The San Antonio Spurs are playing postseason basketball tonight. And while it isn’t a playoff series, this single-elimination road matchup with the Grizzlies is their first step towards capturing the eighth seed and getting their young core invaluable first-round experience.
It’s win or 1...2...3...Cancun for the Silver and Black. So, I chopped it up with Joe Mullinax, Site Manager of Grizzly Bear Blues, to get a better idea of what to expect when these divisional rivals hit the hardwood for the opening leg of the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament.
1. The Memphis Grizzlies have won five of their last six games. What has Taylor Jenkins and crew clicking right now?
Playing the Sacramento Kings twice doesn’t hurt. And they caught the Kings, Raptors, and Pelicans at times where they were not playing their best players. But Memphis’s win over the Dallas Mavericks in blowout fashion is the best of what the Grizzlies have done this season and what they can be in the play-in. Dillon Brooks made Luke Doncic miserable and has advanced as a defender to near All-Defensive Team levels. Ja was a revelation in that game, scoring 24 points on 13 shots while attempting 8 free throws (which meant he was being aggressive at the rim). Kyle Anderson provided production across the board, the bench was solid...when all those things happen for the Grizzlies, they’ll compete with just about anyone.
2. Both Taylor Jenkins and Blake Ahearn spent time with the Austin Spurs. What advantage, if any, does their familiarity with San Antonio’s organization provide the Grizzlies?
They surely understand what level of preparation and execution this Spurs team is capable of, even with them being 2-10 in their last 12 games. San Antonio has a nice mix of veteran presence and youthful exuberance, and with Gregg Popovich still at the helm (who seems to have it out for Memphis still all these years later after the 2011 playoffs), you can never count these guys out. That’s probably the message from Jenkins - do not let the finish fool you. Spurs basketball is worthy of respect, and if you don’t, your season will end Wednesday.
3. Ja Morant didn’t play all that well down the home stretch of the regular season. How concerned are you? And what kind of performance do you expect out of him on Wednesday night?
Honestly? Not too concerned. This season for Memphis was always about the long view - looking to the future while trying to be as competitive as possible. One of those “long view” ideas is figuring out who fits next to Ja...and while that hasn’t gotten crystal clear we have a better idea now than we did a year ago. He probably should’ve gotten a night (or more like a week) off in this crazy stretch of 40 games in 68 days, but Morant is stubborn in the best way possible - he wanted to play, passed tests on his injured ankle from earlier in the season, and here we are. He needs to be able to take what the defense gives him more effectively. So much of his scoring offense comes off of difficult attempts. That’ll catch up with you eventually. But you can’t ask for much more from your 21-year old point guard in terms of winning, and he is averaging 25 points and 9 assists against the Spurs this season. While LaMarcus Aldridge, a major reason for that, has departed I still think he will be ok.
4. Jaren Jackson Jr. looked like one of the best young big men in the league before he went down during the NBA Restart last season. How close is he to recapturing his form? And what impact can he have versus the Spurs?
He still has plenty of rust. He takes terrible fouls and can be careless with the basketball at times. But in other flashes, he looks like the Jaren from before his injury, the only big in the NBA that can protect the rim, switch on to guards and wings, shoot from the perimeter, and create for himself off the dribble. They’re few and far between, and for a while, his reintegration (alongside the much more of a struggle for Justise Winslow) hurt Memphis. But again, in the here and now their view as a franchise is off in the distance. Jaren is undoubtedly healthy because of how they brought him back into play. I anticipate, after a practice Tuesday for the first time in who knows how long, he will look more like his “old” self in the play-in game.
5. As you mentioned, the Grizzlies are favored entering the 9-10 play-in. What are the X-Factors for Memphis coming into the matchup?
Memphis needs their depth to be an asset, not a detriment. Against the Warriors, on Wednesday the Grizzlies only got 14 points from their reserves. Jordan Poole scored 15 by himself. That included a group that had Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, and Tyus Jones as the main players. That simply is not good enough, and if it happens again the Spurs - with Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, and others - will tear them apart in a high stakes game like this. Sure, Ja needs to be a star, and they need Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson, and Dillon Brooks to be as good as they have been all season (reasonable - all three have been pretty good lately). But for the Grizzlies to make the playoffs, Clarke/Jones/Bane/Melton/Xavier Tillman/maybe Grayson Allen depending on injury need to step up and score to support the starters.
Thanks again to Joe for his time! Head over the Grizzly Bear Blues to check out my answers to their questions, and remember to tune in to the game tonight!