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Grizzlies’ Martin Luther King Day Game In Serious Jeopardy

After defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, spirits must have been high in the Memphis Grizzlies’ locker room. Though Shake Milton turned the contest into somewhat of a nerve-racker, the game was one of the Grizzlies’ most dominant defensive performances. Facing one of the league’s most potent offenses, Memphis limited a Philadelphia team that had scored 272 combined points in their previous two outings to a mere 104.

Impressive defense aside, the victory also had some widespread implications for the Grizzlies’ season. With their fourth straight win, the team’s record improved to six and six, Memphis’ first non-losing record of the year. Moreover, the Grizzlies have caught up to some teams regarded as premier threats Western Conference. They can now boast a similar record to the Mavericks, Warriors, and Nuggets, none of which have had to undergo the injuries and roster turnover Memphis has experienced in the last several weeks.

Of course, the return of Ja Morant rightfully blew any potential accomplishment out of the water. After being initially slated to miss a maximum of five weeks, the sophomore guard returned well ahead of schedule–a mere 19 days after spraining his ankle to be exact. Fortunately, despite the premature return from injury, Morant looked back to his old ways in awe-inspiring fashion. If you polled Grizzlies fans who had recently awoke from a coma, they’d probably look at you sideways after informing them that Morant had missed the last several weeks. After all, which other NBA player throws down an alley-oop with such ferocity in his first game in nearly a month?

Posting 17 points along with six assists, it’s clear that Ja was itching to return to the court. Speaking postgame, Morant was uncharacteristically overcome with emotions, nearly driven to tears thanking the multitudes of fans, teammates, and members of the NBA community who supported him throughout his injury. If you thought the Grizzlies were lacking in momentum, surely Morant’s return will fuel the team’s effort even more than he has from the bench. 

It seemed like everything had clicked for Memphis, and on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Grizzlies couldn’t be more excited. Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman each mentioned their level of excitement to partake in the team’s holiday contest. As a rookie, Tillman especially noted his anticipation to play in his first Martin Luther King Day game, noting how much the holiday meant to him and the city he’s grown to love in his tenure in Memphis. All was peachy in Grind City.

Then the other shoe dropped. On Sunday, it was announced that Philadelphia’s next game against the Oklahoma City Thunder would be postponed due to a critical mass of Sixers missing due to contract tracing. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Jonas Valanciunas had entered the league’s health and safety protocols. He was then quickly ruled out for the Grizzlies’ MLK day matchup with the Phoenix Suns, who themselves have had their last three matchups postponed due to their own COVID misadventures.

To say that this leaves Memphis in a tricky position would be an understatement. Not only have the Grizzlies encountered COVID protocols with their last opponent, they also played 34 minutes of basketball with Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday, who tested positive for COVID a day later. If you’re keeping track, that means Memphis has encountered a health and safety controversy with their previous two matchups and their next opponent–that certainly has to cause some nerves within the Grizzlies fanbase. While the league has worked with the Center for Disease Control to finesse their policies for the current season, there hasn’t seemed to be much rhyme or reason applied to which games get canceled (for instance, the Timberwolves are still scheduled to play on Monday).

However, the decision to postpone the upcoming contest certainly isn’t cut and dry. Both the Grizzlies and the NBA stand to lose a disproportionate amount if they cancel the matchup with the Suns. Primarily, they’d be cancelling Memphis’ most important game of the regular season, on a holiday that’s incredibly meaningful to the players, organization, and city as a whole. Jaren Jackson put it best during a conversation with the Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears:

“I just love how it brings the whole city together… just joy, fans of the game, it was packed, people tailgating. People go through in the morning, they’ll wake up, be with their families, we’ll do a lot of learning in that morning, go to the museum, talk to different people…And then they just all come to the game. And then it’s just one big, no matter how the game goes, we’re just all here on this day, and it’s a collective thing.”

What’s more, the game is one of Memphis’ three nationally televised contests, a major opportunity to drive up their interest, media spotlight, and sales. The NBA has done well to keep nationally broadcasted games on the schedule, perhaps slightly too well in fact. They haven’t cancelled a single of their games on major networks, and one would think they’d only do so in case of a major safety threat (after all, these are major revenue sources for the league too). 

All of these factors place the Grizzlies’ next game in serious jeopardy. Fortunately, having dealt with a prior postponement and several instances of safety protocols affecting the roster, the team seems to have adapted well. Jenkins has at multiple times lauded the team’s readiness to adjust, citing the team’s PACT mantra: Positivity, Adaptability, Compliance, and Togetherness. Still, whether or not Memphis’ MLK day will be played should prove revealing about the NBA’s priorities for the season going forward. Memphis’ previous game was cancelled just 90 minutes till tipoff–let’s see if we have to wait that long for any potential postponements on Monday.

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