Role players have always played an essential, albeit perennially unheralded, role in the rise of superstars and their breakthrough playoff moments.
This year’s Memphis Grizzlies are no exception to this historic trend.
They advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2015 with a 114-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 6 of their opening round match-up. Ja Morant may get all the headlines and media attention, but ultimately it was the efforts of two key reserves that sealed the victory for them down the stretch.
With slightly over a minute remaining, Morant found back-up point guard Tyus Jones for a crucial three-pointer that extended the Grizzlies lead to four, 106-102.
Jordan McLaughlin, Jones’ Minnesota counterpart, then answered back with a tough lay-up to bring the Memphis lead back down to two.
The Grizzlies needed a basket to hold off the Timberwolves and predictably went to Morant on the ensuing possession. He engaged in a pick-and-roll at the left elbow with Brandon Clarke, a revelation off the bench for Memphis in this opening round, and drew both Patrick Beverley and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Morant immediately recognized the opportunity and found Clarke, who had by then rolled to the free throw line. Towns’ decision to help on Morant left Clarke with an open lane to the basket which forced Minnesota’s Jaden McDaniels to help off Jaren Jackson Jr. to protect the basket.
The 6’8 Clarke immediately recognized what was happening and fed Jackson with a drop pass for a dunk that virtually secured the win with 36.3 seconds left in the contest.
These kinds of plays from Jones and Clarke have been a staple for the Grizzlies all season long and their high level of play as reserves has been an underrated factor in this team’s ascent to the second seed in the West. In Game 6, Jones had a steady 10 points and four assists in 25 minutes of action while Clarke played 33 minutes en route to 17 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, and three blocks.
Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks stepped up as well, scoring 23 points apiece, while Jackson wound up with 18 points, 14 rebounds, a steal, and two blocks. The sophomore Bane was particularly brilliant for them in this series as he continued his breakout campaign. These contributions from Memphis’ supporting cast helped them weather Morant’s poor shooting night.
This year’s Most Improved Player shot only four-for-14 on the evening and finished with 17 points. He found other ways to produce, collecting eight rebounds and 11 assists, though he also chalked up five turnovers.
The Grizzlies have advanced to the second round for the first time in the Morant era and will now face the rejuvenated Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals. This best-of-seven is a rematch of last year’s do-or-die play-in game that saw Memphis eliminate Golden State for the eighth and final seed in the West.
However, these Warriors are nothing like last year’s version. Klay Thompson has rejoined Stephen Curry and Draymond Green while Jordan Poole has emerged as a potential third “Splash Brother”.
This series will be a fascinating battle between the team of the 2010s and these up-and-coming Grizzlies who are looking to reach the heights that this Golden State franchise achieved a few years ago. They have similarly built through the draft and the energy of this group bears a striking resemblance to this Warriors team in their early days together.
Memphis has a daunting task ahead of them as they try to overcome these retooled Warriors, similar to countless other origin stories where the younger team had to surmount their more established foes.
It will be a tall task for Morant, one where his every move will be closely scrutinized, yet he will not be alone in it. This entire Grizzlies team looks primed for the moment and have proven that they are ready to cover for their 22-year-old NBA All-Star point guard when things are not going his way.
Memphis fancies itself as the team of this decade over in the West, but before they can stake a legitimate claim on that title, they will have to wrest it away from this proud Golden State group.