Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Joe Mullinax, who covers the Memphis Grizzlies for SB Nation’s Grizzly Bear Blues.
The Grizzlies have won seven of eight since Ja Morant went down. What’s clicking so well for them during that run?
They’ve been so much better defensively, going literally from worst to first (or close to it at second place, depending on the metric). It isn’t all on Morant. Dillon Brooks is vital to efforts on that end, and he was out for much of the early season struggles. But the team is clearly more engaged on that end. Offensively, the ball moves more out of necessity. Without Morant, the explosiveness is lacking, but Memphis’ team-first mantra carries it (led by Desmond Bane, who has been a revelation all season long).
How does the Grizzlies’ approach on both ends change without Morant?
Offensively, they have to make up for what Morant brings by moving the ball quickly and swinging passes to recreate his speed off the dribble. While Steven Adams has been a mixed bag at times, he’s consistently been a solid screener; Tyus Jones, Bane, De’Anthony Melton and others have had space to work with off of those. That’s where the passing/cuts to the rim to create space for shooters comes in.
On defense, Memphis relies on the tenacity of preparation and effort that Brooks brings, as well as the versatility of Jaren Jackson Jr. (questionable for this game). Morant is a flawed defender at this point — part of the defensive growth has been his absence. But, of course, the Grizzlies would much rather have him than not. There hasn’t been enough of a sample size yet with Brooks back next to Morant to make any grand statements on just how much Morant “hurts” the team on that end of the floor.
What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?
With all the injuries Memphis has in the front court, whoever draws the Joel Embiid assignment bears watching. More often than not, it’ll probably be Xavier Tillman. He isn’t a schmuck defensively, but Embiid should have the advantage, given his size and handle. Santi Aldama and Killian Tillie are the names that will make Philly fans say “who the hell is that?” And that concerns me. They’re both good prospects for this Memphis team (as is Tillman). But Embiid is an MVP-caliber player. He may feast. And if he does, the Grizzlies are cooked.
Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?
My most pleasant surprise has been the ascent of Desmond Bane. I usually agree with the second-year player not being eligible for Most Improved Player idea because, of course, they’re better than a year prior. But Bane is almost a completely different player. He creates for himself and others off the dribble. He’s still a major threat from three. He can facilitate offense from the point guard position. He’s been special.
Biggest disappointment of the season?
Disappointment wise, it’s Kyle Anderson. His career year last season was probably always unsustainable, and he has been better of late (just in time with so many guys out). But he’s almost exclusively a 4 or a 5 now — he’s not a capable wing player any more. And given the (usual) depth for Memphis there, his place on the roster long-term is once again in question as trade season approaches.
What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?
Sixers fans should watch Dillon Brooks. He’s the quintessential “love him on our team, hate him when playing him” player. He plays with tremendous swagger and energy. His motor is relentless. He is capable of both winning the game for the Grizzlies as well as losing it; his confidence is a double-edged sword. Plus, he’s the most underrated dresser in the NBA. Be sure to check out his “drip” pre- and post-game — especially the sunglasses.