The Grizzlies aren’t playing against playoff newbies anymore.
Memphis closed out its first-round series with Minnesota on Friday with a 114-106, Game 6 victory. Once again, the Grizzlies did it in a comeback. Once again, they did it thanks to a gaudy performance from Desmond Bane, who finished with 23 points, and an energetic one from reserve superball Brandon Clarke, who went for 17 points and 11 rebounds. Once again, Ja Morant fought through a subpar shooting night to contribute in other ways, closing the evening with 17 points, eight boards and 11 assists.
But now, the challenge begins.
The Grizzlies’ turnaround is immediate. They start their second-round series with the Warriors on Sunday afternoon.
The Timberwolves put up a fight, but Memphis was supposed to win. It finished 10 games better than Minnesota during the regular season. It had more star power. It was the more talented roster top to bottom. But Golden State presents a new test in quite possibly the most anticipated series of the second round.
The untried Wolves were young and often lacked composure. They had barely any combined playoff experience. They took regrettable shots in tight moments. They led by double digits in the second half during five of the six games, including a 26-point letdown in Game 3, and still lost the series four games to two. Memphis isn’t loaded with experience, either. Steven Adams and Kyle Anderson are the most elderly presences on the roster, and they’re only 28 years old.
The opponent in Round 2 could not be more the opposite.
The Warriors aren’t the types to let go of so many leads in a postseason series.
Stephen Curry has played in 117 playoff games in his life. Draymond Green has played in 128. Klay Thompson has played in 128, too. Head coach Steve Kerr has an 81-29 lifetime record in the postseason. They have been to five NBA Finals together. They’ve won three of them.
Curry is still bombing long balls, even if he no longer owns the delineation of world’s greatest sixth man. He’ll have to settle for universe’s most horrifying nightmare-inducer, instead. Dillon Brooks, who went for 23 points in the closeout game against the Wolves, will have his hands full. Thompson is starting to look like the former version of himself on offense. Green remains quite possibly the greatest defender in the world.
The Grizzlies churned out the superior record during the regular season, 56-26 compared to 53-29, but the Warriors didn’t have their core for much of the year. When Curry and Green, who could run a two-man game with their eyes closed at this point, are on the floor, they outscore opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions.
One thing the Grizzlies could have going for them is the matchup with Morant. The Timberwolves pestered the All-NBA probable, sending multiple defenders at him all series. But there are holes to attack in Golden State’s renovated death lineup of Curry, Jordan Poole, Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Green. Watch out for how aggressively the Grizzlies use screens to get Poole, the weakest defender in that unit, matched up on Morant.
The Warriors spliced the ever-pesty Gary Payton II into that lineup when they closed out the Nuggets in Round 1, a series they finished in five games. If Payton hits shots, as he did in the final moments of the Denver series, that group takes on a different, more defensive identity. Payton averaged only 17.6 minutes during the regular season, but there aren’t many guards in the world as physical as he is defending the ball. He fights through screens. He rips dribbles away from the bounciest drivers.
If the Grizzlies are to win four of seven, Jaren Jackson Jr. has to find a way to stay on the court, too, as he did in Game 6 against the Timberwolves, when he went for 18 points, 14 rebounds and a couple of blocks. It was, by no coincidence, the first time in the postseason he’s crested 27 minutes. Jackson tallied up the second-most fouls in the NBA during the regular season, and he showed why in the Minnesota series. He was in foul trouble for each of the first five games.
The Memphis defense, though, is built around his strengths. He guards the paint as well as anyone when he’s not tossing opponents to the court unnecessarily. But the Warriors spread the floor. Jackson will have to change directions quickly; he’ll have to scurry to the 3-point arc to contest jumpers. The Wolves goaded Jackson into fouls on 3-point shooters throughout the series. He was better in Game 6.
“I feel like we need that out of (Jackson) every game,” Brooks said. “Challenge him to keep playing at that level. Find a way to play without fouling. We need him on that floor. He’s a stretch four. He can put it down on the floor — one-of-a-kind player. We need that out there.”
The Grizzlies will try to prey on turnovers. Golden State plays an active, high-risk offense that can slice defenses but is prone to mistakes. The Warriors had the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA this season. The Grizzlies defense forced the most takeaways. They have to run when they get steals.
The Memphis bench must win its minutes against Golden State’s corresponding units, too.
If the Warriors ever take a lead, the Grizzlies know they’re capable of fighting back, as they proved time and time again against Minnesota.
“I feel like we’re always confident, no matter what the score is,” Morant said. “We treat it as pretty much zero-zero.”
The battle on the glass will differ from the one the Grizzlies just experienced against the Timberwolves. For all the talk about the Warriors’ ability to go small, they still clean up on the boards. They were second in the NBA in defensive-rebound rate during the regular season. Memphis pulverized the Wolves on the offensive boards for most of the series, even without Adams, but it won’t be as easy against the Warriors.
It’s a wonder what Adams’ role will be once the series begins. Currently, he is mired in health-and-safety protocols, but before he was ruled out heading into Game 6, Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins had exiled him from the rotation. Adams struggled defending All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns in Game 1, then played less than three minutes at the beginning of Game 2 before leaving with two fouls. That was the last time he saw the floor.
The Warriors are a different type of matchup. If Adams plays, he’ll have to step up on pick-and-rolls against Curry so the best shooter ever doesn’t create wide-open pull-ups for four to seven straight games.
Adams staying on the floor is more essential than just adding size or rebounding. He’s the team’s best screener, which will be important for the aforementioned matchup hunting. Morant struggled to get into the paint for stretches against the Timberwolves, and yes, part of that was because of the way Minnesota was blitzing him, but it was also difficult to ignore that he wasn’t always receiving Adams-level picks, either.
Adams’ absence also affects Jackson, who hacks far more when he has to play the five. If the Grizzlies are going to take down the mighty Warriors, they will need their best players available — and that means keeping Jackson out of foul trouble.
But the Grizzlies didn’t have to worry about these questions in the seconds after their closeout victory. At least for a couple of minutes, they could party.
“You definitely gotta celebrate moments like this,” Jenkins said. “You gotta cherish this. To be able to just play in the playoffs is something that you gotta work hard for. I don’t take it for granted. Winning a series, you don’t wanna take for granted. Advancing is something that is special for this group. The first time they’re going through that. We’ll appropriately celebrate, but we’re definitely gonna appropriately prepare.”
Preparation starts within seconds of the final buzzer, which is why Morant’s celebratory drink of choice is closer to NyQuil than Natty Light.
“We about to go to sleep,” Morant said.
When he wakes up, he’ll be a day away from the three-time champs. And he’ll be 12 wins closer to his ultimate goal.
“It’s a good feeling, but still not satisfied,” Jackson said. “You gotta keep raising your level.”
(Photo of Desmond Bane: David Berding / Getty Images)