Lowe: Why Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are primed for ascension

    Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.

After watching his Memphis Grizzlies players celebrate in the visitors locker room, having just defeated the Golden State Warriors in a second play-in game for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference, Taylor Jenkins — the Grizzlies’ young coach — retreated to a separate room with his staff.

They sought quiet, a moment to reflect on what the young Grizzlies had just done — and what they were about to face. The Grizzlies had played a league-high 40 regular-season games after the All-Star break — the helter-skelter schedule resulting from several postponements linked to health and safety protocols. They’d finished with eight games in 12 nights in five cities — before hosting the San Antonio Spurs in the first play-in game and then hopscotching to San Francisco.

“Sometimes,” Jenkins says, “it was like, ‘Wait, where are we?'”

Two players suddenly popped their heads in to see what the coaches were up to: Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks. The coaches looked up, surprised.

“We have more work to do,” Morant assured them, according to Morant and Jenkins.

“We are built for this,” Brooks added.

“It wasn’t ever, ‘I am built for this,'” Jenkins says now. “It was ‘we.’ For such a young team, there’s a confidence and a belief in what we are supposed to do, how to build for these kinds of moments and what we can achieve.”

Three-plus years ago, the “Grit and Grind” era was dying. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were the marquee holdovers, aging and injured. The team had fired coach David Fizdale, the anointed successor with the Miami Heat sheen, amid some tension between Fizdale and Gasol. The Chandler Parsons deal had busted. They owed a valuable first-round pick to the Boston Celtics. Only one player on the 2017-18 team that finished 22-60 — Brooks — is on the roster today.

They sniffed .500 way ahead of schedule last season before losing the bubble play-in, with Morant gutting through a thumb injury. A lot of analysts — this one included — cautioned about a potential step back this season; the Grizzlies are one of the league’s youngest teams, and the West was loaded.

There was no such slide, despite Jaren Jackson Jr. missing almost the entire regular season. Memphis finished 38-34, won the No. 8 seed, and pushed the top-seeded Utah Jazz in a hard-fought, five-game, first-round loss that concluded Wednesday.

“Now, we just need to grow,” says Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies’ battering ram of a center. “We have the right people — good people. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we are headed in the right direction.”

The right people. Good people.

The Grizzlies play with a steely toughness and unselfishness that flows from Morant. He is a star in the most traditional sense: a supernova with a zeal for highlight dunks and a snarling confidence.

“He goes so fast sometimes, I can’t even really process what he’s seeing,” Jenkins says.

In his third NBA start, Morant tied a game against the Brooklyn Nets on a layup with seven seconds remaining, blocked Kyrie Irving’s jumper at the end of regulation, and screamed and flexed in celebration — a brazen, fearless declaration: I am here. I back down from no one.

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