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The Long View: Basketball is fun with Ja Morant

Ja returns and Xavier Tillman has a big night!

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Philadelphia 76ers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies made their return back to FedExForum after a road trip that was shortened due to Friday night’s postponement due to COVID issues with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Friday’s postponement gave the Grizzlies 3 days off between games, instead of the scheduled back to back.

The headline heading into last night’s game was the return of Ja Morant. Morant suffered a Grade 2 ankle sprain on December 28th but after “attacking rehab hard” per Taylor Jenkins, Ja returned to action a few days earlier than the initial 3-5 week prognosis.

It was a pretty brutal start for both teams with the Sixers leading by 26-25 after the first quarter. Ja was much more comfortable in the second quarter where he scored 10 of his 17 points and really pushed the pace for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies offense really took off in that quarter and build a lead up to as much as 14 points in the 4th quarter.

The Grizzlies offense stalled out a bit late in the 4th, allowing the Sixers to come back and cut the deficit to just one point. The Grizzlies were able to hold on and defeat the Sixers 106-104 thanks in large part to a huge defensive stand from rookie Xavier Tillman.

The story of the game begins and ends with Ja Morant. The Grizzlies played fine without Ja, going 5-4 if you count the Brooklyn game Ja got injured. The team just looks so much better with Ja on the court. His ability to push the pace gave the Grizzlies a ton of easy looks and opportunities. His energy is contagious and you can tell the other players really enjoy playing with him. Ja was back to having fun on the court and helping carry the Grizzlies to victory.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Ja will probably always be the headline for as long as he is in Memphis, but arguably the biggest takeaway from last night was the play of rookie Xavier Tillman. Tillman dropped a career high 15 points, 4 rebounds and also racked up 4 steals. Tillman played huge minutes for the Grizzlies in the second half as Jonas Valanciunas struggled defending the paint against the Sixers and got in foul trouble in his matchup with Dwight Howard. Tillmans mobility allowed him to cover more space defensively and make things difficult for the Sixers. His length allowed him to pick off passing lanes and force turnovers that would help lead to Grizzlies baskets.

Tillman made the game-winning defensive play in the games waning seconds. Tillman was tasked with guarding Tobias Harris who attacked the basket, but Tillman was able to stay in front of Harris and caused Harris to step out of bounds and turn the ball over. Ja split a pair of free throws and Tyrese Maxey missed the game-winning 3-point attempt. It was a great play by Tillman, and was a perfect example of the type of impact he’s making in just his 6th NBA game.

After the game I asked Tillman what was going through his mind on that last possession against Tobias Harris. Tillman said “It’s clutch time. It’s wining time. No time to get nervous, no time to be scared. It’s time to win.” Tillman also joked and said his goal was to not foul saying “don’t be the rook that fouls in the clutch. Get your hands up”. The calm and steady demeanor from Tillman was big for the Grizzlies last night and it’s cool seeing a player grow right in front of you. Tillman has seemingly taken over the backup 5 minutes from Gorgui Dieng and seems likely to earn more minutes from JV depending on the matchup. It is still a shock to me the Grizzlies were able to land X with the 35th pick in the NBA draft.

A final takeaway from last night’s game was Jenkins’ adjusting his rotations and decisions on the fly. Typically, Jenkins will ride out the end of games with his usual guys but last night he made the decision to throw Tillman back out there and keep him out there until the game was over instead of putting JV back in the game for the final minutes. The decision (and play by Tillman) ultimately won the Grizzlies the game. I was skeptical Jenkins would keep JV out of the game, but it was encouraging to see Jenkins adjust and ride the hot hands to close out the game.

Overall it was a good game from the Grizzlies. Kyle Anderson did a little bit of everything, Grayson’s 3-point shooting carried over from Minnesota, Desmond Bane had 10 points on 4-5 shooting and Brandon Clarke had an 11 point, 11 rebound night while also playing great defense with X protecting the paint. Still, the Grizzlies will have some film to watch and things to work on with Monday’s MLK Day game matchup against the Suns coming tomorrow.

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