MikeCheck: Grizzlies ‘deserve to be here’ positioned for playoffs facing NBA’s toughest closing slate

DALLAS – The calculated probabilities and possibilities aren’t lost on Dillon Brooks.

The third-year swingman simply relies on a different set of sensible equations when factoring why the Grizzlies are in a position of strength these days. They approach the final quarter of the regular season with a solid grasp on the Western Conference’s final playoff seed.

Yet and still, there are no guarantees where this is all headed. But count Brooks among those with unwavering confidence as to where the Grizzlies stand as they dig in for a flurry of a finish.

“We deserve to be here,” Brooks assured as the Grizzlies carried a 3 ½-games lead for the hotly-contested No. 8 spot into the weekend. “Whatever happened throughout the rest of the year with all the other teams happened. We’ve worked our butts off every single day. It doesn’t matter who it is – the prestigious Spurs, a Portland team that made it to the Western Conference finals last year, New Orleans, Sacramento, it doesn’t matter. We’ve shown that we belong here, and we’ve got to keep showing it to finish out this season.”

Tyus Jones puts on Ja-oggles
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – MARCH 02: Tyus Jones #21 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts in the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Facing the NBA’s most brutal schedule the rest of the way, Memphis must brace for a fight to the finish. But if these Grizzlies have proved nothing else as one of the league’s most surprising teams this season, it’s that they pack a tough chin, plenty of punch and a youthful energy that keeps them bouncing back in the face of every challenge.

Since stumbling back from the All-Star break with five consecutive losses, the Grizzlies (31-31) reversed their fortunes to climb back to .500 entering a back-to-back set that started in Dallas on Friday and continues Saturday at home against the Hawks.

Whatever happened throughout the rest of the year with all the other teams happened. We’ve worked our butts off every single day. It doesn’t matter who it is – the prestigious Spurs, a Portland team that made it to the Western Conference finals last year, New Orleans, Sacramento, it doesn’t matter. We’ve shown that we belong here, and we’ve got to keep showing it to finish out this season.

Dillon Brooks

Fueled by a historic stretch of dominant performances this week, the Grizzlies set out on the NBA’s toughest closing schedule with their confidence restored and their chemistry intact. They’ll need both. Because over their final 21 regular-season games, the Grizzlies play 14 against teams with winning records and/or currently occupying playoff position.

That closing stretch started in Brooklyn on Wednesday, when the Grizzlies notched a 39-point victory over a Nets team that sat seventh in the Eastern Conference race. That performance, in which the Grizzlies set a franchise record with 20 made three-pointers, assured them of a winning trip as they closed out the three-game swing with Friday’s stop in Dallas.

Dillon Brooks against the Kings
MEMPHIS, TN – FEBRUARY 28: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket against the Sacramento Kings. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

With a little over a month left in the regular season, reality is starting to set in that the Grizzlies could be on the verge of returning to the playoffs for the first time in three years. But there’s still plenty of work to do in keeping their biggest challengers at bay the rest of the way.

Memphis still has two games remaining at Portland, including a stop there to open another three-game road swing next week. The Grizzlies have already lost the season series to the Kings, therefore would lose a potential tiebreaker scenario in the standings. Next week’s trip ends with a matchup against the Spurs, and the Grizzlies play consecutive games later this month against the Pelicans, who are 2-0 against Memphis this season.

Entering the weekend, the Grizzlies, Blazers, Kings, Spurs and Pelicans were separated in the standings by a total of five games. Despite a few turbulent stretches, Memphis has occupied the final playoff seeding for more than a month since posting an 11-4 record in January.

But staying in the moment is the best way to avoid getting ahead of themselves.

“I’m excited about what each day brings this group; another learning opportunity for these guys,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We struggled out of the All-Star break, but they never wavered, kept working, kept their spirits up. We know the position we’re in right now, but just have to focus on getting better. It’s a message I pretty much deliver every single day.”

Taylor Jenkins and Ja Morant
DALLAS, TX – FEBRUARY 5: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images.

And the Grizzlies have responded in essentially every single way.

Two weeks ago, Memphis ended its post All-Star break trip with consecutive blowout losses to the Clippers and Rockets by nearly 30 points. This week, the Grizzlies regrouped and flipped the script to post two straight 39-point wins on the road against the Hawks and Nets. They became the third team in NBA history to win consecutive road games by at least 35 points, joining the 2006-07 Spurs and 1969-70 Knicks – as both went on to win NBA titles those seasons.

We struggled out of the All-Star break, but they never wavered, kept working, kept their spirits up. We know the position we’re in right now, but just have to focus on getting better. It’s a message I pretty much deliver every single day.

Taylor Jenkins

And the same Grizzlies squad that surrendered 127.5 points a game through their first four contests out of the All-Star break has since dialed in defensively to allow their last four opponents to average just 89.7 points. In their wins over the Lakers (105-88), Hawks (127-88) and Nets (118-78) the Grizzlies became the first team in the league this season to hold three straight opponents to 88 or fewer points.

Those are trends to believe in.

“I don’t want to say we lost it; but we just had to get back to playing like us,” Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant explained. “Our defense kind of fuels us. When we get stops, everybody feels good and then shots start falling. Our defense just picked up. We’re just learning from our first four or five games after All-Star break. We’ve turned our intensity up and are just going out there competing, trying to get physical as much as they allow us, and just locking into the game plan by making every shot tough for teams, rebounding the ball and then getting out to run.”

Gorgui Dieng diving for the ball
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 04: Gorgui Dieng #14 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Chris Chiozza #4 of the Brooklyn Nets battle for the ball during their game at Barclays Center. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

And it’s a pace that’s required contributions from everywhere on the roster.

Against the Lakers, it was starters setting the tone as Morant finished with 27 points and 14 assists while center Jonas Valanciunas added 22 points and 19 rebounds. And in the historic, lopsided wins in Atlanta and Brooklyn, it was just about everybody else as the Grizzlies got 72 bench points against the Hawks and another 61 points from reserves to beat the Nets. A franchise-record nine players scored in double figures in Atlanta, and seven scored between nine and 19 points against Brooklyn.

Our defense kind of fuels us. When we get stops, everybody feels good and then shots start falling. Our defense just picked up. We’re just learning from our first four or five games after All-Star break. We’ve turned our intensity up and are just going out there competing, trying to get physical as much as they allow us, and just locking into the game plan by making every shot tough for teams, rebounding the ball and then getting out to run.

Ja Morant

“It’s togetherness – we stick together,” said backup center Gorgui Dieng. “It doesn’t matter who’s scoring or who has the ball, we’re sharing. We just want to play the right way. It’s been good and we’ve gotten better with a young team every day. We have a chance to be very good defensively, because we’re very athletic and have a lot of guys willing to play together. So I think that’s going to help us be an elite (defensive) team.”

All things considered, the Grizzlies have indeed played themselves into ideal position.

Morant said he never looked far enough ahead to even fathom the playoffs when he arrived as the No. 2 overall pick at the start of the season with the NBA’s youngest rotation.

“I was just looking forward to whatever day it was that day,” Morant insisted.

But it’s going to be tested even more over these last (20) games. As I always say, we’re excited about the opponents we play. But at the end of the day, it’s all about us. You just have to keep your focus on our habits as you go into this stretch run.

Taylor Jenkins

On the other hand, Brooks always had a postseason goal in mind regardless of any obstacles.

“We’ve added some players, have had to change things up a little bit and we’ve got some people injured, but none of that matters,” Brooks assured. “Keep to our habits, play hard, work on defense and we’ll be in a great spot with a chance . . . to carry this to the playoffs.”

For this tough closing stretch, Jenkins just wants the focus to remain on the daily process.

“Our defense has been good the last few games, and the offense is getting back to our style of play,” Jenkins said. “But it’s going to be tested even more over these last (20) games. As I always say, we’re excited about the opponents we play. But at the end of the day, it’s all about us. You just have to keep your focus on our habits as you go into this stretch run.”

The Grizzlies arrived ahead of schedule, but they’ve properly paced themselves to this point.

With a solid closing push from here, the payoff should land them in the playoffs.

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.