Grizzlies

A Strong March Crucial for Memphis’ Playoff Push

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A week away from real NBA basketball was tough for fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, as the Grizz went into the All-Star Break about as hot as the team could be and had positioned themselves as the third seed in the West.

While the team definitely deserved the rest and time-off, fans were itching to keep the good times rolling.

There’s an excitement around this squad unlike that of any previous Grizzlies team. With this young group, there’s a belief that this team can not only make some noise in the playoffs, but actually contend. And more and more, it seems like the Grizzlies’ time may not be coming soon– it may already be here.

PLAYOFF PUSH

The Grizzlies came out of the All-Star break primed for a playoff run, as they had their best record ever by the break at 41-19 and were only 1.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for second in the West. In addition, they are about to enter one of their easiest stretches of the season, as only four of their next fifteen matchups are against teams with records over .500.

As the team looks to keep defying expectations and push for the top seeds in the West, let’s break down some of the key things needed for the Grizz to be in peak form for the playoffs.

Stay Strong Through March

As previously mentioned, the Grizzlies have a much easier schedule ahead of them than they faced earlier this season. After two tough matchups directly out of the break (@MIN, @CHI), the Grizzlies only play four teams over .500 until April. The Grizz actually have a tough April slate (v. PHX, @UTA, @DEN, v. NOP, v. BOS), so they really need to take advantage of their March games to secure an optimal playoff position.

With the way Memphis was playing headed into the break, they could realistically overtake Golden State for the West’s second seed, as the Warriors play nine teams over .500 in their sixteen March matchups, including games against the Suns, Bucks, Heat, Nuggets, Celtics and Grizzlies.

Given the difference in schedules, the Grizzlies have a legitimate chance at snagging that second overall seed.

While the Warriors have a more difficult schedule the rest of the season, Stephen Curry can always go supernova (just rewatch the All-Star game) and will them to victory, so there’ no counting on Warriors’ losses. If Memphis takes their foot off the gas against lesser opponents and drops games they shouldn’t, they can kiss the No. 2 seed goodbye.

Down the road, there will be some interesting conversations around potential playoff matchups to navigate, but the best thing for a team is to be in control of its own destiny. With a strong month of March, Memphis could be in a position to do just that.

Figure Out The Shooting: The Obvious

The Grizzlies’ shooting woes are no secret to them or the rest of the league. While the team has no confidence issues, they remain a weak jump-shooting team. They make their money on the hustle stats: rebounding, second-chance points, points off turnovers, fast-break points, points in the paint, etc.

But when the playoffs hit and the game slows down, those points are going to be harder to come by.

The Grizzlies only have three players shooting over 35% from three in Desmond Bane, Tyus Jones and John Konchar. While the team has plenty of confident shooters, they needs to have results to match that confidence. Ja Morant‘s improvement from deep paired with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s ability to hit shots helps, but Memphis still needs to pose more of a threat from beyond the arc.

The good news: help is likely on the way. De’Anthony Melton has found his shot as of late, which adds a massive threat for the Grizzlies, especially off the bench. In addition to that, Dillon Brooks should be returning from injury sooner than later. While Dillon has been a streaky shooter throughout his career, he is a career 35% three-point shooter who proved himself during the playoffs last year.

Despite his tendency to sometimes force shots and interrupt the offensive flow, having Brooks back will certainly help the Grizz from deep.

Figure Out The Shooting: The Not-So Obvious

Brooks’ return will help with another dimension the Grizzlies struggle in– mid-range pull-ups. While Bane is the best pure shooter for the Grizz, no one on the team has mastered the mid-range pull-up quite like Brooks.

Most of the team opts for a floater when in the mid-to-short range, but this will lead to teams packing the paint and forcing the ball out to shooters, which isn’t the Grizzlies’ strength. Brooks is able to add a mid-range pull-up threat for the Grizzlies that forces their opponents to defend at all three levels, opening up the offense for the rest of the team. He is also able to get to his spots and create these shots on his own, freeing up the other guys on the court.

Brooks’ ability to hit pull-up jumpers not only opens up the offense as a whole, but it also gives the Grizzlies a go-to option when the offense breaks down. Defenses will key in on Morant and force rest of the team to beat them outside the paint. When they do that, Brooks will be repeatedly be able to get to his shot, forcing defenders to pick their poison.

When the playoffs come around, the Grizzlies will need another option, and the return of Brooks should provide just that.

Avoid The Injury Bug

Grizz fans have become much too acquainted with this issue, as the team entered the break with the ninth-most games lost to injury and illness* this season with 201. They’ve accoutned for nearly any player on the team missing time so far and proven that they have great depth.

To really compete in the playoffs, however, the Grizzlies are going to need to stay healthy.

If Morant goes down, the Grizzlies’ championship hopes go down with him. But he is far from the only key piece. When the Grizzlies are healthy and clicking, they fit together like pieces to a very precise puzzle. But like a puzzle, if any one of those pieces is missing, the end product is not quite right. Certain pieces can be replaced well enough to finish the picture, but others cannot.

Brooks, Jones, Adams and even Bane may be replaceable pieces. But the one piece that is likely as important as Morant for this team is Jackson Jr. He has emerged as a true Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and his offensive game has continued to grow. His ability to work in the post, make threes and create off the dribble opens up the Grizzlies’ offense, much like Brooks’ shooting. Triple J plays key roles on both ends for the Grizzlies. If he gets injured, Memphis likely won’t be able to adequately replace him.

Memphis saw again against the Minnesota Timberwolves how fragile a season could be, as both Jackson Jr. and Morant had injury scares in the game. While both were thankfully fine, Grizz fans all saw the season’s life flash before their eyes before they were able to continue competing. These young Grizzlies play with a relentless fierceness. For them to compete for a West or NBA Finals, that fierceness will need to be controlled enough for them all to stay on the court.

LOOKING AHEAD

After dropping one against a tough Minnesota team, the Grizz got a great road win over a red-hot DeMar DeRozan and his Chicago Bulls before returning home to face San Antonio tonight. Defeating the Spurs to make it an 8-2 February would be a great way to head into the important month of March and prepare for Brooks’ return.

Regardless, after a week off fans are happy to be watching the most exciting team in the league play basketball again and keep shattering expectations.

For coverage of the Grizzlies’ All-Star weekend, check out Chris Ingram’s article from all-star weekend:  Morant, Bane Putting Memphis Back on NBA Map

*Games lost to injury and illness is the total number of games players on a team’s roster have missed over the course of a season (i.e. Player A has missed 7 games, Player B has missed 9 games, total games lost is 16 games)

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