Why the Memphis Grizzlies struggle with late-game execution

As Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard dropped 42 points and backed up his “Dame Time” celebration in a 122-112 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum, it highlighted one of the biggest struggles of the season.

Remember star guard Ja Morant’s “Call 12” celebration? The one he brought up often last season when he finished as one of the NBA’s top scorers and made big baskets all season long. Where was that?

Wednesday’s loss against the Blazers (25-26) was another game that highlighted the Grizzlies’ recent struggles to finish games. Memphis (32-19) has lost six of seven games. The Grizzlies either led in the fourth quarter or trailed by one possession in four of the losses.

“It’s something we’re studying,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Our execution needs to improve. When we announce matches, teams change matches and coverage for us, which we take into account.”

Jenkins also noted that the Grizzlies haven’t practiced in three weeks because of the schedule and the weather. During a recent five-game winless road trip, Memphis held just one shutout.

When the Grizzlies have two days between games, there is usually a time when they can enjoy practice. Ice storms have hit Memphis the past few days, so the Grizzlies did not practice Monday or Tuesday.

“Those things are valuable, especially when you’re down a couple of games,” Grizzlies guard Desmond Bain said. “You have a chance to get back in the gym and tighten some things. Even shooting, with the way our schedule is set up, it was hard to connect with anything.”

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Identify performance issues at the end of the game

The recent late-game struggles are a product of similar problems from last season’s playoffs. Memphis does most of its offensive damage in quick zones, such as second-chance points and transition scoring. The half-court offense leaves a lot to be desired, and this is demonstrated more when teams turn up the intensity late in games.

Morant scored five of his 32 points on 1-for-4 shooting in the fourth quarter against the Blazers.

Jenkins said the Grizzlies “take note” of what opponents throw at Morant in late-game situations. There’s also an emphasis on getting more shots of Bane and making a Jaron Jackson Jr. appearance.

Jackson shot 9-for-14 and had 18 points along with six blocks against the Blazers. He scored eight points in the fourth quarter, but after his basket tied the game at 109 with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter, he attempted just one more shot, which was a 3-pointer.

Most teams that thrive in late game scenarios can open up mismatches and feed the hot hands late, and that’s something the Grizzlies are still learning.

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Shootouts highlighted at the end of games

Lillard hit a 3-pointer to give Portland a 3-point lead with 1:49 left in the fourth quarter. On the Grizzlies’ next play, Morant threw the ball late against the Blazers’ full defense in the paint and kicked the ball to a wide open Dylan Brooks. He missed the shot, and then the Blazers scored on their next possession to take a five-point lead with 1:19 left.

Shooting is a game-changer in late-game execution. Memphis has not made more 3-pointers against an opponent in its last eight games. In that stretch, the Grizzlies were outscored 114-79 in total 3-pointers. That’s a total of 105 points during a streak in which the Grizzlies have been outscored by 46 and mostly lost late in fourth quarters.

Those stats showed again on Wednesday when the Grizzlies and Blazers each shot 47.1 percent from the field, but Portland made 14 3-pointers compared to Memphis’ nine.

“We’ve got to find a way to make baskets,” Brooks said. “I need to start hitting some threes. And then find ways to get rebounds and find ways to score.”

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