The Grizzlies head into the NBA All-Star break with the best record in franchise history, a divisional lead and the third-best mark in the Western Conference – all points of reference in processing the team’s subpar performance in a loss to Portland on Wednesday night at FedExForum.
In the last game before the All-Star hiatus, Memphis (41-19) fell 123-119 to a Trailblazers team in reconstruction and that outplayed the Grizzlies overall.
Memphis’ All-Star weekend participants – Ja Morant as a starter, Desmond Bane as a Rising Stars game selection and 3-point shooting contestant – filled the stat sheets with top-level positive numbers: Morant – 44 points,11 assists, 5 rebounds; Bane – 30 points, 5 rebounds.
Still, it wasn’t enough as Portland (25-34) offset those performances en route to their fourth straight win after a six-game slide and seemingly powering up their lineup after the recent trade deadline.
“This is one game,” said Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins, as he shared his message to the team going into the All-Star break.
Continuing with his message, Jenkins said, “We’ve done a lot of stuff since we were 8-10 at one point. We’re 41-19, but we still have a lot of things to work on. We’ve controlled our ability to come out with great energy, great activity, high-level basketball more often than not and for a really long stretch. So, just keep building on that.”
Jenkins advised players to take a break from basketball, adding “… but when you do think about basketball, think about all of the great things that we’ve done and how we’re going to build on that in the second half of the season.”
Against Portland, the Grizzlies gave up a below-standard 68 points in the first half and trailed by 11 (68-57) at the break. With 4:38 left in the third quarter and the Grizzlies down by 10 points (84-74), they mounted a charge, cutting the lead to two before entering the fourth quarter down by four (94-90).
Memphis engineered its first lead (110-108) since being ahead 2-0 when Bane made a layup with 4:56 left but could not build upon it against the determined Blazers.
Particularly troubling for the Grizzlies defense was the play of Portland guard Anfernee Simons (31 points, 6 assists), center Jusuf Nurkic (32 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and guard Josh Hart (22 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists). Former Grizzlies forward Justice Winslow had 16 points in a starting role.
While Memphis forward Brandon Clark continued his effective play (12 points, 10 rebounds) and De’Anthony Melton had 9 points off the bench, subpar pretty much described what the Grizzlies got from players (such as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steve Adams) that have been coming up big with timely contributions throughout much of the season’s first half.
Before the game, the team presented Morant with his red number 12 All-Star jersey. Memphis enters the break with a six-game Southwest Division lead on the second-place Dallas Mavericks. The Grizzlies have never won a divisional championship.
“Obviously it stings going into All-Star break losing a game like this,” said Bane. “We put ourselves in a hole early but can’t lose sight of what we’ve done. Definitely remember this feeling, have something to build off of and kind of light a fire under us for that second half of the year.”
For Morant, the big takeaways from the pre-All-Star break portion of the season include, “Just how good we can be when we’re locked in on both ends of the floor.
“I feel like we’re a very tough team to beat when we’re locked in, especially on defense, because that fuels our offense. We get out in transition. We play very unselfish. It led us to 41 wins.”
Echoing Jenkins, Morant said, “We just got to, like he said, remember what got us to this point. What we’ve done in the first half of the season. Let this loss and what we have done before fuel us for the second half.”
Memphis will have nine days off before hitting the road to play Minnesota on Feb. 24.