As the clock ticked toward the one-minute mark in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, the Memphis Grizzlies trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers by three, and their 10-game winning streak was hanging in the balance. A few possessions of masterful defense later, the Grizzlies escaped with a 115-114 win to match a franchise record with 11 consecutive wins.
Now 31-13 on the season, the Grizzlies are tied with the Denver Nuggets atop the Western Conference standings. Ja Morant's brilliance gets most of the headlines, and rightfully so, but the Grizzlies' ascension has been just as much about their defense, which ranks first in the league at 108.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.
It was no surprise, then, that when the game was hanging in the balance on Wednesday night, their commitment to that side of the ball helped save the day. Over the final 1:14, the Grizzlies held the Cavaliers scoreless, blocked two shots and forced a crucial five-second violation.
Defensive Player of the Year favorite Jaren Jackson Jr. set the tone by showing off his versatility while guarding Darius Garland on a switch. First, the Cavs ran a high pick-and-roll to get Garland isolated against Jackson, and Jackson moved his feet well to force Garland into a deep step-back 3-pointer. Garland missed, but Evan Mobley tracked down the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Garland, who still had Jackson on him. This time, Garland was able to get a step on the big man, but Jackson recovered well and swatted his layup out of bounds for his fourth block of the game.
The Cavs took a timeout after the block to set up a play, but the Grizzlies showed off their strong team defense to force a huge turnover. Dillon Brooks blew up the screening action they tried to run for Garland, and the rest of the team denied their marks so effectively that the Cavs couldn't get the ball inbounds. That change in possession set up Adams' go-ahead tip-in with 16.6 seconds to play.
There was still time for the Cavaliers to get a good look and potentially win the game, but Brooks had other ideas. He picked Garland up fullcourt, refused to be screened by Jarrett Allen, forced Garland to give up the ball to avoid a turnover, then blocked Garland's 3-point attempt once he got it back.
It was a tremendous defensive sequence, but sounded quite simple the way Brooks described it.
"Just wanted to stick on him, they were trying to get a switch," Brooks said. "Tried to stay on him, he gave it up, I tried to stay on him again. He tried to side-step, take a jump shot and I was right there for the block."
The Grizzlies will now head out West for a grueling road trip that will see them play five games in eight days, and includes contests against the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors -- a budding rival who embarrassed the Grizzlies on national TV on Christmas.
For Brooks, extending this historic winning streak even further comes down to three things: "Keep playing with physicality, keep playing with heart and effort, keep playing together." The Grizzlies have done that all season long, and there's no reason to think they'll stop now.