The Memphis Grizzlies have been on the news for all the wrong reasons this past week after Ja Morant’s offcourt behavior led to an indefinite suspension from the team.
The initial consensus among both pundits and fans was that Morant’s absence would inevitably drag Memphis, the second seed in the Western Conference, down the standings and potentially out of the guaranteed playoff berths. Their first two games without the two-time NBA All-Star reinforced this belief as they dropped two road contests to the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
However, a trip back home to the FedEx Forum for their match against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors was all that the Grizzlies needed to regain their swagger. Memphis jumped out of the gates full of energy and built a 20-point lead by the end of the first quarter.
True to form, Golden State battled back and were within six points at the beginning of the fourth period, but the Grizzlies held them off to take a much-needed 131-110 win. The victory–Memphis’ first in three outings since Morant’s ban–served as a reminder to the league that it is too early to count this team out.
While they have only won five of their 12 games without Morant in ‘22-’23, it is important to remember that most of their supporting cast had a slow start to this campaign due to injuries. Two of their most crucial players, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, have already missed 18 and 23 games, respectively, which undoubtedly affected their early season form.
Last year, the Grizzlies were much better without Morant as they had a 20-5 record in games where he was sidelined. Though it will be a tall task for this team to replicate last year’s feat, it is not too farfetched. The major pieces of that team remain and are now a year better.
In their statement win over the Warriors, Jackson and Bane proved that they are up for the challenge as they scored 21 points apiece. The former added three three-pointers, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal, and one block while the latter had two triples, two rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers.
Though the performances of Jackson and Bane were already quite impressive in themselves, it was actually back-up point guard Tyus Jones who led the way for Memphis.
Jones has consistently performed well when stepping into the starting line-up in Morant’s absence and these past few games have been no exception. The 26-year-old guard went toe-to-toe with Golden State’s superstar Stephen Curry, putting up 22 points, three three-pointers, four rebounds, 11 assists, and three steals in 33 minutes of action.
All five starters scored in double figures for the Grizzlies as Dillon Brooks added 14 points, four rebounds, and six assists and Xavier Tillman, filling in for injured center Steven Adams, chipped in with 10 points and eight rebounds. Furthermore, five reserves added at least five points, led by Santi Aldama’s 15, highlighting the depth of this Memphis group.
The rest of the Grizzlies often take a back seat to Morant when he is on the floor and these games without him serve as a reminder that this team is teeming with talent. They are still a formidable team without him and actually become more deliberate when it is Jones, who is more of a traditional point guard, running the show in Morant’s stead. The playmaking ability of Jones enhances the individual talents of this team and unlocks a different facet for them.
It is too soon to count out Memphis from this year’s postseason race and though their ceiling may ultimately be capped without their superstar point guard, their floor remains solid as they still have several able players who can fill in for his missing production. Last year, they proved that they are still a force to be reckoned with even when Morant is out and it should not come as a surprise if they respond in a similar manner this season.
While the whole situation with Morant is quite a tragedy, it also presents an opportunity for the rest of these Grizzlies to prove their worth and step into the spotlight over the coming weeks.