*That game* happened to be last night, and it might go down as one of the greatest games in Grizzlies history.
After the first two contests of the season, it was evident that Ja Morant would have to quickly learn that many of the things that worked in college do not work in the NBA. If he didn’t learn that soon, he was going to get hurt. He was going to have to shoot more from the outside so people couldn’t always play him for the drive, and when he did drive, he needed to use finesse and not always try to make SportsCenter with the slam of the century.
Flash-forward to Sunday night. The Grizzlies played a competitive game for three quarters, as they had in the previous two games before they crumbled in the fourth, and my expectations were understandably low for how the outcome would be.
They have Kyrie Irving and we don’t, I thought to myself.
But then something changed, and all of the sudden it became, we have Ja Morant and they don’t.
Jaren Jackson Jr. was in foul trouble again, so if we were to win, Ja had to take over. And he did. He scored seventeen points in the fourth quarter, keeping the game competitive. The most important bucket came near the end, when he hit the shot to tie it up. Now the Nets had the ball with a chance to win.
The ball was in Kyrie Irving’s hands as he drove toward the basket. Most rookies would’ve warily thrown their hands up on defense, knowing if they attempted contact, a foul could easily be called. Ja Morant had a different idea. He didn’t go for the pump fake, stood his ground and blocked the shot with his left hand. Five free minutes of heart-thumping basketball was the result.
So regulation is over, and Grizzlies Twitter is going crazy. Ja not only just scored 17 points INCLUDING the game-tying shot, but he also just blocked one of the best players in the league.
The only way this could be better was if we actually won the game. With mere seconds left in overtime, we were forced to foul the Nets after a failed in-bounds pass. They missed the second free throw, and the ball was ours with 3.7 on the clock.
Morant dribbles downcourt. He’s a rookie who’s just scored 30 points; even if he’s double-teamed, a part of you would expect him to hurl up the ball to attempt the game-winner anyways. He’s young, caught up in the moment. But instead, he makes the smart pass to Jae Crowder, who’s in better position than he is to attempt the shot. It seems small, but his awareness and selflessness on this play is truly impressive.
Jae Crowder hits a three on the buzzer to win. The crowd goes wild. The young team storms the court, unable to hide their giddiness.
Buzzer beaters are always great. But what makes this one so special? What draws this one apart from some of the others?
A few years from now, Ja Morant is going to be a superstar. He’s going to be dropping thirty on any given night. There will be “fans” who have never stepped foot in Memphis wearing his jersey.
But they won’t remember that time Ja stepped up to the plate when we needed him; that time before he was an All-Star or a superstar when he blocked Kyrie freaking Irving in his third career NBA game. We’re here because we love the Grizzlies. They aren’t an elite team yet—they won’t even sniff the playoffs this year—but they’re our team. We will endure their growth, the good times and the bad.
And a few years down the line when the Grizzlies are a top team and Ja Morant is a top player, we’ll have to share that product with those who weren’t along for the ride with us. Memphis is going to see something we’ve never really seen before: bandwagon fans. They’re not all going to come at once, but it’ll happen, and suddenly being a Grizzlies fan will be the trendy thing. We’ll see more Grizzlies fan accounts pop up with Ja Morant as the profile picture; we won’t be met with scoffs and eye-rolls when we tell people from other cities we’re a Grizzlies fan.
This game was special because it was the beginning of something big.
The Grizzlies aren’t going to majestically be good all of the sudden. We’re still gonna lose, a lot, and we’re going to struggle. But last night, we saw a glimpse of the future. We saw Ja Morant, and Jaren Jackson, and Brandon Clarke skip around the court in celebration following their first real win together.
In five years, Ja Morant will be a superstar. Few outside of Memphis who wears his jersey will remember how he dropped 30 in his first NBA regular season win and blocked Kyrie Irving, or that he had the assist on the game-winning shot. Nobody but us. Because we were here, watching, shaking, smiling, celebrating.
Years from now, I hope to look back at this game when the Grizzlies are celebrating something much bigger, and our young core isn’t so young anymore, and remember how good it felt to be watching the dawning of this new era together.