A few years have passed since the end of the Memphis Grizzlies’ “Grit n’ Grind” era, yet this current iteration of the team continues to live by the principles that defined those beloved years.
Though the brilliance of superstar Ja Morant, now a rising NBA Most Valuable Player candidate, often grabs the headlines, it is the defense of this Memphis group that has fueled their strong season.
The Grizzlies have won their last 11 games, tying a franchise record, and it has pushed them into a tie for first place in the Western Conference with the Denver Nuggets as both teams currently sport a 31-13 win-loss record.
In their most recent win over the Cleveland Cavaliers–a 115-114 thriller at Memphis–the Grizzlies blocked two crucial shots to escape with the victory.
With less than 30 seconds remaining in the contest, starting forward Jaren Jackson Jr. was switched onto Cleveland’s All-Star point guard Darius Garland. Like any guard with a big man defending him late in a match, Garland attacked the defense of Jackson for a lay-up, but had his shot emphatically sent out of bounds.
The ability of Jackson to switch onto smaller players, along with his ever elite shot blocking, has been a major difference maker for Memphis this season. Despite missing 16 of the Grizzlies’ first 44 games this season, the 23-year-old is already third in the NBA in total blocked shots with 89 and trails the leaders by only 19 blocks.
Jackson’s average of 3.3 blocks an outing this year would be the best of his career and he has already set a new career-high this season with an eight-block game against the Atlanta Hawks last December.
Back to their win over the Cavaliers, Memphis managed to force a five-second violation on the inbound following Jackson’s crucial block. Morant missed a lay-up to take the lead, though Steven Adams was there for a putback that gave them a 115-114 edge with 16.6 left in the contest.
There was still one last chance for Cleveland to steal the win, but Dillon Brooks blocked Garland’s three-point attempt at the buzzer to secure the game.
These kinds of wins have become typical for these Grizzlies who have built an elite defensive team that capitalizes on its size to complement the explosive play of Morant. Memphis leads the league in rebounds per game with 49.2 and they are second in average blocks at 6.1. Their opponents shoot a league-low 44.3% from the field as well.
The advanced statistics favor this Grizzlies team too. They lead the NBA in defensive rating at 109.1 and are second in both Net Rating and Rebounding Percentage.
While Morant will always be the face of this franchise, it is their defense that will ultimately dictate how far they can make it in this year’s postseason. Jackson’s ability to stay healthy will be crucial given that he is the heart and soul of this team’s defense.
The Western Conference seems to be wide open this season and it looks like Memphis is staking its claim for supremacy as they push towards what could be their franchise’s first-ever NBA Finals appearance.