taylor Jenkins. And the tough but valuable lessons are already sinking in.
“Being young is definitely a good sign for us,” Morant said after his team’s postseason exit. “Obviously, we’ve had some good seasons in the past, been to the playoffs three times. But learning from that, we’ve got to be even more locked in during the playoffs and throughout the season. I feel we’ve got to get back to being the hunters we were the previous seasons.”
Jackson echoed that same sentiment during his guest appearance on the podcast.
“It’s going to make us hungry, like we were three years ago when there was no expectation on anything” Jackson said in the interview. “When everybody’s talking about you, it’s different.”
Yet, with success comes more spotlight. There’s no way to sneak into the NBA Finals.
Teams grind their way there. They find their groove at the right time and rely on their grit to overcome what seems like insurmountable obstacles.
That’s what the Grizzlies are learning from a No. 8-seeded Heat team that is on arguably the most improbable run to a potential title in NBA history.
The Heat and Grizzlies had similar, subpar road records during the regular season. And they both ranked among the top teams in the number of games missed to player injuries, forcing both squads to use more than two dozen different starting lineups.
A short-handed Grizzlies team playing without both Morant and Jackson handed the Heat a 101-93 loss Dec. 5 in Memphis. It was after that game, amid a 11-14 start through Miami’s first 25 games, that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra emphatically demanded more from his team.
“It’s not anywhere we want to be,” Spoelstra said in Memphis of Miami’s lethargic start. “We’ve got a lot of work to do still ahead. We’re not where we want to be – not in the slightest.”
Soon after, Miami won 17 of its next 25 games. When the teams met again in March, the Heat torched the Grizzlies with season-highs of 138 points and 59.8-percent shooting from the field.
The Heat endured by adapting, developing and continuing to grow during the postseason.
They’ve focused less on excuses and more on execution. As a result, Miami dismantled the top-seeded Bucks, the Knicks and the second-seeded Celtics to crash the NBA Finals, relying heavily on undrafted role players around catalysts Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
What both the Heat and Nuggets have over the Grizzlies is experience. They’ve also both forged a battle-tested toughness to push through the playoffs and onto the NBA’s biggest stage. But the Grizzlies should realize they aren’t far away if they correct and address a few areas, which is why watching these Finals is a bittersweet necessity.
That’s especially the case when considering Memphis has a better combined record over the past two seasons (107-57) than both Denver (101-63) and Miami (97-67).
“We all watch a lot of basketball, and when teams try to make their run, they have a certain window,” an astute Jackson surmised on the podcast. “And then, you either break up, maybe it doesn’t work, things change. But you have a window. You have to take advantage of the opportunity. You’ve got to lock in if you’re talented and you’re a young team.”
These NBA Finals are testaments to the Nuggets’ patience and the Heat’s persistence.
It’s also a platform for the Grizzlies to gain valuable perspective along the way.