Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference finals was lost to the world the second the buzzer sounded. The Golden State Warriors built up an early lead and the San Antonio Spurs quickly obliged, seemingly drifting toward the offseason before the game even ended.
But for Kyle Anderson, who pieced together 20 points, seven rebounds, and four steals, the game was a springboard.
Anderson was on the late side of 23, just shy of the average age of the current-day Memphis Grizzlies, and his career had been marked by inconsistency. But for one game, he put it all together: scoring, rebounding, distributing, deflecting passes with his 7-foot-2 wingspan. Nicknamed Slo-Mo, Anderson relied on his intelligence to make up for his lack of footspeed, methodically tricking defenders with his off-kilter pace and heady vision.
“It definitely did a lot for me and just showed to myself that I belong in this league and gave me confidence,” he said. “If I could play so well against a team that good, then I could play well against anybody. It was definitely a big moment for me. I mean, obviously a tough moment for us as a team, but it was huge for me.”
He wanted to go back to the conference finals, so he attacked the summer with renewed dedication, arriving at Spurs training camp next year a transformed player. “Even if your team isn’t having the most success, if you have a game where you could play well and get your feet wet and kind of get comfortable with the playoffs, it can do a lot for you down the road.”
Maybe that’s why Anderson and his new team, the Grizzlies, didn’t look too depressed when they dropped their third straight playoff game against Utah on Monday, or when they were blown out to end the series in Wednesday’s Game 5.
“They make you pay for mistakes.” Desmond Bane said it before Game 4. Ja Morant said it after. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins says it ad nauseam, and if you listen long enough and watch how he smiles through press conferences in losses, accentuating the positive, it sounds like he likes the fact that Utah’s passes have been so sharp and their shooters so accurate that they’ve exploited every Memphis weak spot.
The Grizzlies, in loss, are gleaming like a freshly exposed layer, as though dealing with Rudy Gobert’s screens for five playoff games has exfoliated their rough edges. They sound grateful to know what’s wrong with them, as if getting ousted in the first round is the NBA version of a productive session with one’s therapist.
The first sign that the old Grizzlies were gritting and grinding to a halt came in the 2015 playoffs, when the Warriors stopped guarding Tony Allen—the snarling defensive floor-slapper who’d coined the phrase “Grit and Grind” to describe Memphis’s playing style—beyond the arc, effectively ending his playoff career. But the gears really shifted in 2019, when Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were traded.
The Grit and Grind Grizzlies played hard-nosed, unselfish basketball that inspired something beyond devotion from fans, creating a unique connection where team, place, and identity all intertwined. But they were too defensive-oriented at a time when the league was becoming defined by high-octane offenses. Today’s Grizzlies have the opportunity to carry on the epigenetic code of the Grit and Grind era, borrowing from their past while directing an eye toward the future. Nostalgia Ultra. Grit and Grind 2.0.
2019 was also the year Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman, two young, relatively unknown executives, were promoted to take over basketball operations. They hired Jenkins, then a 30-something Bucks assistant without much of a playing background. That summer, they drafted a young guard with star potential from a small school.
Now they’re the youngest team to make the playoffs since the 2010-11 Thunder. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., armed with the tools to be one of the NBA’s most versatile pick-and-roll duos, are both 21, the same age Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were when they lost to the eventual champion Lakers in six games in the first round in 2010. The Lakers exposed the young Thunder. They also gave Durant and Westbrook a to-do list.
Morant will also be able to siphon precious information from his performance against the Jazz. The Jazz gave him all the time in the world to fire wide-open 3s, and he used it to hesitate. Look at his feet and you can see the indecision. You can tell he doesn’t yet have full command of all his tools.
The challenge of attacking Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, also spotlighted the opportunities for improvement in Morant’s game management. There were times when Morant made Gobert—and everyone—look flat-out silly with shifty, explosive rim attacks and a floater he has nearly mastered. But the floater can be a strength and a weakness. It’s a low-efficiency shot that defenders like Gobert love funnelling young scorers into, but it can also feel like a dagger against a defense that has taken away every other option. Sometimes Morant uses the floater. Sometimes the floater uses him.
Morant has a tricky job, and it forces him to process information at quantities and speeds that would give your average 21-year-old stress headaches. He is the Grizzlies’ primary scorer and creator, a digital native of a position paved by the likes of Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell.
Morant has the smarts, talent, and mettle for the task, but he doesn’t have the reps. For advice, Morant need look no further than Mitchell, who played the Grizzlies like a fiddle ever since returning in Game 2, taking advantage of their aggressiveness.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder, wired during a timeout in the third quarter of Game 4, said of the Grizzlies, “They’re jacked up, they’re really aggressive. So you can get them back on their heels by attacking like we’ve been, and we can also get them shifting and moving side to side.” Then he turned to Mitchell. “They’re all loaded up on you, so you can keep creating.”
Mitchell came off screens and stopped on a dime all series, trying to get Dillon Brooks to bump into him after fighting around screens, punishing his overzealous desire to block his pull-up 3s. Late in Game 4, Mitchell stepped back, this time without a screen; Brooks lunged at him, and the referee blew his whistle. Mitchell put up four fingers, to signal the number of fouls Brooks had. The Grizzlies outscored the Jazz with Brooks on the court before Game 5’s series-ending rout, a fact Mitchell seems well aware of.
Playing defense on the edge is how Brooks earned playing time in the NBA, but he’s emerged as a big-game scorer during the past few weeks, putting up 26 points per game against the Jazz. The Grizzlies needed his scoring more than they needed his defense. Morant is a 6-foot-3 beanpole, and while he’ll grow into his frame, history hasn’t been kind to guards who take the scoring burden upon themselves in the postseason. Brooks could be the scoring wing of the future, but he’ll have to shift his mindset first. He has proof that he belongs on the big stage. Now he needs to find a way to stay on it.
By the end of the series, the Grizzlies got the version of Brooks they needed. After fouling out in Game 3, Jenkins let Brooks stay in with four personals in Game 4. He didn’t commit a foul for the final 16 minutes of the game. By Game 5, he finally gave up the hunt on Mitchell, passing him off to Jonas Valanciunas and living with the results of semi-contested shots.
The only problem: The calculation didn’t work. The Jazz found a rhythm early in Game 5, going up big in the first quarter, and the Grizzlies traded 2s for 3s. It sounds like a familiar story for the Grizzlies, but it doesn’t have to be.
Before the 2020 draft, Jaren Jackson Jr. told the Grizzlies front office that Xavier Tillman, a fellow Michigan State alum, was the most mature teammate he’s ever had. By the time he graduated last year, Tillman was married with two kids. Jackson was the best man at his wedding.
The Grizzlies liked Tillman’s passing, his anticipation around the rim, how quickly he picked up on opposing defensive coverages, so they acquired his draft rights from Sacramento. Jackson missed most of the regular season with a torn meniscus, so the two have not had much time to play together, but they’re hypothetically a perfect fit on the court. Jackson is the elite floor spacer, and Tillman is the brawny screening and passing vessel who can open Jackson up and reallocate the attention he can attract to others, the way Draymond Green does for Steph Curry.
Watching Valanciunas sneak under Gobert for dirty buckets and try to step up and prevent the likes of Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, and Conley from breaking free for 3s felt like a flashback to the tension created by playing a classic back-to-the-basket guy in Randolph alongside Allen. They bumped and rebounded, and yes, gritted and grinded, to make up for their shortcomings. Despite Valanciunas’s best efforts, the Jazz had their way with him in the pick-and-roll, and he finished minus-6 in the series.
While the Grizzlies’ modern core will likely serve them better in the future, it’s encouraging that Jenkins was willing to take an approach that balanced offense with defense, even if the Grizzlies ultimately fell short. They have the potential to be the kind of team that doesn’t have to make such dramatic trade-offs.
Jenkins opted to use Jackson and Valanciunas against the Jazz, but in the crucial late moments of the Grizzlies’ play-in victory against the Warriors, it was Tillman who played center in Jackson’s place, emerging as the perfect guy to hold off Draymond Green.
The two could bring out the best in each other, Tillman banging down low with the meatier centers who can push Jackson around, Jackson spacing the floor for Tillman to cut and wreak havoc.
Desmond Bane, Memphis’s other 22-year-old rookie, could have declared for last season’s draft. Instead, he stayed at TCU for his senior year. Like Tillman, Bane is a brawny film nerd who sweats the small stuff. He played multiple positions in his four years at TCU, guarding the likes of Trae Young and Jaxson Hayes.
Even though Tillman is a frontline player and Bane is a guard, they’re both positional nomads who have drifted far enough out of their own comfort zones to bump into each other, giving the Grizzlies two interchangeable NBA-ready defenders. Bane is already a strong defender and a dead-eye shooter, while Tillman is making progress on his range.
The goal of a modern team with championship aspirations is to have the tools required to weather any storm, from Rudy Gobert to Draymond Green to the Lakers’ giants, and the core Memphis is building around Ja Morant has the potential to be as interchangeable as the NBA demands.