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VOL. 133 | NO. 75 | Friday, April 13, 2018
Don Wade

Don Wade

For the Grizzlies, a Last Loss and a Lesson from Russell Westbrook

By Don Wade

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The last game of a season is like the last chapter of a book. You need it, even if it’s not very good and you already know how things turn out.

So on Wednesday, April 11, with the Grizzlies playing their final game of this wretched season at Oklahoma City and Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight on the call via Fox Sports Southeast, I tuned in.

I will admit to sampling a Memphis-brewed IPA – in moderation, of course – as I watched. I will admit to R-rated language when Ben McLemore did something stupid, like fouling Paul George from beyond the arc or hurling a 3-pointer early in the shot clock in the general direction of the basket.

But my big admission, the one I need you to understand, is this:

I love watching Russell Westbrook play. I no longer can hold against him his diva-like expressions or the fact that in better times he was matched up against the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley – the anti-diva.

On this night Westbrook needed 16 rebounds against the Grizzlies to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double in two straight seasons. So he tailored his game to the task at hand. He grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds and handed out 19 assists. He scored but six points and still dominated.

Afterward, when the Grizzlies had lost 137-123 to finish the season 22-60, interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said exactly what I was thinking: “His numbers help them win. They’re not meaningless numbers.”

As Bickerstaff noted, Westbrook plays with a “burning fire.” In this age of NBA players getting more prescribed rest in their primes than any of our grandfathers got in their lifetimes, Westbrook is, more than anything else, refreshing.

He also makes me want to ask McLemore and sleepy Deyonta Davis this question: If playing hard every possession is good enough for Russell Westbrook, why the hell (OK, that’s the IPA talking) can’t you do it at least every other possession?

This is why Memphis rookie Dillon Brooks has become the most fun player to watch. Conley’s hurt. Chandler Parsons is hurt (of course). Marc Gasol was wisely sat down for the last game and a bunch of other guys were ailing or tending to personal business (Tyreke Evans). So the Grizzlies become Dillon Brooks and whoever else plays on a given night.

On this night, he went for a career-high 36 points – the most ever by a Grizzlies rookie in the Memphis era. He also played all 82 games, or 12 more games than the Grizzlies have gotten from Parsons the last two years combined.

So while the Thunder’s Paul George was scoring 40 points and Steven Adams was taking advantage of Gasol’s absence to have his way around the basket, I was looking for hopeful signs.

Obviously, Dillon Brooks led this category. But rookie Ivan Rabb plays hard, too, and in the second quarter he had a very nice up-and-under move for a two-hand dunk. The guy just acts like he appreciates being on an NBA court. That’s a start.

Omari Johnson, who spent most of the season with the G League’s Memphis Hustle, has a nice shooting stroke and hit 3-of-5 from deep at OKC. Might he take on a Troy Daniels-type role next season?

And MarShon Brooks, who did so well with his 10-day contract that the Grizzlies signed him to a multi-year deal, could possibly turn out to be a more-under-control version of the instant offense that Lance Stephenson once provided.

I get that it was a rough year. The Grizzlies’ string of seven straight playoff appearances ended. The next meaningful date is May 15, night of the Draft Lottery, and then on June 21 the 2018 NBA Draft. Both those events will shape the Grizzlies’ future.

But it was comforting to watch the last game and feel like, despite the record, there are some potentially useful pieces on this team to put around Gasol and Conley.

And it was nice to be reminded in this post-Grit & Grind era – courtesy of Russell Westbrook and Dillon Brooks – that playing hard still matters and will always matter.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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