The Grizzlies are running out of time to go from good to great

The Memphis Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks returned from his one-game suspension determined to make a mark in 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 trademark largely consisted of shooting errant 3s from the back of the rim and dribbling the ball with his foot.

Brooks is (typically) one of the best players on one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA, but there’s no substitute for postseason experience. The Grizzlies are getting something, and it will pay off in the future, but the future is not now. His championship-proven opponent is making sure of that.

On Monday, the Grizzlies had every chance to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, in San Francisco, no less. But they were down three points when Brooks turned the spotlight over to Jaren Jackson Jr., a teammate who had plenty of time (about 15 seconds left in the game) to exercise patience. Instead, Jackson threw a 3-pointer with three defenders nearby. Golden State’s Draymond Green put a hand on the ball and Jackson fumbled.

“We rushed a couple of plays in there,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said after his team’s 101-98 loss. “We just have to learn from that and get better for the next game.”

Before Game 5 on Wednesday, the Grizzlies face another new experience: the possibility of elimination. They trail in the series, 3-1, and the status of Ja Morant, who missed Monday’s loss with sore right knee, is uncertain. It looks shady to them.

Against a lesser opponent, perhaps the Grizzlies could have more easily overcome his youthful exuberance, now combined with Morant’s absence. The Warriors are not a minor opponent. They showed it 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 dropped as many as 12 points.

“I gutted it,” said Stephen Curry, who recalled his impassioned exchange with Green after Green thwarted Jackson’s shot in the final minute. “Something to the effect of, ‘That’s what you do.’ Every chance we get to appreciate his greatness at that end of the floor, especially at this stage, that’s what it’s all about.”

Not too long ago, the series was expected to offer some 21st century basketball at its finest. Here were two teams capable of filling the box scores with offensive fireworks.

Beyond that, the series seemed to have the potential to become 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-plagued seasons.

So, the series was supposed to be an esthete’s delight, replete with sky-high 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 broke his elbow in Game 2 after Brooks hit him in the head while Payton was attempting 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 his own dirty play.

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 practice because he had entered the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols. Instead, Mike Brown, one of his assistants, would call the shots. The strangest part of all? Earlier in the day, the Sacramento Kings had named Brown their new head coach. (He will remain with Golden State through the postseason.)

Kerr’s absence added to the series’ feeling of wear and tear. Payton could be gone for the rest of the postseason. Morant was sitting behind the Grizzlies’ bench wearing a sweatshirt. And now Kerr had to watch the game from home, as part of a television audience gearing up for a harrowing night of theater.

Golden State has a well-earned reputation for playing a refined brand of basketball. But this is a team that can also win ugly, a not inconsiderable 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 screw everything up. After providing 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-for-19 from the field. Kyle Anderson was 2-for-7 from the free throw line. And Jackson missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“It’s hard 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 an intensive postseason session: a quick infusion of the secrets to winning high-stakes games. They won big during the regular season, finishing with the second-best record in the NBA. But winning when every game is emotional, when critical fouls don’t work out for them, 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 like they did, without their best player.

Memphis hasn’t disclosed the specific nature of Morant’s injury, but he hasn’t been immune to knee problems. 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 able to make fixes for Game 5, fixes he said were “simple” and “reassuring.” And what were they?

“I can’t reveal that information, mate,” he said. “Keep it a secret. But it is not something complicated. It’s not something we can’t do. Put it that way.

Memphis still has time to figure it out. But not much, especially against Golden State.

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