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Young Grizzlies showed they can play with the best in the NBA, and they’re only getting better

This is only the beginning, and the Grizzlies know it.

They know they boast the NBA’s second-youngest roster, yet catapulted to 56 wins anyway. They know they were missing their sole All-Star, Ja Morant, yet fought until the very end against a three-time champion. They know where the preseason predictions had them; they know that even the optimists kept them in the bottom part of the Western Conference’s competitive playoff picture.

They know after a 110-96, season-ending loss in Game 6 of their second-round series against the Warriors, a team they beat in the NBA Play-In Tournament a season ago, that they will have more chances. And the Warriors must know they could see this group again.

“They know that we’re gonna come every single year,” said Dillon Brooks, who scored 30 points on 11-of-28 shooting in the elimination game. “We’re young, and they’re getting old. So, they know we’re coming every single year.”

Even after a franchise-altering season severed, the Grizzlies still maintained their swagger. The bluster isn’t going away. And neither is this budding core.

Morant is 22 and eligible for a five-year max extension the moment free agency begins. Surely, the Grizzlies will offer him every cent they can. He’ll be locked in through 2028.

Desmond Bane, 23, is in only his second season and is coming off a career-changing leap, turning himself into one of the league’s premier young guards and one of the few names people should bring up when they discuss the league’s best shooters. The 22-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr. pulled off a similar leap. He takes over games with his defense and is under contract through 2026.

The Grizzlies have a chance at three home-grown All-Stars. The roster is loaded with players who aren’t easily exploitable in playoff series because they fight at both ends of the floor, the main reason this group is so successful even without Morant, who missed the final three games of the Warriors series because of a bone bruise in his right knee.

Even after a loss, these guys know how to put this in perspective.

“I’ve never been a part of a group like this, how special they are,” said head coach Taylor Jenkins, who joined the Grizzlies in 2019 and has been around the NBA since 2008. “That’s the players. That’s the coaches. That’s staff. … This is a step in the direction of this bright future that we talk about all the time.”

The reality is, runs like the Suns made last year are rare.

Phoenix leaped from out of the playoffs to the No. 2 seed in the West, then bulldozed its way to the Finals. Even with the addition of a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul, it was a true out-of-nowhere rise. But most other young teams go through incremental improvements.

To pick a random example: They go 34-39 in a pandemic-shortened season, then get a chance to compete in the first-ever Play-In Tournament but end up losing, lending their young guys — including their star-bound rookie point guard — experience in meaningful basketball. They follow up that campaign with, say, a 38-34 record and an upset victory over the Warriors in the Play-In, then have to battle the No. 1-seeded, far more sophisticated Jazz in Round 1, giving them a little more wisdom, even during a five-game series loss. They come out the following season and break out with 56 wins, a playoff-series victory and a gritty six-game loss to a group that’s now made six Western Conference finals in eight years.

They overcome one obstacle, set their sights a little higher the next time, then overcome the next until there are no more hurdles in their way — and, if all goes right, a trophy in their hands.

This season, even though it ended in a loss, changed the Grizzlies’ ambitions.

Morant hurt his knee. Bane wrestled through a lower-back injury for much of the postseason. As Brooks put it, they have to prepare their bodies for more than just basketball through April.

“Every single year for us is gonna be elongated; not just 82 (games played),” Brooks said “What is it, 100 and whatever (games)? So, we gotta be healthy and realize that every year, we are going to contend.”

The Grizzlies will get better if only because guys like Bane, Morant and Jackson — and even role players such as 2021 first-round pick Ziaire Williams — get a year older. But they have decisions to make this offseason.

Brooks and Steven Adams will enter the final seasons of their contracts. Kyle Anderson is a free agent. Tyus Jones, the point guard who was a major reason for their 21-7 record without Morant (including the playoffs), will hit the open market, too. The current front office has spent the past few offseasons canvassing the league for ways to add future value. The Grizzlies take in players on expensive contracts so they can add the draft sweeteners that come with them. They have two more first-round picks in the 20s this June.

Some of the names on the periphery can change, but the core is ready to run it back.

Grizzlies players all reeled off different versions of the same thought following the loss, sentiments in line with Jenkins’ about this group being unlike any he had been a part of before.

Brooks echoed his coach. Jones called this a “unique” ensemble.

“This is not normal,” Jones said. “This is easily the closest team that I’ve been on.”

It shows.

It shows with their unflappable energy, demolishing the Warriors without Morant in a do-or-die Game 5 at home, then keeping it close until late in Game 6 when a once-cold Stephen Curry eventually started doing Stephen Curry things. It shows with the way they defend. It shows with their physicality. It shows with the way they respond to runs from a veteran team that could otherwise kill the spirit of a youthful group.

Many of the same names will be back again next year, older, wiser, probably healthier, yet still years away from their first gray hairs.

Jackson attributes the team chemistry to “continuity.” He referenced a “seasoned” Jenkins being in his third year at the helm. He mentioned that many of the same guys who were in Memphis last year and the year before that were still around.

Chances are, that will carry into 2022-23, when a second-round playoff appearance probably won’t quench their thirst anymore.

“It was hard to explain,” Jackson said. “We were just rocking with each other. … It was crazy. It’s just genuine. It’s natural. I don’t know, man. You’re playing with your friends out there. Like, we really rock with each other. We hurt for each other, and we want shit for each other.”

(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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