In what could be one of the more exciting one-on-one matchups in the NBA over the next decade (hopefully more), Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks visited Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies for a special day-after-Christmas spectacular in the Bluff City. While the young point guards were sure to be the focal points, for Memphis, a bigger need for the entire roster to improve production unexpectedly emerged when it was announced that De’Anthony Melton would be unable to play. As a result, “next man up” was the mentality, especially in an effort to support Morant after his historic performance Wednesday night.
While Morant and Young both got their share of looks to begin the game, the story of the first quarter was Kyle Anderson and Kevin Huerter. With the starters in the game, just like Wednesday, the Grizzlies established an early lead thanks to four points and seven rebounds from Anderson. Effective defense and rebounding helped the Grizzlies cause early on. However, once the second units began to enter the game. Kevin Huerter displayed a sizzling shooting stroke, scoring ten points while going 4-4 from the field to help Atlanta establish an early 27-21 lead.
The Grizzlies struggled early into the second quarter. Though Jonas Valanciunas made his presence felt, the Grizzlies could not find any success shooting from distance, as they started out 9-26 from the field overall, including 2-13 from beyond the arc. The Grizzlies stated to find some success getting looks in the paint, and cut the Hawks lead to three at 36-33. Though the Grizzles had a few bad defensive possessions, another 7-0 run sparked by Morant and Anderson made the score 41-40 Hawks halfway through the second quarter.
The Hawks and Grizzlies continued to go back and fourth for the remainder of the second, as Morant and Anderson both continued to find offensive success. John Konchar, Gorgui Dieng, Desmond Bane, and others stepped up into expanded roles and offered needed minutes, so Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas could get some needed rest. Anderson recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, while Morant contributed 15 points and four assists on 6-9 shooting from the field. The Grizzlies starters were clearly more effective than the Hawks starting unit, so the rest at the end of the second quarter for Brooks, Allen, and Valanciunas was hopefully done to give extended runs with Morant and Anderson in the second half.
A back and fourth start to the second half for both teams allowed for the Grizzlies to take a two point lead in the first three minutes of the second half. Brooks, Valanciunas, Morant, and Anderson all connected on good looks from three to help Memphis get off to an excellent offensive start. Young began to find success with his floater, while Brooks made some less than ideal decisions on multiple offensive possessions. The Grizzlies would then go four minutes with only four points scored, allowing the Hawks to get their lead back up to eight.
Coach Jenkins experimented with three and four guard lineups during the quarter with Brandon Clarke as the primary big. Though there were some initial struggles, the lineup was able to create consistent disruption on defense and execute a quick pace on offense, with a big boost from Konchar on both ends of the court. Seven points in the last two minutes of the quarter from Brooks allowed Memphis to enter the fourth quarter with the lead at 88-87.
The Grizzlies experienced difficulty starting the fourth quarter, as two quick fouls from Valanciunas, bounces going the Hawks way, and uncontested three point looks for Atlanta allowed for a quick 8-1 run to start the fourth quarter to give them a 95-88 lead. Memphis righted the ship quickly as they produced their own 5-0 run as Morant returned to the game with eight minutes left in the game. The Hawks and Grizzlies both had mini runs, and Memphis stayed the pace thanks to a timely three from Desmond Bane.
The Hawks continued to find success getting good looks in the paint to draw fouls along with timely threes, and they extended the lead to four as the clocked dipped just under four minutes. Though Morant made a spectacular put back, the Grizzlies simply could not keep the Hawks off the line. Each time the Grizzlies would score, the Hawks would immediately find themselves at the line once again. Two Young baskets with a Morant technical foul sandwiched in the middle allowed Atlanta to once again extend its lead to eight. They would win the game by a score of 122-112.
Overall, the Hawks simply lived at the line in the fourth quarter, as overall they converted 33-38 looks, with Young hitting 15 of his 17 attempts. That proved to be the difference, as the Grizzlies simply could not ever regain enough momentum to regain the lead. However, Morant had another wonderful game with 28 points and seven assists, while Anderson may have had the best game of his career with 20 points and 14 rebounds. However, only 6 attempts from Valanciunas and an 8-23 night from Brooks did not do the Grizzlies any favors. It was another game with good stretches but not enough consistency to earn the win.
Without a doubt, the efforts of Morant and Anderson were wonderful. However, the Grizzlies are just not talented enough at the moment to experience glaring inconsistences up and down the rest of the roster. Hopefully, they will find their groove soon, though the competition only gets tougher over the next ten days.