For about three quarters of Game 5 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies was once again being limited as a scorer. Minnesota has been one of the two teams - the Dallas Mavericks being the other - that throughout the regular season gave Ja some issues consistently. Between Patrick Beverley expertly pricking the side of Morant while talking trash and the Wolves mixing blitzling pick and rolls with covering taking away the painted area where Ja thrives, it appeared that Morant would once again be held in check points wise (he was on pace for another triple double and playing better individual defense, to his credit, even though he wasn’t scoring.)
Then, this happened.
It sparked a run from Ja Morant that we haven’t seen in some time offensively. He scored 18 points in the 4th quarter - the most in playoff franchise history - capped off with a game-winning lay-up for the ages.
Morant himself said after Game 4 that he didn’t quite feel like “12” - that he wasn’t where he wanted to be as a player coming back from his knee injury. That trend, at least scoring wise, continued until one of the best in-game dunk in basketball history (Vince Carter at the Olympics may have something to say about being the best, among others - but still, that violent leap over Malik Beasley is an all-timer) woke up the Ja Morant who at one point this season was considered a legitimate MVP candidate.
He, and others, saved the Grizzlies from losing a key Game 5 at home. And now the Minnesota Timberwolves must find a way to beat this Ja Morant - and this Memphis team, who has only played one good game as a complete team in five and still has the series lead - twice in a row.
Grades from another historic night in Memphis.
Ja Morant: 45 minutes played, 30 points (9-22 shooting, 1-4 from three, 11-17 from the free throw line), 13 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, 5 turnovers, +6
What more can be said? The grade won’t be an A+ for the entire game, because Morant himself likely wouldn’t give him that high of a mark. He helped keep the Grizzlies in the game in other ways - his on-ball defense was noticeably better, and his rebounding picked up a team that was desperate for the glass to be cleared off Minnesota misses (11 of the 13 boards were defensive). But Ja averaged 27.4 points a game in the regular season - that production was missed terribly early in the contest, and has been through most of this series.
Then, the switch flipped. And the superstar Morant that Memphis needs to survive and advance against a tough (but young and mistake-prone) Minnesota squad showed up. Patrick Beverley fouling out surely helped - he’s an agitator to the max. But the game winning score came at the expense of the exceptionally talented Anthony Edwards, who a possession prior had tied the game on an excellent three point play. He took a gamble on making a play, and missed. Morant took advantage.
He was there when his Grizzlies needed him most. Now, to finish this series, he must find a way to be there for a full allotment of playing time. Was this a surge brought on by Minnesota issues, or has Big 12 figured it out?
We will find out Friday.
Brandon Clarke: 37 minutes played, 21 points (9-14 shooting, 3-7 free throws), 15 rebounds, 1 block, 0 +/-
Don’t let the 0 in plus/minus fool you. Brandon Clarke was the MVP of this game.
Ja Morant was the MVP of the 4th quarter. But if it were not for Clarke’s consistent play and willingness to fight and compete on the glass (9 offensive rebounds!) there would not have been a game for Morant to conduct his heroics in at the end. With Jaren Jackson Jr. in foul trouble for much of the contest (more on that in a moment) it fell on Clarke to pick up the burden of defensive switchability and glass cleaner- especially as the game closed with a Grizzlies super-small lineup of Morant/Tyus Jones/Desmond Bane/Dillon Brooks/Clarke. BC isn’t usually a center, but his athleticism and burst allow for him to make up for some lost size/length in that spot. With Dillon Brooks performing admirably on Karl-Anthony Towns late, it allowed Clarke to be able to look to weak-side defense more and disrupt passing lanes and rhythm for the Wolves offense.
To do what Clarke did last night takes conviction. He understands how to defend without fouling (only 2 personal fouls in 37 minutes) and he consistently combined exceptional effort with positioning around the rim to give the Grizzlies needed extra opportunities at and around the rim. Morant gets the headlines, and deservedly so given the amazing performance he gave from “the dunk” on.
But make sure Brandon Clarke gets his flowers. Because that game winning lay-up from Ja doesn’t happen without BC.
- Desmond Bane remains a rock. 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals. 3-8 from beyond the arc. He and Brandon Clarke have been the two best players for Memphis in this series - which is partly why Memphis is still in a series with Minnesota and it hasn’t already ended. But Bane’s offensive growth - and in this particular game his defensive impact with “stocks” - led the way. He also, like Morant, logged 45 minutes of playing time. He gave it his all - and the Grizzlies are better for it. GRADE: A+
- Jaren Jackson Jr. remains a frustration point. 18 minutes played for Jaren simply isn’t enough. But kudos to Taylor Jenkins for allowing him to foul out in the game - clearly sitting him out with “foul trouble” wasn’t getting the desired result, so it was time to switch things up. Jaren was the victim of at least one questionable call - the overturned charge to a blocking foul against him when he was defending Karl-Anthony Towns - but the officiating was balanced at worst, and leaning toward Memphis at best. JJJ is vital to the Grizzlies playing at maximum capacity. Without him, they’re limited. He must figure this out...perhaps watch Brandon Clarke film of defending without fouling. GRADE: D-
- Taylor Jenkins outcoached Chris Finch finally. It was close - Finch has had an awesome series and to this point had gotten the better of Coach Jenkins. But from a tightened rotation (only 7 players played 18 or more minutes - that should be the case on Friday for Game 6 as well) to well designed plays Jenkins was at his best in this one. One of my favorite moments from the game is shown in the picture for this article - his moment with Ja, talking him up right as the run from Morant was kick starting. Jenkins has developed relationships with these players. They believe in him. That can’t be understated. If he didn’t have their ears, minds, and hearts, a lot of what is currently happening - the comebacks, the belief - would be a lot harder to come by. Jenkins has flaws. But he, too, is growing before our eyes as a coach. GRADE: A
Honorable mention to Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson, who both played vital roles down the stretch defensively with Jaren Jackson Jr. out. Dillon had a miserable offensive game, and Kyle is admittedly limited in that department - although they both did have timely buckets when Memphis needed them. Their work defensively in particular against the likes of Towns and others down the stretch enabled the offensive performances of Morant and Bane to happen.
Game 6 is in Minnesota on Friday night. How do the Timberwolves respond to another collapse? Will the Grizzlies have a renewed Ja Morant for a full game to help finish the series?
Only time will tell.