Seeing the stands empty after a clutch shot isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Sometimes it is in a good way - a victory for the good guys. Yet other times it goes against the Memphis Grizzlies. Those visions aren’t as fun to take in.
On Sunday night, after the Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ja Morant hit a dagger three to break the proverbial backs of the Washington Wizards, the views were pretty fun on the way to the postgame press availability with Coach Taylor Jenkins and the rest of the roster.
From jubilant Murray State fans and high-fiving Grizzlies supporters to the dads of players like Ja and Jaren Jackson Jr. smiling with the pride of an overjoyed parent, you could see the happiness that comes from victory. On the other hand, the trudging of Wizards fans was noticeable as well. For while the Wizards are rejuvenated and appear to be heading in the right direction in their own way, on a night where both offenses struggled - especially from deep - it was the Memphis Grizzlies who had the best player on the floor in the final key moments. It was the Grizzlies who were able to compete at a high level with the game on the line.
The suddenly younger, but still fun as hell, Memphis Grizzlies pulled out a victory in a game they could have easily lost. Just like a hopeful playoff team should.
On to grades.
Ja Morant: 27 points on 17 shots (2-7 from three), 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal, 1 block, +16 in 35 minutes played
It was my first time seeing him live. He’s special.
His vision is already elite. His willingness to take on the moment in such a fearless way is inspiring. His belief in himself and what he can do to help his team not just win, but be better collectively, is wise beyond his years. You can tell his teammates love him, and would already follow him in to the abyss. There were players that helped the Grizzlies win this game beyond the box score. But without Ja Morant, Memphis loses in Washington. Period.
He’s 20 years old. And will be in Memphis likely for the next eight or so years, at the least. He speaks very humbly of himself and his accomplishments...but we’re lucky to have the chance to watch his NBA journey unfold.
Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke: Combined 23 points on 10-26 shooting from the field (1-7 from three), 17 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 4 turnovers
These two players have had better shooting nights. They’ve posted better +/- stats, flaws and all (-4). Aside from rebounding, the counting numbers are not overly impressive. By most accounts and ways of measuring individual success, they had mediocre at best, but likely bad, games.
So why are they about to receive a B for their collective performance? Because without them, the monster 4th quarter of Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies does not happen.
The Wizards scored 14 points in the final frame of the contest Sunday night. A team that has been known for elite offense, and really bad defense, was unable to score more than a little more than a point a minute for the last 12 minutes of the game. That happened in large part because of the work of Jaren and Brandon, whose defensive potential was on full display. They switched on to guards and there was no mismatch. Bigs defending perimeter players for extended periods of time, forcing offensive inefficiency on a scale the Wizards are not accustomed to.
Washington has only scored less than 100 points in a game four times so far this season - three of those games have happened in the last 40 days. But this time, Washington shot 35% from the field. They hadn’t shot worse than 40.2% from the field in the prior three games under the century mark. A strong offense was stifled. Jaren and Brandon, who once again closed the game as the Grizzlies big man duo, deserve a good chunk of the credit for that.
- Jonas Valanciunas impacted the game in a major way. Memphis won the rebounding battle 62-50, in large part because of all the bricks thrown up by the Wizards. Jonas gathered 18 of those boards, and on Lithuanian Night in D.C. Valanciunas displayed a skill that these Grizzlies will need him to continue to focus on if they hope to make the playoffs. GRADE: B
- Yuta Watanabe may well be an NBA player. Yuta was back at “home” in D.C., where he played his college ball at George Washington University, and he got a chance to play meaningful minutes as the Grizzlies continue to integrate their new acquisitions Jordan Bell, Gorgui Dieng, and Justise Winslow (out due to injury anyway). He didn’t disappoint, especially defensively. He moves very well and understands body positioning in a way that helps him compensate for being slow a half step or so against most other NBA wings. After waiving Dion Waiters, the Grizzlies have a roster spot available. Maybe a multi-year deal for Yuta makes sense. GRADE: B
- Kyle Anderson deserves your respect. The slow start for Memphis in the first quarter, according to some on Twitter, was because of Kyle Anderson’s role in the starting lineup. That take appeared fairly ice cold after this game. 16 points on 9 shots, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and a 2nd best on the team behind Morant +12 in +/- shows a well-rounded game that only Anderson at this stage of the season can provide at his size. He’s perhaps not longed for a starting role with the Grizzlies, but he should be part of this core moving forward. GRADE: B+
Memphis ends their slate of the season before the All-Star Break Wednesday at home against the Portland Trail Blazers in an important game for the playoff race.