LOS ANGELES – How do you keep a young team grounded, even-keeled and focused on what’s ahead after an emotional, buzzer-beating victory for the first win of a new era?
“You sniff the gym,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins explained.
The aroma of reality came swiftly when the Grizzlies landed from their four-hour flight to Los Angeles on Monday. They didn’t immediately ride over to the team’s five-star hotel in advance of a night off in one of the world’s most glamorous cities.
Instead, Jenkins and his players bused a few miles away from the airport, pulled into a tiny Catholic high school and crammed into a modest gymnasium. A night earlier, the Grizzlies were the darlings of NBA highlight shows after rookie Ja Morant’s breakout performance and Jae Crowder’s game-winning shot at home delivered their first win in overtime against the Nets.
A day later, the Grizzlies were seated in bleachers at a school attended by 300 students, grinding through a film session and brief practice. Sniffing the gym was Jenkins’ way of keeping his team simultaneously healthy, humbled and hungry as the Grizzlies (1-2) get a whiff of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the revamped Lakers (2-1) on Tuesday at the Staples Center.
“We’ve made a unique, one-game trip, two time zones away to L.A. after an overtime game.,” Jenkins said coming off his first victory as a NBA head coach. “I’m just trying to put money in the bank, where guys have the fuel they need to go against a really good Lakers team. Get their bodies moving, get acclimated. It’s always good to do something, even a day after a game, to get your body moving, your mind thinking. And then go out and try to win a game on the road.”
In a season that’s mainly about building and developing a promising young core, the Grizzlies face an early-season lesson on just how relentless and unforgiving the NBA schedule can be. It’s in these moments when Jenkins can turn to mid-career veterans such as Crowder, Tyus Jones, Solomon Hill, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas to help steady a roster highlighted by first- and second-year cornerstones in Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
The Grizzlies are a week into the season, and the sample size is relatively small. But the goal is to further build on progress Memphis made Sunday against the Nets. Offensively, the Grizzlies had seven players score in double figures, shot 48.5 percent from the field, 42.4 percent on threes, 80 percent from the free-throw line and committed just 12 turnovers in 53 minutes. They’re also ranked among the top five teams in the league in pace, which is a goal and priority.
I’m just trying to put money in the bank, where guys have the fuel they need to go against a really good Lakers team. Get their bodies moving, get acclimated. It’s always good to do something, even a day after a game, to get your body moving, your mind thinking. And then go out and try to win a game on the road.Taylor Jenkins
And the Grizzlies’ defense finally kicked in during the fourth quarter, when the Nets were held to 23 points after a 40-point third quarter. On a night when Morant became the first rookie in franchise history to finish with 30 points and nine assists within his first three career games, it was the point guard’s rejection of a Kyrie Irving potential game-winning jumper at the end of the fourth quarter that resonated as his biggest play. Then again, that was until Morant drew two defenders in the final seconds of overtime before dishing the ball out to Crowder on the wing for the game-winning, buzzer-beating three to seal the 134-133 victory.
A day later, and two time zones removed from that euphoric moment inside FedExForum in Memphis, Crowder sat a few bleacher rows away from Morant in the high school gym on Monday. As Morant was speaking with a reporter from the New York Times, Crowder was a few feet away trying to put into perspective the level of physical toughness and mental focus required to endure the ebb and flow of the NBA season.
The same two Grizzlies who connected on Sunday’s winning play were navigating the team’s approach to Tuesday’s task against one of the league’s top title contenders.
“This is part of the NBA – to the rookies, welcome to the league,” said Crowder, a seven-year veteran on his fifth NBA team. “You were on a high one night, then you have to wake up and prepare your mind and body for another grueling game in less than 24 hours. I’m used to it. For Ja and Brandon, it’s new to them to be on a high like that and then have to come in and readjust your whole mindset again for the next one. That’s how this league is.”
I’m in a situation where I have no excuse for not putting my body and mind in the framework to go out there and perform. Sometimes, you need a little rhythm to get into the flow of the game. But my time in this league has taught me a lot about how opportunities can come when you least expect it. So if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.Solomon Hill
Jenkins is relying on Crowder and Hill to help steer the Grizzlies through the early-season turbulence as they collectively find their footing. When Jackson fouled out late in the second half Sunday, Jenkins turned to Hill to help the Grizzlies close the game. A journeyman throughout his six-year NBA career, Hill wasn’t in the rotation for the first two games of the season, which the Grizzlies lost after carrying leads into the fourth quarter against Miami and Chicago.
But he was alongside Crowder as the finishing forwards stabilized Memphis against the Nets. While Crowder’s lone baskets were a pair of clutch threes – one in fourth quarter and the dagger in overtime – Hill came off the bench to hit all five of his shots for 13 points to go with five rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes.
And both savvy forwards figure to be called on early and often in Tuesday’s game to help slow the NBA’s most dynamic frontcourt tandem in James and Davis. Hill insists that being ready to step in and contribute at any time is a characteristic that’s kept him in the league this long.
“I’ve been in this position before and it’s led to blessings in my life” Hill said, referring to a stint with the Pacers when he didn’t play for three months before emerging as a regular in the playoff rotation. “I’m in a situation where I have no excuse for not putting my body and mind in the framework to go out there and perform. Sometimes, you need a little rhythm to get into the flow of the game. But my time in this league has taught me a lot about how opportunities can come when you least expect it. So if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
Remaining locked in is the first step toward progress for the Grizzlies. Crowder knows that better than anyone right now. In a span of 48 hours, his path will have taken him from being swarmed by teammates after hitting the game-winning shot to being the head of a swarming defensive effort needed to contend with a four-time league MVP and three-time champion.
Crowder has a unique perspective on James. He was the primary defender on James during those Cleveland-Boston playoff matchups. Crowder was then traded to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, and played half of the 2017-18 season alongside James with the Cavaliers.
If he makes 15 fadeaways, you tip your hat to him and go on to the next play. But when he’s hopping into the lane and dunking, you don’t want that. He smells blood when he starts doing that, and he kills you like that. I’ve been in a few playoff matchups with him, and you want to contest and make it as hard as possible on every shot.Jae Crowder
“What I took away from playing with LeBron is his leadership is just on a different level,” Crowder said. “He’s in practice every day, going hard every day. And seeing your best player do that, it just shows you who he is. Being accountable every day like that speaks volumes about who he is as a professional. You have to respect that.”
Crowder wasn’t with Memphis this time a year ago, when Jackson’s step-back jumper over James sealed a stunning victory over the Lakers on the Grizzlies’ first trip to L.A. last season. But Crowder knows the blueprint for success this time around starts on defense, where he’ll likely draw the initial duty on his former teammate in the starting small forward matchup.
“You want to make it as tough as possible for him, take away all of the easy buckets,” Crowder said. “If he makes 15 fadeaways, you tip your hat to him and go on to the next play. But when he’s hopping into the lane and dunking, you don’t want that. He smells blood when he starts doing that, and he kills you like that. I’ve been in a few playoff matchups with him, and you want to contest and make it as hard as possible on every shot.”
The Grizzlies certainly don’t want LeBron to start smelling blood.
That’s another reason they stopped to sniff the gym upon arrival in L.A.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.