Brandon Clark goes for a tip-in, battling Markieff Morris of the Lakers at the FedExForum (Jan. 5). (Photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.)
TSD columnist Lee Eric Smith.

Almost every NBA season, there’s a talented team with high expectations that sooner or later will have those expectations upended by injuries. The most recent and glaring example of that are the Golden State Warriors, who were already dealing with Klay Thompson’s ACL injury in 2019 when fellow Splash Brother Steph Curry broke his hand just four games into the 2019-20 season.

From NBA Champ to NBA Lottery in one season. Injuries.

Thank goodness Ja Morant’s ankle sprain during at 116-111 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 28. isn’t quite that serious. Optimistic team projections would mean him missing 10-11 games, returning in time for the MLK game against Phoenix.

There is no replacing what Morant brings to the team. You could say the same about Jaren Jackson Jr., a shot-blocking freak with a reliable three-point shot. Who knows what Justise Winslow will bring; injuries have kept him off the court since he arrived from Miami last February. And it would be nice if the injuries stopped there, but they don’t.

Though not injured, key reserve De’Anthony Melton was away from the team because of COVID safety protocols. And end-of-bench players Killian Tillie and Johntay Porter are both sidelined, as is Jon Konchar (ankle), who has worked his way into meaningful minutes in Coach Taylor Jenkins’ rotation.

With so much early-season adversity, wins will likely be hard to come by. And we won’t really get a glimpse as the Grizzlies’ true strength until Jackson and Winslow are healthy.

But if you expected these young cubs to fold, well, you haven’t been paying attention. The Grizzlies were competitive in both Lakers games, nearly pulling out a win in their snazzy Stax-inspired jerseys on Tuesday night.

The speed at which the Grizzlies play has changed. Their scrappiness has not.

“Our bench is crucial for us,” Jenkins said after the Grizzlies nail-biter 94-92 loss to the Lakers. “Any of those guys that come in, I love how hard they’re playing, how together they’re playing. They’re just scrapping on the defensive end. Guys are stepping into great roles right now and providing great spark off the bench.”

From his first press conference, Jenkins talked about cultivating a team identity of unity, accountability and competitiveness.

“One of the few things (we) don’t have to worry about (is) we’re very tight on and off the court,” Kyle Anderson said after his 28-point game helped seal the Brooklyn win after Morant went down. “We came here with a “road” mentality, trying to win games and we know to do that, we got to stick together.

Even when the star players are down, watching these young cubs hustle on defense will melt any Grizz fans heart. Memphis had 16 steals against the Lakers Tuesday, and held them to season lows in field goal percentage (43.7) and points.  Gorgui Dieng contributed 13 points to the effort.

“We have to be very active,” Dieng said. “On defense, you have to be active … trying to get steals and deflections. If one person starts it, everybody’s going to join, and I think that’s what we have.

“We’re not questioning ourselves to play hard,” he said. “I think this team plays hard every night, but we have to play smart every once in a while. We have to play smarter.”

That’s one of those “learning how to win” things that every young team has to go through, and despite the Grizzlies being ahead of schedule, they are not exempt from taking their lumps.

Fans won’t be in the stands anytime soon to roar their approval of this young hardworking squad. It’s a shame, because there is indeed so much to cheer for, especially in this 20th anniversary season in Memphis.

But even if fans can’t show up to the arena, they can rest assured that the Grizzlies are going to show up. And they’re going to work their butts off.

Big Spain returns to the Big M 

It’s been nearly two years since Marc Gasol was traded to Toronto, and more than a year since he won a championship there. NBA schedules, pandemics and Orlando bubbles all conspired to delay Gasol’s return to Memphis.

But the homecoming did finally happen. Of course, Gasol signed with the Lakers in the off-season and across both games in Memphis, scored 10 points to go with 10 rebounds and six assists.

Like the other revered members of Memphis’ “Core Four,” the Grizzlies played a tribute video to Gasol during a game break. But with only a fraction of fans in the arena, Gasol was robbed of the spine-tingling standing ovation he surely would have received.

After the game, LeBron said it best:

“I just hope that when we get our fans back, he can get another (tribute),” James said Sunday. “What he did for this franchise over the course of those years . . . It was hell coming in here playing them. Playing Marc, Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and T.A. (Tony Allen) and the rest of that group. You knew it was going to be a grind in The Grindhouse.

“I truly hope they show that video again when they get their fans back in here, not only for what he did on the floor but what he meant off the floor as well.”