If you are running out of superlatives to describe Ja Morant...don’t worry, you are not alone.
The young star guard for the Memphis Grizzlies continues to do things that both defy gravity and explanation. His latest work of art - a 47 point performance against the Golden State Warriors - put him in elite company. He joins Kobe Bryant and LeBron James as the only players in NBA history to have multiple 45+ point playoff games before the age of 23. Two of the arguably top-10 players in the history of professional basketball, and a Memphis Grizzlies player.
It’s remarkable to think that this is happening for this franchise - that a player the caliber of Morant is a member of the Grizzlies, and will be for the foreseeable future (Memphis will surely offer him a max extension this summer, which Ja will almost certainly sign). No one this stupendous, this jaw-droppingly spectacular, has ever donned the blue of Beale Street before.
What Morant did on Tuesday night in front of a raucous home crowd in FedExForum was yet another chapter added to his already impressive legend in Memphis. The game was violent - Dillon Brooks needlessly put Gary Payton II in harms way on a flagrant foul that was made a Level 2, removing Brooks from the contest 3 minutes in. Draymond Green and Stephen Curry both were bleeding at one point, with Green requiring stitches to be able to return to the game. It had the feel of a heavyweight fight at times, or perhaps more fittingly in Memphis a no holds barred wrestling match. Between the blood and the roar of boos that greeted Green as he departed to get medical attention (and the double bird middle fingers from Green in response that Stone Cold Steve Austin himself would approve of) the energy was similar to that of the Grit and Grind era’s peak nearly a decade prior. The shooting woes of both teams (18.4% from three for Golden State - unheard of! - and under 40% overall from Memphis...less surprising) helped set that mood as well.
One major difference? Ja Morant was not on those teams.
While Grit and Grind was about the collective (and to an extent this team very much is as well), Ja Morant’s showing on Tuesday night reminded us that even though he can be the prototypical teammate, he’s more than capable of dominating a game that even featured three future Hall of Famers on the other side. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ja had to be more of a facilitator and creator for others like Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke because of the attention Morant was getting defensively. The Golden State Warriors did not trap/blitz Ja until late in the game, and it is not a full part of their schemes - at least not yet. They do not have a player with the tenacity of a Patrick Beverley, or the raw athleticism of Anthony Edwards.
The Warriors are a better matchup for Morant and his Grizzlies. In case folks doubted that before, Ja confirmed it in Game 2.
The entire skill set was on display. The elite athleticism. The underrated handle. His improving feel for his floater. The ability to, despite everyone knowing what he wants to do, still create enough space to operate in the paint and force the hand of the defense. He was 12-13 from the free throw line. He shot 5-12 from three. He is unguardable when playing this way, and he still impacted the game in other ways as well. He assisted with the suddenly struggling Memphis rebounding by grabbing 8 boards, and still created offense at a high rate with 8 assists. Only committing two turnovers despite his remarkable usage helped protect possessions, and snagging three steals made more transition opportunities for the Grizzlies and also took scoring chances away from the Warriors.
It was the best performance of his young career. And it came when his team needed him most. Jaren Jackson Jr. fouled out. Dillon Brooks made a terrible mistake and was removed from the game early. Desmond Bane was clearly not himself due to his back issue that had him marked as questionable entering the game. Three of Memphis’ four best best players were not what so many believed they needed to be in order for the Grizzlies to win.
And yet, win Memphis did. Because Ja Morant is a member of the Grizzlies.
Ziaire Williams played a pivotal role in the win, shooting the three ball well while also playing admirable defense against Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, and Jordan Poole at various points throughout the game. Brandon Clarke was again perfect from the field, and despite his misleading team-worst -17 in +/- (he wasn’t as great as he had been, but also wasn’t -17 bad) helped in the switch-happy defense Memphis is currently utilizing. But Tyus Jones and DeAnthony Melton combined to shoot 3-12 from the field. Kyle Anderson’s impact was minimal compared to past games as he was given all the open threes he wanted but didn’t pull the trigger. Beyond maybe Clarke and definitely Williams, Memphis underperformed.
But the Grizzlies had Ja Morant. And in this game, that made all the difference.
We’re entering rarified air with what we’re witnessing from Ja Morant. Not literally, like Morant seems capable of doing - but his greatness is becoming not what he did, but who he is, before our eyes. He appears to manipulate space and time in some way, contorting his body as he glides through the air and finishes at the rim. His leaps on dunks are as if he’s playing on a trampoline that no one else can jump on - he lifts and rises and for a moment, you wonder if he will ever come down. But to write him off as simply an athletic freak would be a mistake. He’s a craftsman - a basketball junkie who clearly has studied the greats of the past and present, taking and twisting what came before to make his the here and now.
The outcome of this series with Golden State is still very much in question. The Warriors have home court advantage now, and for the Grizzlies to once again tip the scales in their favor they must find a way to beat Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Jordan Poole, and their crew in Chase Center - no easy task. But Game 2 was as close to a must-win for Memphis’ playoff run hopes as you can come without it being a close-out game. And despite poor performances from much of the roster, the Grizzlies came out on top.
Ja Morant is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. He wreaks havoc. His performance Tuesday night felt more like a conquering gladiator’s wrath on his opponent than a basketball showcase. He physically, mentally, and seemingly spiritually took the Warriors out of that contest. And we all got to bear witness to the greatness that accompanied that effort.
If this is still just the start of Ja Morant’s journey, literally anything is possible.