The youngest team to reach the conference semifinal round of the NBA playoffs in a quarter-century has wasted little time turning disappointment into motivation.
The Memphis Grizzlies' quest for the franchise's first league championship ended late Friday night in San Francisco, where the Golden State Warriors won 110-96 to close out the contentious series in six games. The Warriors, eliminated by Memphis in the play-in tournament a year ago, will play for the Western Conference title for the first time since 2019.
But as the Grizzlies headed home, they seemed to have soaked in every lesson from the successes and the setbacks of this season.
"This is going to motivate us moving forward," Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. "The growth individually, the growth collectively from this season, it's only going to make us better. This is a step in the direction of this bright future that we talk about all the time."
The Grizzlies have been taking big strides since a franchise reorganization in April 2019. They've gone from losing the first play-in game in NBA history at the end of the 2019-20 schedule — as the league completed its pandemic-interrupted season in a bubble environment near Orlando, Florida — to earning the No. 8 seed through the play-in tournament a year ago.
The second-youngest team in the NBA this season, Memphis earned the West's No. 2 seed for the first time by matching the most regular-season wins in franchise history with 56. The Grizzlies proved resilient as they won a playoff series for the first time in seven years, using multiple fourth-quarter rallies to top the Minnesota Timberwolves in six games before losing to the Warriors in six — the last three without All-Star guard Ja Morant, who was sidelined by a bone bruise in his right knee — with two Memphis losses by a combined four points.
Golden State is in the Western title round for the sixth time in eight years. The Warriors reached five straight NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019 and won three titles in that stretch, but they missed the playoffs the past two seasons as they dealt with injuries and adjusted to roster changes.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are making a splash in the postseason again, but Curry is 34, Thompson is 32 and the Grizzlies' Dillon Brooks, 26, believes a shift is in the works.
"They know that we're going to come every single year," Brooks said after scoring 30 points with a career-best seven 3-pointers Friday night. "We're young, they're getting old so they know we're coming every single year."
The Grizzlies obviously missed having Morant, honored as the league's most improved player from last season to this season, on the floor at the end of this series despite winning without him in blowout fashion in Game 5.
The good news for Morant, who turns 23 in August, and Memphis is he won't need surgery for the bruised bone in the same right knee he had an operation on after being the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2019. The bone bruise was the third injury to one of his knees this season.
He averaged 38 points and eight assists against the Warriors and joined Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history with multiple 45-point playoff performances before turning 23.
"Ja is one of the best point guards in this league, so you guys know that obviously it would change," Brooks said of Morant's absence. "But we made do with what we had."
The growth has happened across the roster for Memphis. Desmond Bane, who added 25 points for Memphis on Friday, has established himself as one of the NBA's top 3-point threats, setting the franchise single-season record this year with 228 made 3-pointers.
Brooks and Bane made clear the Grizzlies now understand the need to work harder each offseason — not only on improving different facets of their game but also at conditioning their bodies to handle the regular season and a long postseason.
"We've got to be healthy and realize that every year we are going to contend," Brooks said.
As for off-court business, Morant can sign a five-year extension this offseason and forward Kyle Anderson and guard Tyus Jones can become free agents, but team owner Robert Pera has said he's ready to spend what's needed to keep the Grizzlies together — and Jones gives Memphis plenty of options backing up Morant or playing beside him.
Memphis also has two first-round picks in the upcoming NBA draft at Nos. 22 and 29.