For every NBA season, only one team out of 30 is able to claim rights to the title, leaving 29 others to reflect on the year and try to make improvements going into the next season.
In all likelihood, the Memphis Grizzlies, the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, will fall short of a ring this year, but the team’s 2020-21 campaign embodies the motto “Progress is perfection.”
After back-to-back seasons appearing in the NBA’s various play-in tournaments, the Memphis Grizzlies have reached the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2017, coached by 2007 Wharton graduate Taylor Jenkins.
The Grizzlies fell just short of the playoffs in the 2020 NBA bubble’s play-in. As a young team led by sophomore point guard Ja Morant, the team’s inexperience showed.
The Grizzlies rank last in average NBA seasons played. They are also the second-youngest team in the NBA (with an average age of 24.3 years old). On the other hand, Portland Trail Blazers would ultimately clinch the No. 8 seed in 2020, and Lillard's veteran attitude came in clutch across the bubble games.
In a 2021 season that is still being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grizzlies faced an eerily similar circumstance.
On May 16, 2021, the 38-win Grizzlies faced off against the red-hot, then-38-win Golden State Warriors led by all-time point guard Stephen Curry. The stakes were simple: win and earn the No. 8 seed entering the NBA's experimental play-in tournament.
The regular season finale featured playoff stakes, which meant a characteristic transition to a slower pace, more half-court positions, and intense atmospheres. The first half reflected this, as for the most part, the Grizzlies limited the explosiveness and three-point shooting of the Warriors and finished the half down 55-49.
Unfortunately, the Grizzlies were unable to replicate their success in the second half. Curry was unleashed after a key defender for the Grizzlies, Canadian native Dillon Brooks, fouled out with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Curry stole the show with 46 points and solidified a scoring champion title.
The Grizzlies were rightfully upset with a repeat of last year’s disappointment, but the team would luckily get a chance to rebound in the play-in tournament. As the No. 9 seed, the Grizzlies played the No. 10 seed San Antonio Spurs for a chance to then play once again for the No. 8 seed.
The Grizzlies wound up with another chance at the playoffs after handling the Spurs 100-96. Center Jonas Valančiūnas dominated the game inside, reinforced by his 23-point, 23-rebound stat line. A balanced shooting effort supported the big man, and a combination of clutch playmaking and late defense won the game for the Grizzlies. They did exactly what they needed to do to win.
The tougher task lay ahead, however, in their repeat game with the Warriors after Golden State lost their play-in matchup for the No. 7 seed to the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet, in some ways, this game would be easier than their most recent one, as theoretically, the Grizzlies could dissect the Warriors’ game plans and adapt accordingly.
The key to the game for the Grizzlies was to hinder Curry’s three-point shooting and playmaking — essentially, they needed to prevent him from even handling the ball. But this objective was obvious: The real difficulty lay in not fouling Curry in an effort to contain him. Fouling is a recurrent problem for the brilliant but sometimes flawed defender Brooks, who commits the most fouls per game among guards.
Brooks had the assignment all last game for Curry. After fouling out in their prior matchup, Brooks responded with a defensive masterclass. It was instead Valančiūnas who faced early foul trouble.
During the playoffs, fans and announcers often discuss who was ‘the best player on the floor?’ — meaning who played like an alpha and excelled when the game’s pressure was at its highest. During these slower and more defensively oriented games, generating half-court offense is a must, and the Grizzlies would turn to Ja Morant to be 'that guy.'
Nearly every winning championship team includes that closer. Shaq needed Kobe, Kyrie hit that shot for Lebron, MJ was that killer himself, Kareem needed Oscar Robinson and later Magic Johnson, etc. So, it is a legitimate question to ask if Ja Morant could step up, and in this game, be better than Steph Curry.
Specifically, Ja Morant needed to step up from behind the three-point line. The guard struggled all year, shooting just 30.3 % for three and going 1-6 from three-point land against the Warriors on May 16. Morant’s three-point shot forces defenders to guard him from behind the arc, as they prefer to goad Morant into a deep shot rather than have him speedily finish in the paint.
In no world was Morant expected to rise to or above Curry’s shooting level, but Morant would need to make three-pointers throughout the game. He did that and more, exhibiting fearlessness and no hesitation. Morant finished the game shooting 5-10 from deep.
The basketball world learned that Morant has it. And while Brooks prevented Curry from putting the game away on the defensive, Morant consistently beat his man, wove inside the paint, and threw up beautiful floaters to close out the game in overtime.
Curry finished with 39 points, but anyone watching the game noticed the tenacity and hustle of Brooks, who spent most of the game running around the floor, hounding Curry, and preventing him from getting the possession started on many occasions. In several moments down the stretch, Curry did not touch the ball, and instead, Andrew Wiggins and others took shots.
Jenkins coached his team perfectly in the final minutes, and much like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, organized his defense in order to force someone who was not named Stephen Curry to make a shot. Don’t let their best player beat you.
Despite all the hype and recognition that Morant received for his breakout performance, the Grizzlies are really only here due to their team effort.
Valančiūnas is a consistent rock in the front court, and Kyle Anderson, Grayson Allen, and Desmond Bane are steady and ready shooters. Bane, a rookie from TCU, is the best three-point marksman in his freshman class.
And arguably their star is Jenkins, who orchestrates the X’s and O’s on both sides of the court, but more importantly, creates a tough, winning mentality in Memphis. The Grizzlies are willing passers and relentless defenders; they are well-coached and make selfless, winning plays. They are always better than just their individual parts.
The Grizzlies should rightfully feel accomplished after eliminating a Gregg Popovich-coached Spurs and Curry-led Warriors, but surely they are more focused on riding their momentum into their playoff matchup against the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz.