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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies play their FIRST Christmas game after 28 seasons

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies play their FIRST Christmas game after 28 seasons

Since their debut season in 1995-96, the Memphis Grizzlies have slowly crossed several franchise milestones.

Their first winning season (50-32) came in the 2003-04 season, while they first led 55 games nine years later.

And last year marked the team’s first division title when they finished second in the Western Conference in the regular season.

The Grizzlies have emerged as one of the most fun and exciting shows in the NBA

The Grizzlies have emerged as one of the most fun and exciting shows in the NBA

On Sunday against the Golden State Warriors, another landmark will be reached: the franchise’s first Christmas game.

Playing on the holiday – on national television – is a privilege usually reserved for teams in at least one of two categories: the best teams or the ones that get the most eyeballs.

However, while a Memphis team led by Ja Morant appeared to be the same things last season, there was no room for them on the Christmas slate before the schedules were determined before the season.

‘I wasn’t angry [at not getting a Christmas game last year] because I know it will come soon. And this season feels like the right time,’ NBA Twitter personality and lifelong Grizzlies fan Molly Morrison said.

‘It was the first time the world really took notice of Grizzlies basketball.’

As Morrison indicated, winning games isn’t always the issue for this franchise.

Although they struggled mightily in the first eight years of their existence (six of which came in Vancouver), they found their feet during the franchise’s ‘Grit n’ Grind’ era of the 2010s, producing seven straight trips to the playoffs and reached the Western Conference Finals in 2013.

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The problem? They are not exactly what national audiences want to watch.

The Grit n’ Grind Memphis squads are mediocre on offense and have consistently been one of the league’s slowest teams on that end, finishing last in pace between 2012-14. Their success was built on the offensive defense of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

Memphis achieved victory behind stingy defense of Tony Allen (left), Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph

Memphis achieved victory behind stingy defense of Tony Allen (left), Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph

And while they’ve managed three 50-win seasons and modest postseason success, the team lacks the true superstar or elite resume that usually leads to a Christmas selection.

That started to change a few years ago when Morant debuted in the 2019-20 season.

With the Murray State product – who would go on to win Rookie of the Year – Memphis didn’t just have someone expected to be a very good player. They have someone who gets attention on a level that past Grizzlies haven’t.

His lanky frame, tight handles and electrifying finishing have drawn comparisons to Allen Iverson. But Memphis’ front office has already acquired the rest of this roster.

Drafted at No. 4 a year before Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. has become one of the league’s best two-way big men while Desmond Bane (traded for draft night in 2020) is one of the NBA’s top threats.

Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks also carry some of the scoring load, while the bruising Steven Adams brings the flavor of the Grit n’ Grind era to the paint.

An impressive core emerged around Morant, but it was the MVP-candidate that took the franchise into new territory.

It’s the depth that made them successful. But Ja Morant is what makes them a team that is often talked about on national platforms,’ Morrison said.

‘Cause they’re superstars. It’s probably not why they should be, but it’s what it took to get the Grizzlies to that level of respectability.

A roster with a developing Morant and other talented young players should have been competitive last season.

For long stretches of the regular season, however, they were absolutely dominant.

Bolstered by their precocious core, the 56-26 Grizzlies finished second in the league in points per game and third in rushing to produce arguably the league’s most entertaining show toward neutrals — a complete turnaround from the days of the Grit n’ Grind.

Jaren Jackson Jr.  (left), Desmond Bane and Steven Adams excelled as starters alongside Morant

Jaren Jackson Jr. (left), Desmond Bane and Steven Adams excelled as starters alongside Morant

And while Memphis entered this season with more of a target on their back than last year’s out-of-nowhere squad, that progress has carried over into this season.

The Grizzlies enter Sunday’s game against a banged-up Warriors squad with a 20-11 record and second in the West standings.

To fully appreciate the team’s present, however, it’s worth looking back at their past.

Although the Grit n’ Grind teams failed to win a ring, they made an indelible impact on the local fanbase.

Memphis went from being a basketball afterthought to having its own brand of play, and their four postseason series wins during that span marked unprecedented success for the franchise.

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Randolph’s jersey was retired last year.

“Memphis has never been a city that really gets things like that, gets professional sports teams,” Morrison said.

‘So to have these guys come in and be really excited to play there and immerse themselves in the culture and get it all going – it’s really special.’

Zach Randolph holds a plaque as his jersey was retired last year by the Grizzlies

Zach Randolph holds a plaque as his jersey was retired last year by the Grizzlies

However, that prestigious Christmas game eludes them.

‘You’ll follow the incredible run in the playoffs and the national TV schedule will come out [before the season]… I don’t think Christmas Day felt like a huge snub because they didn’t want to put them on national TV in the first place,’ Morrison said.

‘Even at the height of their run, they don’t get the respect they deserve.’

In August, the NBA announced the schedule for this season.

The Grizzlies have been awarded a franchise-record 18 nationally televised games.

The next one, against Golden State, is of course just one in a long slog of a regular season contest.

This should be a win without Stephen Curry, and even if it isn’t, it will hardly doom Memphis’ postseason hopes.

However, Grizzlies fans like Morrison will love this one. After 27 seasons spent mostly on the fringes, Memphis is in the limelight.

‘It’s going to be a big day for me, it’s not going to be any other regular season game,’ he said. ‘I will consider this a playoff game, because the world’s gonna have their eyes on it.’