It’s not a good look for a team with NBA championship aspirations to have visitors beat you down by 17 points on your home court. When it happens, the focus should be on restoring order the next time that team comes around.
Smacked 125-108 by Phoenix on Dec. 28, the Memphis Grizzlies answered the Suns’ challenge during Monday’s annual MLK Day game, running them out of FedExForum with a 136-106 reversal of fortune.
The 10th straight Memphis win was its 18th at FedExForum in 21 games this season and lifted the Grizzlies (30-13) back into a tie with Denver for the Western Conference lead.
“Just one day at a time,” said Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins. “I’m proud of the guys. I challenged them before the game to have the right mentality, urgency and physicality against this team that came into our building a couple of weeks ago and punked us.”
In the earlier loss against Phoenix, which followed Memphis’ 125-100 drubbing of the Suns less than a week before, the Grizzlies fell to a team without All-Star Devin Brooker and largely powered that night by Duane Washington Jr., a second-year, two-way guard, who scored a career-high 26 points.
“I thought we didn’t come out with urgency, physicality, mentality to start the first quarter (on Monday) and then progressively got better: 36 points for the Suns (in the first quarter), 29 (in the second quarter), 23 (in the third quarter), 18 (in the fourth quarter). Especially in that second half, we started locking down,” Jenkins said.
Ja Morant, Memphis’ pacesetting offensive force, said the team’s defensive mindset was fundamental to its winning streak.
“I felt like we’ve been very consistent. Obviously, we have some defensive matches in the game and here’s where teams pretty much get what they want, but once we lock in defensively, we’re a pretty tough team to beat,” said Morant.
“With all the scoring we got around this team, offense is pretty much not the problem. We really don’t focus on offense too much. We’re defensive-minded first, and once we get stops, it opens up everything for us, transition and offensively.”
Memphis scored the first two points of the game before the Suns dominated, leading by 11 points (36-25) with a minute-plus to go in the first quarter. The second unit led by Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke steadied the Grizzlies, who trailed by seven at the break.
“We take pride in it (bench production,” said Santi Aldama, who had six points and five rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench. “We have to match the energy or exceed what the first unit does. It was a weird first half. They punched first and then we came back.”
The bench scored 44 points. Reserve point guard Tyus Jones had 10 points, eight assists and five rebounds in 21 minutes.
“That is what a great team is all about. It is not always about what the first unit does. There are going to be nights when the second unit has to pick it up. We take pride in that,” Jones said.
With 2:10 left in the first half, the Grizzlies led the Suns 64-58. Morant had 11 of his 29 points in the second quarter and Memphis led at halftime 68-65.
The Suns could not match the energy or the Grizzlies’ talent in the third quarter. Memphis ballooned its lead to 37 points and led by 19 (107-88) going into the fourth quarter. Morant did not play in the final quarter. With less than five minutes to play, the Grizzlies emptied their bench.
Asked if the team play was playing with more confidence this season, Morant said, “No, we always had confidence; last year and the year before, same thing. Just gelling as a unit, getting to know guys.
“Chemistry is getting better. That’s pretty much it, man. Nothing has really changed for us; just having that experience, having the past two years, what we learned throughout the whole season and last year’s season; just taking it into this season.
“There are bumps in the road, but we know we can turn a page really fast, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Mikal Bridges led Phoenix with 21 points and 7 assists. Deandre Ayton had 18 points and 5 rebounds. The Suns turned the ball over 15 times.
The Grizzlies’ backcourt was formidable. Morant had seven assists to go with his 29 points. Desmond Bane had 28 points and six assists. They combined on eight three-pointers. Jaren Jackson Jr. had 18 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots. Brandon Clarke had 13 points off the bench and a monstrous dunk.
Phoenix head coach Monty Williams, put playing on MLK Day into this context:
“I think it’s really cool for us. I hope it’s cool for younger players, who may have only heard about Dr. King or read something about him in school; may not have had the experience of relatives, like I did, telling me about what it was like to live in a society where you weren’t treated well.”
Today’s young players are growing up dealing with situations such as the police killing of George Floyd and “other situations that are just as heinous,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure they have the experience like I did of having a grandfather who knew what it was like to watch Dr. King and look up to Dr. King and have family members who looked up to people like Dr. King, not just him, white and black, who crossed bridges, held signs and sacrificed a lot for someone like me to be in this position.”
So, said Williams, “I think days like today allow for these younger guys to put videos to the experience and all the stories, and hopefully it creates for them the backbone and the wherewithal to stand up when they see things that aren’t right in society.”
On Wednesday (Jan. 18), the Grizzlies host the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first meeting of the year between the two teams. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN. It will be the last game before a five-game road trip.