Ever since it was announced that the NBA would be restarting its season after its four month long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the more interesting storylines or narratives that has engulfed the mainstream media is not entirely one you would expect.
One of the questions we keep seeing over and over again is who will be the team to overtake the Memphis Grizzlies into the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Will it be Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans or will it be Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers? Could it be that inconceivable to imagine that this Grizzlies team who have proved doubters wrong all season long actually have quite a good chance of nailing down the 8th spot in these final eight games? I don’t think it is. Isn’t it time we stopped underestimating the Grizzlies?
Heading into the restart the Grizzlies held a 3.5 game lead over three teams (this has since changed after the opening weekend) – Portland , New Orleans and Sacramento, with eight games to go. No one could have predicted this at the start of the season, especially with a 35 year old rookie head coach in Taylor Jenkins and the spearhead of this team being a 20- year-old point guard fresh out of Murray State called Ja Morant. How wrong we were.
The fact that the Grizz have managed to put together this season so far with a record of 32-35 is astonishing, particularly when you factor in the age of the core nucleus of this group. Ja Morant was touted as a massive prospect coming out of college last year and to be drafted second overall is no mean feat. When you take into consideration who he was drafted behind and the pressure involved in playing second fiddle to seemingly the new face of the NBA’s brand, Zion Williamson, then what Morant has gone on to achieve in his rookie year is remarkable. He is unquestionably the rookie of the year and I believe anyone who votes differently on this year’s ballot deserves to have their pen and paper taken away from them for the foreseeable future. Such is the landslide victory that this should be considered.
Morant has been scintillating to watch, but he hasn’t done this all on his own. Jaren Jackson Jr had a good start to his NBA career last season, but has taken his game to the next level in his second year. Having the movement of Morant and the spacing he provides on the court has given Jackson the opportunity to flourish on many different levels, particularly with his three point game.
Dillon Brooks ball handling and shooting ability has been key to Memphis’ success this season and when you add to that the experience on the boards and the ability to wreak havoc inside the paint on both ends of the floor in the shape of Jonas Valanciunas then you have a recipe for success.
Memphis have the most points in the paint all season out of all 30 teams in the NBA averaging 56.3 per game. While they are not a particularly good three point shooting team (35.2 percent), this is clearly something they have been working on in Orlando as was evident in the three scrimmages played over the last week. Kyle Anderson has shown his willingness to work during the off season and it was comforting to see him reap the rewards against Miami last Tuesday night as he went 3/4 from deep, all in the first half of the game. If Anderson can continue his progress and become more efficient from the perimeter, then he can add a whole new dimension to this team heading into competitive action.
The Grizzlies bench is interesting as well with the likes of De’Anthony Melton and another player who should be in the conversation for the all-rookie first team – Brandon Clarke coming off the bench to provide serious production value. Clarke’s energetic style of play as well as being an effective scorer make him a nightmare match-up for a lot of teams.
Four Month Layoff
This four month break may have been a bad thing for lots of clubs. Rapport goes out the window, personal reasons for not entering the bubble come in to play but there is a case to be made that despite all the horrendous things that have gone on since the season stopped, the break may benefit Memphis the most. This hiatus has been longer than any normal offseason for these players, meaning the young core will have had additional time to mature physically and mentally. A lot of these rookies can almost treat this as a second season and use the experience gained of league at the start of the season to springboard their chances inside a completely new environment for everyone. It’s a level playing field.
Most coaches involved in the NBA would always rather have veterans in the playoffs, but inside the bubble nobody knows what to expect, youth could have its moment. With no travel involved it means the Grizzlies don’t have to rely on the one or two players in their squad sharing their experience of the strenuous schedule of playing away in a play-off setting in the past, as it is not a factor. This team can play its own way and they don’t strike me as a group who resemble any sort of fear. I think they are going to relish the task.
The team people are talking about at the moment seems to be the Portland Trail Blazers. I’ve listened to numerous podcasts and read a number of articles that have suggested Portland are the biggest danger to the Lakers in the west. I would agree with these sentiments in their entirety, if it wasn’t for the fact they are 2 games behind the 8th seed with a torturous schedule in front of them, and only six games left to salvage their season. The return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back into the frame is massive for their chances and will really give confidence to a devastating back court in CJ and Dame, but my feeling is they have left it just a tad too late. They beat Memphis in their first competitive game on Friday evening in a proper battle that went to overtime. This was followed by an OT loss to Boston on Sunday in which Dame Lillard had an outrageous fourth quarter. This will surely give them confidence to push on. For me this was undoubtedly the game of the opening round, forget your battle of L.A.
The Pelican in the Room
Now to the elephant in the room – the Pelicans. They have been so unfortunate this season. Their new franchise poster boy and perhaps the most athletic draft pick since LeBron or Westbrook goes down in summer league with a meniscus injury that keeps him out for the majority of the season and still somehow they find themselves with a chance of making the play-offs. This is largely due to the fact that Brandon Ingram has been sensational since his trade from L.A. and has to be in contention for most improved player in this years voting. We have seen the best of Lonzo Ball since Zion has returned to the court and their link up on lob/alley oops plays is phenomenal to watch.
If you think things couldn’t have gotten any worse than they already have for Alvin Gentry’s men then you would have been sadly mistaken. Zion had to leave the Disney bubble three weeks ago to deal with some personal family matters which I’m sure we all hope has gone well for him. This however has meant he has taken part in none of the three scrimmages (Pelicans went 3-0) leading up to opening night vs the Utah Jazz so it was a concern that he may be a little rusty. Zion did play 15 minutes on Thursday night but the Pelicans struggled in closing a game out that they dominated for all but a ten minute spell, falling to the Jazz late on. They followed this up with a mauling at the hands of the Clippers on Saturday night.
If the Pelicans are to chase down Memphis then one thing they needed was a fast start. They couldn’t have afforded to show any signs of rust and to drop a game or two this early means it is becoming increasingly likely they will be going home early, despite their seemingly manageable schedule. Even if they can get within 4 games of the Grizzlies and force a play-in then this still may not be enough as they would have to beat them two times in a row which could prove extremely difficult, especially if you have given one hundred and ten percent in order to force the play-in. It really is unprecedented times and should the play-in happen it would be unmissable TV.
In spite of Portland having their fully fit roster back and the Pelicans having the monster that is Zion Williamson back to what we hope is his best form – or at least the level he showed in the 19 games he played this season prior to the restart (24 points 7 rebounds, 2 assists per game), I believe the only thing stopping the Grizzlies from reaching the play-offs will be the Grizzlies themselves. In their opening two games against play-off rivals they have suffered two painstaking losses, first to Portland and then to a rejuvenated San Antonio Spurs side on Sunday night. A game which they fought so hard to get back into only to have Jackson JR’s late equalising three point effort cancelled out by two DeMar DeRozan free throws after a costly mistake in fouling by Dillon Brooks.
Grizz and Grind Outlook
Despite their two damaging defeats early on, I’m with them. This is a really good team who have shown enough over the course of 67 games this season that they deserve our respect. This team has a good coach at the helm who deserves to be in with a shout for Coach of the Year, the Rookie of the Year (Ja Morant), an almost fully healthy squad to choose from (despite Justice Winslow, who they never really had in the first place) and bolstered by a four month long lay-off period – this young team has a lot going for it.
We have to remember that this team has defied the odds all season by even being in this position. They’ve shown enough to solidify themselves as a genuine playoff contender that shouldn’t be overlooked any longer. They got here on merit and merit alone, which deserves to be recognized.