MikeCheck: Grizzlies eager to return to FedExForum for key set, regroup from painful road trip

At every turn, the Grizzlies tried to find the positives through the pains.

In Sacramento, it was the resolve shown during a fourth quarter rally from a 15-point deficit that came up just short at the finish.

Against the Lakers, it was the most encouraging performance to date in Memphis’ Josh Jackson rotation experiment.

We just have to keep our spirits up and keep getting better. We are ready to get home and continue to get back to work.

Taylor Jenkins

And despite an ugly loss to the Clippers that capped the Los Angeles stay, coaches and players took solace in huge bench production from a unit that averaged 62 points over three games.

But by the time the Grizzlies wrapped up a painfully brutal four-game trip Wednesday in Houston, with progressively worse losses by a combined 71 points, the biggest takeaway was clear. After stinging setbacks to the Kings, Lakers, Clippers and Rockets, the best thing the Grizzlies took from a merciless end to the trip was their direct charter flight back to Memphis.

Still in search of their first victory since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies (28-30) return home to regroup from their longest losing streak since November. And there are two sets of reasons why regaining their footing could be a major challenge for the Grizzlies.

First, they face a weekend, back-to-back set Friday and Saturday against the Kings and Lakers – two of the four teams they lost to just last week. And more importantly, the Grizzlies remain without two of their most productive and dynamic players for at least another week in injured power forwards Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.

Brandon Clarke helping Jaren Jackson Jr.
MEMPHIS, TN – JANUARY 7: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies helps up Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

“This is a great experience for our guys (coming off) a tough four-game stretch, but there’s a lot of games to be played,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins explained as his focus shifted toward Friday’s breakthrough opportunity. “We just have to keep our spirits up and keep getting better. We are ready to get home and continue to get back to work.”

Despite the four-game losing streak, the Grizzlies maintain a three-game cushion for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings. With 24 regular-season games remaining, Memphis will be locked into a heated and crowded race to the finish in hopes of advancing to the postseason for the first time in three years.

The last three games, teams started really hot on us and kind of got us in a hole. Some stuff we can’t control, and some stuff we can control. We’re just going to get better all around.

Ja Morant

For now, they’ll simply settle for returning to relative health as soon as possible. Jackson, the team’s leader in blocks and second-leading scorer, has missed the past three games since he landed awkwardly while defending LeBron James in Friday’s game against the Lakers. Jackson is expected to be reevaluated late next week to see how he’s progressed from the sprained knee.

Clarke, a rookie who ranked fifth in the NBA in overall field goal shooting percentage, is dealing with a quad injury he suffered in the first quarter of Monday’s loss to the Clippers. A day later, the Grizzlies announced Clarke would also be reevaluated in a two-week span.

Based on those respective timeframes, Jackson is likely to miss this weekend’s homestand as well as next week’s three-game trip to face the Hawks, Nets and Mavericks. Clarke is also expected to be sidelined for that entire stretch, and possibly a bit longer.

On Thursday, the Grizzlies addressed the recent lack of depth in the frontcourt by signing forward Jarrod Uthoff to a 10-day contract. The 6-foot-9 versatile prospect has averaged 18.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks in 34 games this season for the G League’s Memphis Hustle. Without Jackson and Clarke, the Grizzlies fell behind by more than 30 points in stages of each of the last two games.

Those two forwards have combined to average nearly 30 points, 11 rebounds and more than two blocks a game while also ranking among the team’s most efficient three-point shooters. After faltering on the road, the hope is that a brief home respite provides a needed spark.

The Grizzlies are 16-13 overall at FedExForum this season and have won nine of their past 10 home games, a stretch that included a Feb. 12 key win over Portland in the last game before the weeklong All-Star break. Since then, the Grizzlies have been bitten by the proverbial injury bug and have also had the league’s toughest closing schedule gouge their momentum.

The goal now is to regroup by addressing three areas of concern from the trip. In all four games, the Grizzlies fell behind by double figures early and trailed by an average of nearly 20 points at the half. Part of the problems stemmed from adjusting to a different starting lineup each night.

Dillon Brooks staring
SACRAMENTO, CA – FEBRUARY 20: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings. Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images.

For much of the season, continuity had been a strength for the Grizzlies, who were one of four teams in the league that started fewer than 10 different lineups this season. But injuries forced Memphis to use its 10th different starting group Wednesday as Jenkins searches for productive fits alongside starting point guard Ja Morant and starting center Jonas Valanciunas.

“We’ve just got to find out how to start better,” Morant insisted. “The last three games, teams started really hot on us and kind of got us in a hole. Some stuff we can’t control, and some stuff we can control. We’re just going to get better all around.”

With two double-figure scorers out of the lineup and two others mired in slumps, Morant has faced stifling defensive pressure in recent games. He’s shot a respectable 46.1 percent overall from the field over the past four games, but has missed seven of eight attempts from three-point range and has committed 15 turnovers with just 15 assists during that stretch.

It’s going to happen, just like before this when we went on a nice little winning streak. All it takes is one until you catch the wave. Losses suck, but we can definitely learn from them.

De’Anthony Melton

Fortunately, both Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks showed signs of emerging from their recent offensive struggles in Wednesday’s loss to Houston. After shooting just 40.7 percent and scoring in single figures the previous three games, Valanciunas finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds against the Rockets for his team-best 27th double-double of the season.

And it took 26 shots attempts, but Brooks scored 22 points in Houston to reach double figures for only the second time in the past seven outings. It was also the first time Brooks scored at least 20 in a game since he did so in four consecutive games in late January.

The Grizzlies might not be the only team trying to regain their health entering FedExForum this weekend. For the Kings, guard De’Aaron Fox (abdomen), forward Marvin Bagley III (foot) and center Richaun Holmes (shoulder) were sidelined with nagging injuries in Thursday’s road loss to Oklahoma City before moving onto Memphis for Friday’s game.

We have a couple of teams right behind us. As a young team, we just have to focus up, take care of business and win games we’re supposed to.

Josh Jackson

Also, LeBron James sat out of the Lakers game Thursday against Golden State with a sore groin. The Lakers now face consecutive games in Memphis on Saturday and New Orleans on Sunday. For now, the Grizzlies remain focused on addressing the smaller details amid the bigger picture.

Ja Morant shoots over LeBron James
LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 21: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers plays defense on Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies. Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s the NBA; we can’t get too discouraged,” Grizzlies guard De’Anthony Melton said of getting things turned around. “It’s going to happen, just like before this when we went on a nice little winning streak. All it takes is one until you catch the wave. Losses suck, but we can definitely learn from them.”

The Grizzlies insist their collective confidence isn’t shaken.

“As of right now, we have a playoff spot, but we have to hold onto it,” said Grizzlies forward Josh Jackson, who has averaged 13 points and 3.3 rebounds while shooting 41.6 percent on threes the past three games. “We have a couple of teams right behind us. As a young team, we just have to focus up, take care of business and win games we’re supposed to.”

The Grizzlies may not be completely healthy.

But they remain hungry.

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