Heading into Orlando, the Memphis Grizzlies were one of the league’s darlings, a supremely talented up-and-coming squad looking to secure what they anticipate to be the first of many playoff appearances for years to come. Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and things have taken a rather grim turn.
Calling it a brutal start for the Grizzlies would be a massive understatement. In their opener in Orlando, they dropped an overtime heart-breaker to the Blazers, the team best-positioned behind Memphis to nab that eighth and final playoff spot in the West during these final eight seeding games.
They followed that up with another two-point loss to the Spurs on Sunday, despite a 25-point, nine-rebound, nine-assists night from Ja Morant. Then on Tuesday, just as they didn’t think things could possibly get any worse, Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a devastating knee injury in a loss against the Pelicans — another potential playoff usurper — that will keep him out for the remainder of the season.
Portland followed that up with a big win over the Rockets, 110-102, to move within one game of the No. 8 seed, and Memphis only further hastened their demise by dropping their fourth straight game in Orlando on Wednesday, a 124-114 loss to the Jazz. They’re now 4-11 since the All-Star break, the second-worst record in the league during that period.
The loss of JJJ is, without a doubt, a crushing blow to this team, as they’ve relied heavily on his production as the second-year big man was averaging just over 25 points per game in the bubble before his injury. Together with Morant, the athletic wunderkind and presumptive Rookie of the Year, they’d shown flashes of brilliance that point to great things to come for one of the NBA’s most talented young duos.
To pull themselves out of this funk they’ll need Morant to return to his Rookie of the Year form — his performance against Utah was a hopeful sign as it was his most efficient outing after a dismal shooting start to the bubble — and see others step up in a major way. Dillon Brooks has to be more efficient, as the Grizzlies leading shot-taker (but not always their top shot-maker), Jonas Valanciunas needs to be a factor inside, and Brandon Clarke must emerge from being a hyper-efficient role player to a major contributor capable of giving them major minutes. Maybe most importantly, they have to figure out how to find balance between offense and defense, as thus far in the bubble they’ve been unable to score when their defense plays well or get stops when they themselves are scoring.
On top of poor play, the issue of morale might be one of the Grizzlies’ biggest threats to their dwindling playoff hopes. By their own admission, the young Grizz have ascribed to the growing perception that the cards have been stacked against them in Orlando from the beginning.
More specifically, there is a certain cynical contingent of NBA conspirators that look at the 22-team field and the play-in format for the final postseason spot and interpret it as being arranged specifically to give Zion Williamson and the Pelicans an ample opportunity to make the playoffs and thus add one of the most anticipated rookies in a generation to the coming postseason slate to help boost ratings for a league that has been hemorrhaging money for months now.
But New Orleans hasn’t done themselves any favors on this front, losing two out of their first three contests since the restart, although at just two games behind Memphis, they are still very much in the mix. And as if the Grizzlies needed any more bad news, the upcoming schedule won’t offer them too much in the way of consolation or reprieve. In their final four games, they face the Thunder, the Raptors, the Celtics, and the Bucks.
Memphis had little-to-no margin for error going into this, and a four-game losing streak to kick things off has assured the West of a play-in series and, possibly, one where Memphis is no longer the 8-seed or should this disaster continue not involve the Grizz at all. The Grizzlies are still a very young team, and there’s plenty of time for them to seize a place within the NBA’s hierarchy, but their prospects for the immediate future don’t look too promising after an ugly start in Orlando.