That was fun!
The Memphis Grizzlies’ young core responded to a couple early runs by the Rockets, and James Harden’s unending scoring onslaught with a scoring surge of their own. With a sense of control beyond their years, they put together a wildly fun run to punctuate this nationally-televised game. Ja Morant’s fancy assist on Jaren Jackson’s monster dunk roosted at the top of Twitter for a solid content cycle, showering NBA fans with the youthful electricity that’s been crackling for those of us in Memphis since Ja Morant returned from injury.
Not only do the Grizzlies find themselves well ahead of schedule regarding the most idealistic projections for a rebuild post-Grit-n-Grind, they’re enjoying a broader, national relevance in American (and dare I say worldwide) hoops culture.
The Grizzlies have won the heart of Memphis, as well as niche NBA fans and analysts with their vintage style in the past, but now they find themselves on the other end of the time spectrum—adding new chapters to the encyclopedia of how basketball can be played and won.
James Harden and the Rockets dominated the first quarter. Harden scored 15 of Houston’s first 24 points, going 6-8 from the field, and 2-3 from deep. The Grizzlies couldn’t find any solid footing on trying to contain Harden, from Kyle Anderson’s early foul on a three-pointer, to De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke’s defense getting picked apart by Harden’s masterful drives to the rim. Houston’s aggressiveness also showed early, as they converted on 10 of 11 free throws compared to the Grizzlies 2 for 2.
Ja Morant was the Grizzlies offense for most of the first quarter, scoring 11 of Memphis’ first 13 points, and assisting on a De’Anthony Melton three. Morant didn’t get much supplemental help from his teammates early on. The Grizzlies tried to exploit Jackson on P.J. Tucker in the post several times, but Tucker stood his ground, forcing Jackson to spin away and miss. Jonas Valanciunas had mixed success on elbow post-ups, but still chipped in 8 points. The bench provided immediate relief, however, contributing 13 of Memphis 32 points in the first, as well as 5 assists.
Brandon Clarke, per usual, was the epitome of efficiency in his limited time, going a perfect 3-3 for 6 points in 6 minutes. He also used his hops to fire off a tight high-low pass in traffic to Valanciunas at the rim.
The Grizzlies responded in the second quarter with a 17-2 run, as Ja Morant shifted to facilitation mode and got his team involved with 5 assists. After a scoreless first quarter, Jaren Jackson poured in 13 points on 5-6 shooting, including two threes and two steals. The play of the night came after Ja Morant corralled a loose ball, pushed it in transition, and, in a moment of benevolence, decided not to end the career of Daniel House Jr. by attacking the rim. Instead, Morant drew the defender away from the lane with a fancy behind-the-back dribble move, and dropped it off for Jaren Jackson to deliver his own career-ending monster dunk.
Morant delivered another slick-handles assist after Melton forced a Harden step-back miss, when Ja went behind his back to split the defense in transition and whip an alley-oop to a soaring and diving Brandon Clarke. Dillon Brooks also got loose, sinking two triples and adding 8 points. The defense was frisky, racking up 5 steals and forcing Harden into tough shots where he went 2-10. De’Anthony Melton was instrumental in containing Harden to a paltry nine points, and got under his skin to the tune of two fouls drawn.
Memphis led Houston 67-61 going into halftime, taking and making more shots than the Rockets. Jackson, Morant, and Valanciunas scored 13 a piece, including 5-5 from the field and 6 assists from Morant. Houston was driven almost entirely by James Harden, who scored 26 in the half, and Clint Capela, the sucker fish to the shark, with 12. 6th man Eric Gordon helped out with 10. The Rockets maintained a considerable free throw advantage, converting on 16 of 17 attempts to the Grizzlies’ 9-11. However, the difference between the Morant-led, dynamic and sharing Grizzlies offense and the Westbrook-less James Harden show was evident with Memphis piling up 20 assists to Houston’s 9. Memphis also showed commendable ball control, giving up 2 points on 3 turnovers while Houston coughed up 10 points on 8 turnovers.
Both teams turned in their smallest scoring totals in the third period. The Grizzlies shot 8-21 in the quarter, with Dillon Brooks land Jonas Valanciunas leading the way with 14 points combined to keep the Grizzlies two points ahead of Houston heading into the fourth. Harden was the only player to score in double figures in the third, but he shot 5-12 from the field. Clint Capela struggled as well, going scoreless and earning his fifth foul with over 3 minutes left in the third. While the offense didn’t go off in the third, the Grizzlies did enough on both sides of the ball to keep the game within their control. This was a welcome change of pace for third quarters in Memphis regarding years past.
Memphis closed out the game like seasoned veterans, with Ja Morant controlling the pace and setting table for his teammates. He had another perfect quarter from the field, going 4-4 for 11 points, including two timely threes, dished two assists, and grabbed three rebounds. As a team, the Grizzlies accumulated 7 assists and turned the ball over once. Taylor Jenkins also took the step of moving Jaren Jackson to the center position to close out the game, and the defensive benefit was undeniable. James Harden went 0-7 in the final period, contributing just 3 points.
Over the course of the game, the Grizzlies shot four more shots and converted on nine more field goal attempts than the Rockets. That’s the new offensive scheme at work. Houston shot 45 threes and made 14, but the Grizzlies converted on 16 of their 37 attempts from deep. Led by the dynamic rookie who plays the game like someone who’s been in the league for many years, much less in the midst of his first, the Grizzlies dished 29 assists while giving up 9 turnovers for 8 points. The Rockets managed 18 assists, but gave away the ball 16 times for 15 points. Memphis also crushed the Rockets in transition with 25 fast break points to the Houston’s 7.
“Tell that MF about me!”— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) January 15, 2020
All of these Ja Morant highlights are from THE SAME GAME!
26 PTS (10-11 FG) | 8 AST | 5 REB pic.twitter.com/gRar2wPNse
Before the game, Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni said the game would depend on “... who imposes their will the most.” While Houston has been ordained as a title-favorite, with the NBA’s scoring leader and offensive juggernaut James Harden, it was the Grizzlies who kept their composure, their calm, and their win at home. Ja Morant shined in the clutch while Harden withered.
Memphis defends home court, and their six-game winning streak, against the Cleveland Cavaliers this friday.