• MikeCheck: Growth-seeking Grizzlies endure early struggles as ‘part of learning process’

    MEMPHIS – Taylor Jenkins typically communicates in great detail.

    But with his team currently short of full strength on available bodies, inconsistent on offense and struggling to overcome defensive lapses at key moments, the Grizzlies’ coach only needed three words to get his larger point across.

    “I’ll be better,” Jenkins assured.

    If being accountable is the first step toward turning around a difficult situation, the Grizzlies are collectively in stride as they search for a breakthrough amid their 0-4 start to the season.

    MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 30: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies defends during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.
    MEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 30: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies defends during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    From top to bottom – the coaching staff down to the last player on the roster – this team refuses to hide behind reasonable explanations or excuses to explain their early stumbles. The focus remains on keeping a positive mindset and finding better ways to execute.

    Still, that doesn’t make the path ahead any less challenging for the Grizzlies, who embark on their first extended road trip of the season for the next three games. Monday’s 125-110 home loss to the Mavericks was the latest example of an outing in which the Grizzlies addressed a problem from a previous game, only to see another issue surface that they struggled to combat.

    This time, it was an inability to defend the 3-point line on a night when early league MVP frontrunner Luka Doncic led a Dallas barrage from beyond the arc. The Mavericks made 23 shots from 3-point range, which tied for the second-most allowed by Memphis in franchise history.

    Through four games, the Grizzlies have allowed opponents to shoot 41.4 percent from deep, which is the second-highest percentage surrendered among the NBA’s 30 teams. By sheer volume, both the 162 attempts and 67 makes are most from opponents against any team so far.

    The Grizzlies begin the trip Wednesday against a Utah team that ranks third in the NBA in 3-point attempts, with All-Star swingman Lauri Markkanen leading the way averaging 25 points. Sometimes, an opponent simply gets hot against Memphis.

    MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 30: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks goes to the basket against Marcus Smart #36 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half at FedExForum on October 30, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.
    MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – OCTOBER 30: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks goes to the basket against Marcus Smart #36 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half at FedExForum on October 30, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

    That was the case Monday with Doncic doing MVP-level things as the NBA’s leading scorer nailed six 3-pointers on the way to a triple-double with 35 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds. But it’s harder to explain when Dallas role players Derrick Jones Jr. and Grant Williams combine to drill eight, Wizards’ reserve Corey Kispert knocks down five in Saturday’s setback to Washington or Denver’s Reggie Jackson and Peyton Watson efficiently net four in Friday’s loss.

    The Grizzlies’ lack of depth might be the biggest issue plaguing the team. There is a greater level of patience required there, with reserves Santi Aldama yet to play this season as he recovers from an ankle injury and Luke Kennard missing the past three games in concussion protocol.

    But the attention to detail defensively is something that must be collectively addressed regardless of who’s available in the rotation on a given night. That, essentially, was the point Jenkins was intending to drive home when he set the tone from the post-game podium by taking personal responsibility for fixing what can be fixed.

    “Our shifts have to be better, our recognition when to build out to 3-point shooters, our rotations when they get to drive-and-kick,” Jenkins listed of key adjustments. “We’re probably a step slow at times, but that’s the nature of the league right now. Especially with teams built on shooting a million threes a game. You’re not going to be able to take away everything.”

    MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 30: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies rebounds the ball during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.
    MEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 30: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies rebounds the ball during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    For now, the plan is to improve where they can.

    On the court, leadership personnel is in place. With power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and point guard Marcus Smart, the Grizzlies employ the past two winners of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award. That pairing was considered a major strength of the team, although Smart is working to build chemistry after missing most of the preseason with abdominal soreness.

    Until roster reinforcements arrive and the offense gains some rhythm, the Grizzlies know they must prioritize the defensive end of the court.

    “You can’t get too high; can’t get too low because it’s a long season,” Smart surmised. “We’ve got to lock in a bit more down the stretch on the defensive end. It’s part of the learning process, part of coming into something new for everybody. For us, it’s just to keep going. Eventually, the tide is going to turn. Things are going to click. It’s just taking some time right now.”

    It’s only a matter of time before the bench gets a much-needed boost, possibly as early as this week’s trip. Both Kennard and Aldama were scheduled to travel with the team for Wednesday’s game in Utah and a set of matchups Friday and Sunday in Portland against the Trail Blazers.

    MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 10: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 10, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.
    MEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 10: Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on October 10, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Aldama is expected to advance to five-on-five workouts and scrimmages in the coming days to test the ankle he injured in practice two days before the season-opening loss to the Pelicans. Jenkins suggested that Kennard is improving and moving toward the latter stages of protocols clearance, stemming from an inadvertent blow to the head on Oct. 25 against New Orleans.

    When both are healthy, Kennard and Aldama will immediately infuse a bench unit that’s been outscored 127-90 through four games this season. Memphis will also become eligible to add help in the frontcourt with a roster exemption that allows the team to sign a player once star point guard Ja Morant reaches the fifth game of his 25-game suspension.

    The Grizzlies reportedly have interest in signing free-agent veteran center Bismack Biyombo. Provided they reach a deal after Wednesday’s game in Utah, Biyombo could help fill the void of losing starting center Steven Adams to season-ending knee surgery.

    Again, these are all reasonable and rational reasons why the Grizzlies are off to their toughest start to a season in nearly 20 years.

    Just don’t expect any of them to sulk through any excuses.

    MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 30: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.
    MEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 30: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 30, 2023 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    “We’re 0-4, but we have 78 games left,” Grizzlies leading scorer Desmond Bane pointed out. “We’re working towards something. We have guys working to get back on the court and get healthy, we’re working on new schemes and building chemistry with new teammates. So, we’re working through a lot of things right now. The only thing we’re focused on is continuing to get better.”

    The wins will eventually come. The commitment to work guarantees as much.  

    The Grizzlies hit the road looking to build off an effort that saw Jackson and Bane each score 30 and Smart deliver his most productive game since joining Memphis. They also limited turnovers to a season-low total.

    That’s a winning formula that won’t fall short much longer.

    Michael Wallace
    Published on Oct 31, 2023

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