A young Memphis team is getting a crash course in high-stakes basketball from championship-tested Golden State.
Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies returned from his one-game suspension determined to leave an imprint on his team’s Western Conference semifinal series with the Golden State Warriors. He was going to make things happen Monday night in Game 4. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, his imprint largely entailed chucking errant 3-pointers off the back of the rim and dribbling the ball off his foot.
Brooks is (typically) one of the better players on one of the N.B.A.’s most exciting young teams, but there is no substitute for postseason experience. The Grizzlies are getting some, and it will pay off for them in the future, but the future is not now. Their championship-tested opponent is making sure of that.
On Monday, the Grizzlies had every opportunity to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece — in San Francisco, no less. But they were trailing by 3 points when Brooks ceded the spotlight to Jaren Jackson Jr., a teammate who had plenty of time — about 15 seconds remained in the game — to exercise patience. Instead, Jackson launched a 3-pointer with three defenders in his vicinity. Golden State’s Draymond Green got a hand on the ball, and Jackson missed.
“We rushed a couple of plays there,” Memphis Coach Taylor Jenkins said after his team’s 101-98 loss. “We’ve just got to learn from it and get better for the next game.”
Ahead of Game 5 on Wednesday, the Grizzlies are coping with yet another new experience: the possibility of elimination. They trail in the series, 3-1, after Ja Morant, their All-Star point guard, missed Monday’s loss with right knee soreness. On Tuesday, the Grizzlies announced that Morant was doubtful for the rest of the postseason after testing revealed he had a bone bruise. It is looking bleak for them.
Against a lesser opponent, perhaps the Grizzlies could have more easily overcome their youthful exuberance — combined now with Morant’s absence. The Warriors are not a lesser opponent. They proved as much in Game 4, even after they missed their first 15 3-point attempts, and even after they scored just 38 points in the first half, and even after they trailed by as many as 12.
“Gutted it out,” said Stephen Curry, who recalled his impassioned exchange with Green after Green disrupted Jackson’s shot in the final minute. “Something to the effect of, ‘That’s what you do.’ Every opportunity we have to appreciate his greatness on that end of the floor, especially at this stage, that’s what it’s all about.”
Not so long ago, there was an expectation that the series would offer up some 21st century basketball at its finest. Here were two teams capable of filling box scores with offensive fireworks.
Beyond that, the series seemed like it had the potential to shape up as a delightfully entertaining generational skirmish. The Grizzlies, behind Morant, were the new kids on the block, contenders ahead of schedule. Golden State, of course, had reassembled its core after two injury-marred seasons.
The series, then, was supposed to be an aesthete’s treat, crammed with soaring dunks and deep 3-pointers and mutual respect. Instead, through four games, it has been more Royal Rumble than Alvin Ailey. Green was ejected for committing a flagrant foul in Game 1. Golden State’s Gary Payton II fractured his elbow in Game 2 after Brooks clubbed him across the head as Payton went up for a layup. And after limping off the court in Game 3, Morant took to social media to accuse Golden State’s Jordan Poole of making a dirty play of his own.
About an hour before the start of Game 4, a disjointed series got even stranger when Golden State announced that Steve Kerr would not be available to coach because he had entered the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols. Instead, Mike Brown, one of his assistants, would call the shots. The oddest part of all? Earlier in the day, the Sacramento Kings had named Brown as their new head coach. (He will remain with Golden State for the duration of the postseason.)
Kerr’s absence added to the series’ sense of attrition. Payton could be gone for the rest of the postseason. Morant was sitting behind the Grizzlies’ bench in a sweatshirt. And now Kerr had to watch the game from home, part of a television-viewing audience that settled in for an evening of cornea-wrenching theater.
Golden State has a well-deserved reputation for playing a refined brand of basketball. But this is a team that can also win ugly, no small asset in the postseason.
“We’ve been here before, and we know how to pull off games like this,” Curry said.
Without Morant, Memphis wanted to muck it up. After supplying limited minutes in recent weeks, Steven Adams started at center and was solid, finishing with 10 points and 15 rebounds. The problem was everyone else. Brooks shot 5 of 19 from the field. Kyle Anderson went 2 of 7 from the free-throw line. And Jackson missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.
“It’s tough when that happens,” he said. “I wanted more of myself than that.”
The question is whether Memphis has much more to give. What these young Grizzlies seem to need is a postseason cram session — a rapid infusion of the secrets to winning high-stakes games. They won a lot during the regular season, ending with the second-best record in the N.B.A. But winning when each game is emotional, when critical foul calls won’t go their way, when the defense makes easy shots difficult and difficult shots impossible, when free throws don’t feel so free? It can take years to learn all of that, and many players never do. The Grizzlies may have to try to play as though they have — without their best player.
Morant has not been immune to knee issues. In November, during a torrid start to the regular season, he sprained his left knee and then entered the league’s health and safety protocols, missing 12 games. He missed several more games toward the end of the regular season with knee soreness.
Still, Adams said the team was capable of making fixes for Game 5, fixes that he said were both “simple” and “reassuring.” And what were they?
“I can’t disclose that information, mate,” he said. “Keep it under wraps. But it’s not a complicated thing. It’s not something that we can’t do. Put it that way.”
Memphis still has time to figure it out. But not much, especially against Golden State.