Ja Morant has been a firecracker in the Memphis Grizzlies’ recent play-in and playoff showcase, including a 47 point, 8 assist, 4 rebound showcase in Game 2 of his team’s opening-round matchup against the league-leading Utah Jazz. The thing is, Morant’s explosive performance wasn’t enough to get the win, with the Griz falling to the Jazz 141-129. So, how does this team of youngins recreate their Game 1 success?
Through their season’s unsung veteran hero, a former Raptor and fan favourite: Jonas Valanciunas.
Jonas is the kind of player you love in spite of his flaws. He’s the guy whose limitations — e.g his play-making and pick-and-roll defense — you blatantly ignore, and there’s no good reason why. It could be the fact that watching a 7-foot Lithuanian bear execute the world’s slowest 3-point pump fake and have it work is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever witnessed. It could be the wonder that is Itty Bitty Ballers. It could also be that he’s actually a pretty good basketball player at his best — but where’s the nostalgia in that?
I remember watching Valanciunas when he first came into the league, downing crappy beer in a crappy bar while listening to my buddy Matt talk the guy up like he was the second coming of Hakeem. (This too may be something JV very much enjoys.) The endless gaslighting actually worked, leading me to love Jonas’ weird shot fake, jab step and old-school post-up offensive game. Without a Toronto team to cheer for in the playoffs, watching Valanciunas’ rumbling in this post-season has given me a sense of familiarity that I’m finding oddly comforting (though Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks aren’t a half-bad watch either).
The Raptors’ former fan favourite has turned in one hell of a season with Memphis, posting the highest single-season Win Shares per 48 and Box Plus/Minus of his career (.213 and 2.7 respectively) while also contributing 49 double-doubles on the season (tying him with series adversary Rudy Gobert for third in the league).
The problem is while Jonas has matured his game and solidified his interior presence as he’s added some weight to his mammoth frame, some of the things that haunted him while he was in Toronto continue to be an issue in Memphis, particularly his issues with fouls and his slow defensive movement.
Valanciunas played 39 minutes in Game 1, and his presence was felt as he bodied likely-Defensive Player of the Year Gobert in the post and worked the high pick-and-roll, allowing Morant and Brooks to drive down the lane. The barrage of screens and drives forced Gobert into foul trouble, leading to a foul-out in the fourth quarter for the French centre. There likely isn’t a more important factor to beating Utah than neutralizing their defensive anchor.
But in Game 2, the roles were reversed, and the lanes Memphis had worked in Game 1 were quickly closed by the Stifle Tower. Jonas found himself in early foul trouble in the first half and was limited to 30 minutes overall. The Lumbering Lithuanian I used to watch trip over himself in pick-and-roll defense was on full display, and it cost Memphis their one true deep-post presence (I love Jaren Jackson Jr. but he’s a different style of big man and has missed quite a bit of time already. He’s also still got some growing to do).
All of this is to say that the Valanciunas we remember in Toronto is the Jonas Memphis needs to incorporate more (on offense at least). Ideally, they need to run the ball through Jonas more. God knows I remember him jab stepping at the elbow his entire Toronto career, looking to pop a short two or getting deep back in the post while looking (maybe) to hit a cutter with a quick pass. Even Utah coach Quin Snyder talked about Jonas’ presence after Memphis’ 3rd quarter comeback in Game 2, saying “You know, Valanciunas on the post, we gotta be ready to help when he gets that deep. A lot of things defensively we just gotta be better.”
Defensively, on the other hand, well yeah, there are issues there. Memphis is stuck with Valanciunas’ lack of mobility down low, and with Donovan Mitchell back in the lineup for Utah, the Jazz are going to target JV over and over. That’s been the biggest problem in his entire career. Despite working as hard as he does, Valanciunas just doesn’t have the agility, speed, and anticipatory skills to offer up enough of a defensive counter. It makes you want to smack your head against the coffee table sometimes, but you know it’s gonna happen. Still, Memphis needs Valanciunas’ presence in the post, so they’ll have to rotate and help on D if they want a fully functioning offense. Like I said, you love the guy in spite of his flaws.
Ultimately, having no horse in the race can take some of the lustre out of the playoffs. Thinking back to the Raptors championship team, it’s possible to remember DeMar DeRozan and all the years he dedicated to Toronto only to then miss out on a ring. I’ve always felt the same about JV. Between his entertaining game and his affable nature, I’d say he’s earned some playoff success. Hell, the years of unnecessary benchings from coach Dwane Casey should get the guy a medal.
So, if you’ve got nothing better to do, tune in. We’re living in some pretty stressful times. A little Raptor nostalgia from a big former Raptor may be the perfect reason to bandwagon a young, exciting team this year.