It’s been a while since the Grizzlies lost, which makes it a good time to reflect on the team as they fell short of a franchise record 12 game win streak.
Let’s get to the big stuff first. Do the Lakers stink this year? Yes. Yes, they do. Anthony Davis was perhaps the best player in the Association in the weeks before his latest injury. Lebron James is doing things at 38 years old that no person should be able to do. Things which no NBA player has done, in fact.
And yet despite the heroics from those first ballot hall of farmers, the Lakers stink. They are 13th in the conference at 21 and 25. They aren’t quite the basement dwelling creatures of San Antonio and Houston. But their road to relevance this year remains steep and winding.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have won 22 of their last 27 games. That’s 22 – 5 since December 2nd. Their point differential, the most predictive analytic there is when it comes to championship basketball teams, is 5.7 – second only to the Boston Celtics. The Grizzlies are good. And they are deep. Both Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke had 20 points off the bench last night. The Grizzlies play hard every night, even if coach Taylor Jenkins described last night’s performance with the words “terrible effort.”
Still, last night’s game won’t change the trajectory of either the Grizzlies or the Lakers this season. To wit, the most meaningful moment from last night’s game – if tweets and national news outlet attention are to be the metrics – was the fracas between NFL Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe and, well, the entire Grizzlies team. For what it’s worth, Shannon and Tee Morant were laughing and hugging by game’s end.
(btw how fun would it be to hang out with Tee Morant….)
No, last night’s game was largely meaningless in the grand scheme of things. A once and forever all time great in James going toe to toe with a now and hopefully forever all time great in Morant. It was a fantastic game with a lot of charge. It also provided the Grizzlies another opportunity to practice late game execution. Which brings me to the first point:
The Grizzlies have been so good on their recent win streak in third quarters that they haven’t had to face “clutch” game scenarios in the 4th. Not so the last two games. The Grizzlies came up huge defensively to seal the Cavs game at FedEx Forum.
But in this one, it was the Lakers with the key defensive play at the end. Dennis Schroeder literally ripped the ball from Desmond Bane’s arms and headed the other way for an and-one sequence that sealed the game.
Before that, Ja Morant missed a shot at the rim he typically makes. Sometimes they just don’t go down.
Last year, Demond Bane was among the leading fourth quarter scorers in the league. This year, Ja Morant leads the league in third quarter scorers. This year is different, at least so far. But as games tighten up and the season grinds along, the Grizzlies will have to work towards elite late game execution. They’re still a very young team, so they’re not supposed to be elite in those situations. But winning a championship, a reasonable aspiration (expectation?) for this 2023 Grizzlies season, will require precise execution in late game scenarios.
And it will require making free throws. We won’t spend a lot of time on this, but the Grizzlies were 26 – 40 from the line last night. BC missed a free throw to send it to overtime. It happens. The problem is that the Grizzlies are ranked DEAD LAST in free throw percentage and they’re not even close to the 29th ranked Spurs. Champions do better.
A relevant big picture take away from last night: the Grizzlies typical strength of fastbreak scoring was shut down completely by the Lakers. The Grizzlies rank second in the league with 18 fastbreak points per game. But last night it was the Lakers on the break, earning a 20 – 4 advantage over the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies could not get back on defense.
The Lakers, on the other hand, made getting back a priority. The Grizzlies grabbed 16 more rebounds, largely because the Lakers retreated to set up the defense. This was smart and something teams might scout on the Grizzlies. It limits the strength of the Grizzlies fastbreak game, yes. But the scheme has the additional defensive impact of preventing Ja or Des from quickly slithering through tiny cracks. LA was ready for the Grizzlies offense every time down the floor, and their scheme made it hard on the number-one points-in-the-paint team in the league. Something to keep an eye on in future games.
But the rebounding. Oh the rebounding. How good has Steven Adams been? Right now he is averaging 5 offensive rebounds per game. The all time leader for offensive rebound average per game, Moses Malone, has 5.1. Steve-o is 6th all time list on that list with 3.7 offensive rebounds per game. He is an elite offensive rebounder having a career year.
Adams’ super power came in handy last night as the Grizzlies out rebounded the Lakers 63 – 47. But he had too many chances with the Grizzlies shooting 42% from the floor on 102 shots. All that rebounding (missed shots?) led the Grizzlies to set a new franchise record with 38 second chance points. Steve-o had 8 all by himself. The big fella did his part, and not just in the donnybrook with Shannon Sharpe.
But it’s hard to win against a Russel Westbrook who seems to have emerged from the dreary confines of the national media dog house to drink every drop from the fountain of youth and go absolutely nuts on offense. The former league MVP went off for a season high 29 points and hit two (!) three pointers.
Last night’s game marked the first contest in a season-long five game road trip for the Grizzlies. It’ll be a tough stretch. They face the best team in the West last year in the Suns, who have already beaten the Grizzlies at home this year. The Suns might be flagging without Devin Booker, but they can still beat you any night of the week. The insurgent and seemingly playoff-bound-for-the-first-time-in-forever Sacramento Kings come next, with the Ja Morant-like D’Aaron Fox in the backcourt. Then the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
And what about the post-apertif before the road trip ends? The Grizzlies first round playoff foe from a season ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s a tough trip. But, it’s also a great opportunity for the Grizzlies to dig deep and test themselves once again as they gear up for a late season push unlike any we’ve seen in Memphis.