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Grizzlies Show Signs of Progress Against Pelicans, Just Not Enough

There are no moral victories in basketball, but some losses are certainly more devastating than others. If your team is punching upwards and nearly knocks out one of the league’s heavyweights, that certainly rests easier on the conscience than a drubbing at the hands of an average squad. Having suffered through several of the latter, the Memphis Grizzlies could’ve used a statement game to get their momentum back on the right track. While they didn’t head out of New Orleans with a victory under their belts, the Grizzlies flashed real progress against the Pelicans–albeit, alongside some worrying signs of sustained issues.

On the last installment of Grizzlies Film Study, I identified three areas in desperate need of improvement–playmaking (specifically on the part of Ja Morant), communication, and defensive effort. By all accounts, the Grizzlies were able to make progress towards accomplishing each of those goals. After combining for nine assists in his last two games, Morant racked up the same total in his effort against the Pelicans. What’s more, seven of those assists led to triples from his teammates, meaning that although Morant only created 15 points of his own, he nevertheless held down his role as centerpiece of Memphis’ offense. A realistic step on the journey back to All-Star form? Check.

The Grizzlies also put forth a renewed effort on the glass. After averaging under 40 boards in their two previous losses, Memphis outrebounded their opponent for the first time in a week, leveraging the return of Jonas Valanciunas to the tune of 52 rebounds. That being said, the team’s hustle was a product of across-the-board focus. This isn’t another film study episode, but I will provide some impressive evidence.  My favorite play of the game was Kyle Anderson’s impressive boxout on Zion Williamson–a player who outweighs slow-mo by nearly 40 pounds.

Memphis also played a much more organized game on Saturday–though they didn’t cause as many turnovers as they’d like, the Grizzlies kept it together offensively. Their mark of nine turnovers was one of the lowest of the season, one of only three occasions where Memphis coughed up the ball under ten times. For the majority of the game, they were also able to pose a threat from deep. Although the Grizzlies’ final mark of 13 for 39 from deep isn’t great, keep in mind that they only made two of their ten tries in the fourth quarter, meaning their overall percentage doesn’t reflect their true performance.

Though clutch scoring is a clear issue for this team (we’ll get to that in a second), Memphis can especially take solace in the shooting of their bigs. “You gotta be able to knock those threes these days,” said Jonas Valunciunas, who was perfect from beyond the arc on Saturday. “It’s a big advantage when you have a center who’s a threat on the three point line, it opens up a lot of stuff…we’ll probably shoot even better next game” 

That being said, the problems revealed from Saturday’s loss are a lot more deep-seated than the troubles that plagued the Grizzlies against the Rockets and Pacers. For one, the Grizzlies are going to have to figure out a way to consistently defend against the long ball. Since the inception of their winning streak, Memphis has allowed opponents to shoot over 40% on threes (by far the highest mark in the league), while only making around 11 per game themselves (one of the five worst marks in the league). If you’re not going to adequately shoot the triple, you have to be able to limit your opponent’s shooting from distance in order to keep yourself in the ball game. I’m a math major, but the numbers aren’t complicated on this one. Three is greater than two. That’s all there is to it.

Concerningly, a large part of those shooting struggles have come from Memphis’ backcourt. As the team currently stands, the Grizzlies are designed to rely on three players for shot creation: Morant, Tyus Jones, and Dillon Brooks. While Jones has been a godsend, somehow ending up with a positive +/- in each of Memphis’ recent losses, the lack of production from Brooks and Morant has to be concerning (WC). I  can let Morant off the hook somewhat for creating points for others, but unfortunately can do no such thing for Brooks, who’s only notched five assists in the Grizzlies last four games.

The Oregon product plays with an undeniable fire, but it often feels like Memphis is winning in spite of his performance, rather than because of it. When your shooting guard is scoring nine points on seventeen shots, it may seem an obvious move for Jenkins to revoke his green light. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple–with so little threats off the dribble, putting a leash on Brooks is only going to make the defense’s job easier with one less weapon to focus on. On an offense that can’t seem to initiate in the halfcourt during crunch time, that could lead to even more disastrous results. Instead, the Grizzlies will have to facilitate some pathways for Dillon to get his swagger back. He’s a noted Lord of the Rings watcher–maybe an Elijah Wood cameo will do the trick?

Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors should be a decent opportunity to get the wagon back on track. Toronto coughs up 111.4 points per game, and though Kyle Lowry can be a handful to score against, he can only guard one of Morant and Brooks, both of whom tower above Fred Van Vleet. This is prime real estate for Jenkins to get one of his guards going, and to fail to take advantage would be an uncharacteristic letdown on his part. Where he’ll be more challenged is the task of containing the Raptors’ three-point shooting. Toronto is making the third-most triples per game in the league, so limiting their output from deep may just be the key to reigning supreme over Memphis’ northern counterparts. 

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