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Grizzlies refuse to give up hope during Ja Morant's absence

Memphis adopts a 'next man up' mentality as it tries to stay in the playoff chase while their superstar recovers.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Brandon Clarke (15), Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas are holding down the fort for Memphis during Ja Morant’s injury.

Ja Morant hopped one-legged off the Barclays Center court Dec. 28 against the Brooklyn Nets with a Grade 2 sprained ankle.

Just as quickly, hoops pundits all over pounced on the notion that somehow — three games into it — the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2020-21 campaign had disastrously come to an end, after the team announced Morant would miss three-to-five weeks recovering.

“We’re a team where it’s next-man up. Guys are ready,” Memphis guard Dillon Brooks said. “We play hard in practice, training camp. Guys are confident. We endorse confidence and competing. Our front office only gets guys that compete, want to play, and wait for the opportunity and seize it.”

Game 2 of the Grizzlies’ current four-game homestand against the Los Angeles Lakers (5-2) on Tuesday presents yet another moment for Memphis to capitalize on in its fight for survival to advance to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season — and do so without the services of the reigning Kia NBA Rookie of the Year for the next several weeks.

A three-week timeframe for Morant means the earliest he might return to the lineup is Jan. 20, when the Grizzlies face Portland (10 ET, NBA League Pass) in a two-game series on the road. A five-week absence could shelve Morant until early February. Either way, Morant is expected to miss more than 10 games, which is considerable in this shortened 72-game season.

The Grizzlies lost star guard Ja Morant to an ankle injury in late December.

It’s not as if the Grizzlies aren’t accustomed to operating shorthanded.

“I told the guys at the beginning of the season it’s a one-day-at-a-time approach,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Seventy-two games in the regular season is a really long time, and we’re building something just day after day. Being down a few guys, it’s [a] next-man-up mentality. They just relish every opportunity to compete together.”

Memphis came into this season as the second-youngest squad in the NBA (24.3) behind the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Elias Sports Bureau. With Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) and Justise Winslow (hip) unavailable to start the season, the Grizzlies played their first three games with the starting lineup of Grayson Allen, Kyle Anderson, Jonas Valančiūnas, Brooks and Morant.

After Morant’s injury at Brooklyn, Memphis replaced him two days later in the lineup with Tyus Jones. That night, Allen sprained his left ankle in a 126-107 loss at Boston and returned to play 15 minutes in Sunday’s loss to the Lakers. Allen’s absence paved the way for second-year man Brandon Clarke, who set an NBA rookie record among qualified players last season for field goal percentage (.618), to join the starting lineup.

The new starting group of Clarke, Anderson, Brooks, Jones and Valančiūnas helped Memphis dial up 34 assists on 43 made field goals in a 108-93 win at Charlotte on New Year’s Day, as Jones led the team with a season-high 12 dimes.

“It was huge, really,” Clarke said. “When you lose a player that’s like Ja, there’s some teams that really, really struggle afterwards because Ja was such a big part of our team. But we just kind of learned from those first two games [without Morant], and just learned how to play together. I think we had like 34 assists, which is really good. So, that just shows we were able to kind of figure it out and figure out how to play together, and still pass well without having Ja, one of the best passers I the league.”

The learning process continued Sunday in Memphis’ 108-94 loss to the Lakers. The Grizzlies jumped out to a 36-25 lead at the end of the opening frame, but the Lakers limited them to just 58 points over the next three quarters. Memphis started off hot, hitting 7 of 10 from deep, including 6 of 9 in the first quarter alone, as six different players drained 3-pointers. Memphis cooled considerably from long range over the next three quarters, connecting on just 12.5%.

Game recap: Lakers 108, Grizzlies 94

But with 3:42 left to play, the Grizzlies trailed by just five points (95-90), before Los Angeles embarked on a 10-0 run and put the game away on a Kyle Kuzma driving hook shot with 1:27 remaining.

“I’m proud of the way our guys fought,” Jenkins said. “Second and fourth quarter really hurt us, but you know we were neck-and-neck there for a majority of the game. It just came down some plays there in the fourth-quarter. They made some big shots. We could not get some shots to fall. Obviously, their pressure had a lot to do with it. We had some good moments where we made some great plays, just missed some shots. … For the most part, really proud of guys just stepping up.”

Through the growing pains, Memphis continues to flash signs of progress and depth that should prove beneficial down the stretch. After producing 18 points or more on just four occasions over 367 games over his first six NBA seasons, Anderson has racked up 18 points or more in three of the Grizzlies’ first six games.

“Ja makes the game a lot easier for everybody else out there,” Anderson said. “But when we don’t have him, we have to play with the pass, knock down open shots and find our teammates.”

Rookie Desmond Bane has connected on multiple 3-pointers in all six of Memphis’ games, which registers as the second-longest streak to start a career in NBA history, behind Lauri Markkanen’s 10-game streak in 2017.

Bane is also averaging 13 points in his last three outings.

“As I continue to get more comfortable and gain more experience, I’ll get better,” he said. “I think experience is definitely the key right now.”

Valančiūnas, meanwhile, is in the midst of the franchise’s second-longest points/rebounds double-double streak to start a season, behind Zach Randolph’s 11-game tear to start the 2012-13 season.

Jones has dished 17 assists over his three starts in Morant’s place with just two turnovers.

Still, patience will be key for this young Memphis squad navigating the rugged Western Conference while awaiting the return of Morant as well as Jackson and Winslow, who still hasn’t yet played a game for the Grizzlies since joining the team last February.

Tyus Jones has developed as a playmaker during Ja Morant’s absence.

De’Anthony Melton played in the season opener against San Antonio but missed the next four games due to the league’s “health and safety protocols”. Melton was available for Sunday’s game against the Lakers, but Jenkins wanted to take a cautious approach to bringing him back to action.

After the matchup against the Lakers on Tuesday, the Grizzlies host the Cavaliers and Nets before hitting the road for a three-game trip starting at Cleveland and ending with a pair of games against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Next man up,” Jenkins said. “We just have to rely on our depth every single night, just play with competitiveness and unselfishness.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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