The Secret Is Out on How Good the Grizzlies Can Be

The young Memphis Grizzlies aren’t underdogs anymore, and that’s causing some growing pains. But they are confident — and having fun.

SACRAMENTO — Ja Morant rejected the premise of the question.

He was being asked to think back to the way his last N.B.A. season ended. The Memphis Grizzlies had won one of the first three games of a Western Conference semifinal series against Golden State, then Morant got hurt and missed the rest of it. Golden State won the series in six games and later won the title.

What did the Grizzlies learn from that loss to the eventual champions?

Sitting in a postgame locker room in late October, Morant chuckled and looked away.

“I feel like we had it,” Morant said. “So that’s what I took from it.”

Confidence is part of the design for the Grizzlies. Morant is the best-known face of this, but confidence permeates the roster, and players and coaches encourage it in everyone, no matter how many minutes they play.

For the past three seasons, the Grizzlies have thrived on the premise that nobody else knew how good they could be.

“This year the expectation is for us to repeat that same performance as last year,” Grizzlies guard Tyus Jones said. “So now we have a target on our back, and that’s different. We can’t sneak up on anybody anymore.”

They are still a young team — the average age of their starters is 25 — and with a 9-4 record heading into Sunday’s game against the Wizards, they are still figuring out how to win consistently. But now everybody knows how dangerous they are with their explosive offense and a tenacious defense that leads to thrilling fast breaks. Their challenge this year is learning what to do when they aren’t underdogs anymore. The self-assuredness that has come to typify the Grizzlies has not changed. But the Grizzlies are growing up, and so are their ambitions.

“You look across the league and all the teams, the players, that won N.B.A. championships historically have been old,” Desmond Bane, 24, said. “We can rewrite that story.”

Three players in their 30s led Golden State to the title last season. The average age of the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff starters in their championship year, 2021, was 30.4. The Los Angeles Lakers won in 2020, driven by a 35-year-old LeBron James.

But for the Grizzlies, growing up doesn’t mean leaving behind the youthful bravado for which they are known.

They still interrupt each other’s interviews to yell inside jokes. They still point at defenders when they beat them. They still laugh at one another when they get dunked on.

“They’re cheeky bastards, all of them,” said Steven Adams, who at 29 is the oldest Grizzlies starter.

Their raucousness was forged when they had to play in buildings without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. The energy to compete had to come from within.

“The origin of our spirit and our swag really came about in the bubble,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Back in 2020.”

The 2019-20 season was Jenkins’ first as the Grizzlies head coach. It started like any other but ended in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where the N.B.A. finished its season at Walt Disney World with limited contact with the outside world because of the pandemic. Morant was a slight 20-year-old learning how to feel comfortable in the N.B.A. Bane joined the team the next season, when they were back in Memphis. But fans still weren’t allowed in the arena most of the year, and the players couldn’t spend much time outside their hotel rooms on the road because of the pandemic.

Last season, they blossomed from being merely interesting to being a threat in the playoffs. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and fought their way past the Minnesota Timberwolves for that second-round meeting with Golden State.

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Losing to Golden State has stayed with many of them. Eleven players from last year’s team returned.

“It’s that feeling that I won’t forget,” Bane said. “Just empty. I want more. I think we all want more.”

Adams is one of the few Grizzlies players who have extensive playoff experience, having been to the Western Conference finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“They still feel what happened last year,” he said of his Grizzlies teammates. “That still weighs on them in a good way.”

They’ve focused on the little details that got in their way last season.

Morant has become more vocal in practices. Jones said Morant has stopped practices to point out ways to work differently or better — something Jones said was less common last year.

“That comes with playing and having been through a couple of seasons now, and just the game slowing down,” Jones, 26, said. “And being more familiar with the game, being more familiar with his game.”

Morant is also familiar with everyone else’s game. He studies film of his teammates, even from their college days.

This year, with Jaren Jackson Jr. still recovering from a foot injury, the second-year forward Santi Aldama has been in the starting lineup with Morant.

“Starting to play more minutes with him this season, I realize he knows my tendencies,” Aldama said. “He knows what I like to do, and he knows how to talk to me so I can help the team be better.”

John Konchar, a reserve guard, has noticed that Morant seems to always know exactly where to give him the ball for the best possible shot.

For both Aldama and Konchar, Morant’s confidence in them helped build their belief in themselves.

The confidence from the coaches helps, too. They welcome feedback from anyone on the roster. Bane, who is one of the better guards in the league, appreciates that boost from Jenkins.

“I never played for a coach that was so just, like, gives so much confidence,” said Bane, who had a minor shooting slump to start the season before scoring 38, 31 and 32 points over three consecutive games in late October. “He’ll tell everybody on the team: ‘Let it fly if you’re open. Shoot it. Shoot it with confidence. You put the work in.’”

The Grizzlies also seem to know confidence is contagious.

After an October win over the Sacramento Kings, the rookie Jake LaRavia was chosen for the postgame interview on the team’s local broadcast after he scored a career high 13 points. Jones joined the interview and chanted, “Shoot the ball, Rook!” as LaRavia spoke, and Jackson patted LaRavia on the head. Adams arrived a few seconds later and hugged LaRavia around his shoulders before leading the group in a cheer — a version of the Spanish word for “yes” — made famous by the soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

“When you see Ja do that, when you see Jaren do that, when you see Des do that, when you see Dillon do that, everyone else kind of gravitates toward that,” Jenkins said. “And goes, hey, wow, that’s kind of who I am so this actually makes sense with this group.”

Their energy has carried over from last season, but they are still working on becoming whole for another run to the playoffs. Jackson is expected to return from his foot injury within the next month or so. Danny Green, 35, whom the Grizzlies acquired in a summer trade with Philadelphia, has not played yet because he’s recovering from a knee injury.

The Grizzlies were tied with Portland for the second-best record in the Western Conference entering Sunday’s games. They have fumed about each loss as if it counted for more than just one of the season’s 82 games.

Months remain until they’ll have another chance to attack the playoffs, so they aren’t talking about that much, right now.

But they have talked about it. Bane and Morant have discussed winning a championship together in Memphis one day. Morant signed a five-year extension in July. Bane is under contract through the 2023-24 season but can negotiate an extension next summer.

“Not saying this year or next year — who knows when it comes,” Bane said of winning a championship. “But that’s our goal before we move on to our next step in life, whatever that may be.”

He said it with the quiet confidence of someone who believes this is only the beginning.

“This was originally published on nytimes.com

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