It’s been a tale of two years for the Memphis Grizzlies’ 2020-2021 season. Last year, the team’s momentum was derailed about as quickly as possible. Of their first four games, their defense was routinely shredded. Every one of their 2020 opponents scored over 110 points, leading to losses of 10, 12, and 19 points in a five-game stretch. Memphis’ offense didn’t fare much better either–their point totals decreased across every game of 2020, dropping bit by bit until hitting a season low of 90 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. After a slew of injuries, the team’s playoff aspirations were seeming like more of a pipe dream than a possibility.
Enter 2021, and the team looks radically different. Nobody is quite sure what the Grizzlies put in their New Year’s champagne, but it seems to have done them wonders. The team has locked down opponents of all shapes, sizes, and success, from the uptempo physicality of the Philadelphia 76ers to the grind-it-out, mid-range seeking Phoenix Suns on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Moreover, the Grizzlies are putting the ball in the bucket with ease. They’ve carved out an identity by bulldozing opponents in the paint, including a team-record 80 points in the paint in a winning effort against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
However, some of the changes of the new year are a little more difficult to pin down beyond a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe it’s the momentum of five straight wins talking, but this team seems to have taken a real step towards maturing as a group of people and as a basketball team. Make no mistake about it: the Grizzlies are rapidly growing into a winner. How so? Well, while there’s no one roadmap to becoming a winning team, most of the NBA’s storied rosters tend to share a few things in common. Let’s examine some of those winning assets and see how the Grizzlies have emerged as one of the league’s youngest models for long-term success.
This shouldn’t be too difficult to grasp, as the Grizzlies have provided myriad examples of how they’ve relied on depth to construct a playoff contender. In their recent upset over the Suns, the team boasted seven players with double figure scoring, as well as 49 bench points to boot. Neither of those are isolated incidents, either. The team is seventh in bench points (averaging a stout 38.5 points per game), and they’ve had five players score over ten points in four of their last five wins.
It’s clear that the bench’s speed and chemistry is invaluable to the Grizzlies. “The second unit always comes in with that energy”, said Xavier Tillman after Memphis’ victory on MLK day. “They come in with a plan. They see the flow of the game, they see what needs to be done. And they bring it every single day…offensively, we get to our spots with our screen-and-rolls, and our shooters know where everyone is going to be at. Then defensively we scramble and we communicate. We position ourselves in the right places and we know what each other is supposed to be doing and it helps a lot.”
However, an underrated proponent of the Grizzlies’ depth is the utter lack of ego among the team’s players. Given the amount of injuries the team has suffered, Memphis has already started eight different players, a number that will presumably increase upon the return of Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. After affording time in the limelight of the starting lineup to several role players, one might have expected them to pitch a fit over their inevitable decrease in minutes. Instead, many of the Grizzlies’ former starters have played even better upon returning to the bench– Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen especially. Against Phoenix, the duo combined for 27 points off the bench, finishing with the team’s highest +/-’s (+17 and +12, respectively).
It’s not an illusion, folks. In back-to-back games, the Grizzlies emerged as the group of superior playmakers against opponents that included seasoned ball handlers such as Ben Simmons and Chris Paul. After a rocky start against the Suns, the Grizzlies limited themselves to just three turnovers in the second half, while dishing out 31 assists, more than both Paul and Simmons’ squads managed against Memphis’ intimidating defense. Assists more often than not can lead to open jumpers, and while the Grizzlies haven’t shot well from beyond the arc, they have a knack for knocking down triples when they matter most–just ask Allen, who hit a game-clinching corner three to sink Phoenix on Monday.
“Taking care of the ball had been one of the things we’ve been talking a lot about with the team,” Taylor Jenkins commented after the Grizzlies’ latest win. “To be able to come out with only three turnovers in the second half, that’s huge for us because we really struggle when we turn over the ball and teams take advantage…credit to our guys just methodically throughout the whole game… there were some stretches there where it wasn’t pretty and they kind of forced our hand, but give our guys a lot of credit late in the game to make the right plays.”
How many times have we seen NBA legends overcome seemingly insurmountable odds? Pick three superstars at random, they’ll almost certainly share a penchant for overcoming adversity. Stephen Curry’s career was almost wiped away due to ankle injuries. Lebron James infamously spearheaded a comeback from a 3-1 lead. Even Michael Jordan repeatedly lost to the Bad Boy Pistons. Being able to push through challenges is an absolute must–and you’d have to be blind to think the Grizzlies’ season hasn’t prepared them for the turbulence of a playoff run
With four minutes and 16 seconds left in their last contest, the Grizzlies found themselves trailing after a 7-0 run on the part of the Suns. Playing against a ten-time all-star and one of the league’s most dynamic young duos, most emerging teams would’ve folded after being presented with such an obstacle. Not the Grizzlies, who promptly responded with a 15-4 run of their own. Keep in mind folks, Memphis has one of the youngest rosters in the league. For a growing team, this resilience is almost one-of-a-kind.
“I feel like we embrace the adversity,” affirmed Ja Morant. “In my two years being here, a lot of stuff has been thrown at us. Whether it was people doubting us, telling us we weren’t going to be good or wasn’t going to make the playoffs. That is never on our minds. We want to go out and win. Once again, coach is preaching that ‘next man up’ and to be ready. I feel like we all embrace the adversity. We know we have to do even more when adversity hits. I feel like we love that.”
Though the Grizzlies seem well on their way to becoming a winning team, their progress in February could prove especially crucial. It’s said that iron sharpens iron, but Memphis may need to find an alternative way to gain their edge, as their schedule provides them little in the way of significant challenges. Aside from a one-off matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers on February 12th, Memphis’ only other contender-level opposition in the next month comes in the form of a back-to-back with the Los Angeles Clippers at the very end of February.
Fortunately, their weak slate of games provides the Grizzlies with ample opportunities to solidify their habits. Should they take advantage, Memphis will no longer be regarded as one of the Western Conference’s cute young teams. Instead, they may very well emerge as the league’s next great winning culture. With so many players still developing, only time will tell just how high the ceiling is for Memphis–but for now, just enjoy the birth of a winning culture, the emergence of the team’s young stars, and their unmatched brand of team basketball.
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