The Memphis Grizzlies must prove the NBA’s second-youngest team can learn the league’s toughest lesson that the playoffs are nothing like the regular season.
It’s also time these young Grizzlies grow up.
The Grizzlies’ third straight postseason — their second consecutive as the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed — ended Friday night in six games in the worst playoff loss in franchise history in 13 appearances. Anthony Davis, LeBron James and the Lakers humbled them after having to win the No. 7 seed in the play-in tournament.
“This is probably that moment in time that’s going to be the ultimate wake-up call,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said.
“Are we going to really understand it’s the preparation in the offseason and the preparation in the season? It’s what you do at work, off the court. Clearly, things that we’ve got to control and just embrace it together.”
Two-time All-Star point guard Ja Morant, who signed a five-year supermax contract last summer, will have the biggest chance to prove how much he can mature. Morant was suspended by the NBA for eight games in March and had almost as many off-court distractions as endorsement deals.
Morant, who set the franchise single-season record by averaging 26.2 points a game, said he understands where he can grow as a leader.
“I just got to be better with my decision-making,” Morant said. “That’s pretty much it. My off-the-court issues affected us as an organization pretty much. Just more disciplined.”
The Grizzlies set a franchise mark by going 35-6 at home this season, the NBA’s best home record since Golden State won 36 games in the 2016-17 season. Memphis needs to play better on the road after going 16-25, better than only Golden State among the teams reaching the first round.
Memphis lost all three playoff games in Los Angeles, with only Game 4 reaching overtime.
This was the fifth time Memphis’ playoff hopes were hampered by injuries or suspensions.
Morant missed Game 2 against the Lakers after aggravating his bruised right hand, while Dillon Brooks was ejected in Game 3 for striking James in the groin. Luke Kennard, the NBA’s top 3-point shooter, missed Game 6 with an injured shoulder.
The Grizzlies also didn’t have starting center Steven Adams, their oldest player, or key reserve Brandon Clarke because of season-ending injuries. Adams hurt his right knee in late January, and Clarke tore his left Achilles tendon in early March.
The Lakers dominated the Grizzlies on the boards.
“It would be dumb to say that it didn’t play a part in it,” third-year guard Desmond Bane said. ”(Adams) was a part of what we did all season long. Obviously (Clarke) was, too.”
In addition to Morant, the Grizzlies also have Jaren Jackson Jr., the NBA’s second-youngest player to be named defensive player of the year. Jackson, who also is 23, led the league and set a franchise record by averaging 3 blocks per game.
Jackson blossomed, particularly after Adams’ injury, and was picked for his first All-Star Game. He averaged 18.6 points and 6.8 rebounds, both career highs. Healthy going into the offseason, the five-year veteran who won’t turn 24 until September has more room to improve.
WHAT TO DO WITH BROOKS
The easiest decision for Memphis may be letting the 6-foot-6 Brooks leave as a free agent after five seasons. Yes, he’s a great defender who played his best against All-Stars during the regular season, but he also led the NBA in technical fouls.
Then came the playoffs. Brooks said he wanted to face the Lakers before calling James “old” and saying he didn’t respect anyone until they put up 40 on him. Well, the Lakers polished off the Grizzlies with a 40-point win in James’ 40th postseason series victory of his career.
Brooks didn’t help himself when he bolted the Memphis locker room after the series loss before reporters were allowed inside. The guard being paid $11.4 million this season on a rookie extension also didn’t talk after three of the losses in the series.
The Grizzlies hold club options on Xavier Tillman and Kennard for next season. They also have the 25th overall pick in the June draft.