SAN ANTONIO – Moments after scoring 30 points the other night in Oklahoma City, Dillon Brooks sat at his locker with an ice pack around his shooting hand as he assessed the breakout moment of his otherwise uneven preseason.
He was as dead-on accurate in his analysis as he was with his shooting stroke.
“It’s just about keeping a level head,” Brooks reassured. “Even though I had 30, it’s about doing what I can do the next game and the next one after that. I’m trying to keep improving on that and watching film to see what else I can improve on to level myself out, just keep it consistent.”
That makes Brooks essentially a microcosm of his team. In much the same fashion as the third-year swingman, the Grizzlies seek to level themselves out as they wrap up the preseason with Friday’s game against the Spurs. The Grizzlies have won three of their first four exhibition games, but have played to wild extremes in two outings this week against NBA competition.
Monday’s lackluster 21-point home loss to the Hornets was followed by Wednesday’s rally from a 15-point deficit in the first half to storm past the Thunder for a 124-119 victory on the road. That game featured a historic 46-point third quarter barrage from the Grizzlies, which would have matched a franchise record for scoring in any period.
After missing five of his first six shots in the game, Brooks found his rhythm, shot 7-for-8 from the field, knocked down four three-pointers and made all five of his free throws to score 23 of his game-high 30 in the quarter. Those 23 points were also the most scored in a quarter by any player in franchise history. Neither Brooks’ eruption nor the team’s overall outburst in that 12-minute stretch will officially register in the record books because it was a preseason game. But they do count as encouraging signs of the progress the Grizzlies can make in a hurry.
Even though I had 30, it’s about doing what I can do the next game and the next one after that. I’m trying to keep improving on that and watching film to see what else I can improve on to level myself out, just keep it consistent.Dillon Brooks
Streaky shooting aside, that third quarter in Oklahoma City underscored much of what first-year coach Taylor Jenkins seeks to establish as Memphis lays the foundation of an up-tempo, “five-out” offense. It’s a system predicated on pace, spacing the floor in transition and aggressively pursuing the first open shot looks – preferably at the rim or the three-point line.
The entire process is made much easier when the Grizzlies execute defensively by either getting possession-changing rebounds or by forcing turnovers on the perimeter to initiate fastbreak opportunities. While breaking out in the third quarter, Memphis outrebounded OKC 14-7, scored eight points off turnovers and completed a 32-point swing to take a 17-point lead.
Jenkins used Tuesday’s excruciating film session after Monday’s loss to Charlotte to hone in on numerous mistakes, but he approached Thursday’s review session with a different level of constructive criticism in preparation for Friday’s game.
“I think it’s always good to come together after a win and learn from a win,” Jenkins said after the team’s workout at Trinity University ahead of its preseason finale. “There are a lot of areas where we can get better in, but a lot of things we also did well. We wanted to get the whole group together in here and use film as a practice. There was a lot of good dialogue and guys asked some great questions. They’re starting to see things and feel things in different ways.”
Another encouraging aspect from Wednesday’s bounce-back effort was that it came even as three starters sat out to rest. But Jenkins said point guard Ja Morant and forwards Jae Crowder and Brandon Clarke will be available against the Spurs after all three participated in Friday morning’s team shootaround. The plan is to approach Friday’s game as a “dress rehearsal” for Wednesday’s regular-season opener at Miami, with the home opener at FedExForum two days later against Chicago.
From a rotation standpoint, Jenkins is still working to finalize the best option to start at shooting guard as well as the best combination of players to use together off the bench. Beyond that, the Grizzlies face the prospect of shedding two players by Sunday to reach the NBA’s mandatory limit of 15 on the regular-season roster. So that sets up a weekend of important work and decisions for the Grizzlies, even beyond the final tune-up against the Spurs.
There are a lot of areas where we can get better in, but a lot of things we also did well. We wanted to get the whole group together in here and use film as a practice. There was a lot of good dialogue and guys asked some great questions. They’re starting to see things and feel things in different ways.Taylor Jenkins
“It’s a combination of lot of things,” Jenkins said of the tasks ahead. “The back of the rotation will kind of fit into what our dress rehearsal is with who our starters might be and how our rotations off the bench might be. We’re still exploring. Even after this game, there may be changes by opening night. But I want to give it our best shot and see what it might look like.”
Expect tweaks and changes to persist for a Grizzlies team that will be a work in developmental progress well into the season. After major changes within the front office, coaching staff and roster this past offseason, the Grizzlies will open the regular season with a completely different starting five from opening night a year ago. Jenkins opened training camp by anointing Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas as starters at point guard, power forward and center.
Valanciunas has been held out of preseason games as a precaution to rest a sore foot, but indications are that he could be ready for next week’s opening games. Valanciunas has traveled and done conditioning work with the team this week. Whether he steps right into the starting lineup immediately upon his return or is worked in initially off the bench remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Jackson has shifted over to play the bulk of his preseason minutes at center. Jackson has fouled out the past two preseason games, with constant foul trouble having also surfaced as his main issue during an otherwise standout rookie season a year ago. But Jackson played better in OKC, with 18 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 25 minutes while enduring a physical and difficult matchup against elite NBA center Steven Adams.
I knew we had to come out and play better on the road, because those games are always tough to get a win because you don’t have your home fans behind you. We’re all we have. So I just go out there and do my best.Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jenkins and Jackson had private discussions earlier this week about remaining a level-headed leader and taking responsibility on the court in the midst of adversity.
“I just tried to do whatever I could to bounce back from before,” Jackson said of staying engaged and setting a consistent tone for the team. “I knew we had to come out and play better on the road, because those games are always tough to get a win because you don’t have your home fans behind you. We’re all we have. So I just go out there and do my best.”
The best is yet to come for the Grizzlies.
But the priority is to build in a positive direction.
“Outside of the Charlotte game, our guys took a huge step,” Jenkins said of preseason progress. “That last game, especially going on the road, we were really playing together. We had our challenges in the first half, but then the guys started trusting the defense, trusting the offense a lot more. Now, we’ve got another opportunity. But for the most part, this group has been a very coachable and responsive group. This is a big thing for us, individually and as a team, in terms of how do you respond after a loss? How do you respond after a win? So, now it’s on us to go out there and build that consistency night in and night out.”
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