The Golden State Warriors defeated the Memphis Grizzlies on their way to capturing their 4th NBA championship in 8 years. At times, it seemed as if the series was more about technicals, flagrant fouls, ejections, and “codes” than some of the incredible play on the court, but it resulted in arguably the most exciting playoff series this year. The teams and fanbases collided on and off the court, but this was far from the beginning of the Grizzlies/Warriors drama.
It all started in 2019 when Andre Iguodala was traded to the Grizzlies, but decided not to play for them. At that point in his career, Iguodala did not want to take a mentor role and wanted to contend for more championships, he did not see the young Grizzlies as an opportunity to do that. Dillon Brooks had this to say about Iguodala before the trade deadline in 2020.
There was also some back and forth between Ja Morant and Steph Curry at this time as well. Iguodala was eventually traded to Miami before returning to the Warriors the next season. Even though he does not play much anymore, he is a big plot point in the orgins of this potential rivalry.
Fast forward to 2021, and the NBA play-in tournament is underway. The Grizzlies and Warriors played in a win or go-home scenario at Chase Center in San Francisco. Curry was an MVP candidate looking to return to the playoffs, while Morant and many of the Grizzlies were trying to get there for the first time. Behind big shots from Grayson Allen and Xavier Tillman, and a dazzling performance from Morant, the Grizzlies made the playoffs for the first time in 4 years. For the Warriors, it was the 2nd straight year of missing the playoffs, but after the loss, Curry said, “you don’t want to see us next year.”
Next year came, and the teams met again with the season on the line; this time in the 2nd round of the playoffs. The series was highlighted by outstanding performances and physical play. Draymond Green and Dillon Brooks picked up flagrant 2 fouls in the first two games and were ejected. Steve Kerr said that Brooks had “broken the code” for his hit on Gary Payton II, who missed the rest of the series and the next with an elbow injury. In that same game, Ja Morant would score 47 points — tying his own record for most in Grizzlies playoff history — to knot the series 1-1.
Morant was injured in Game 3, and many people began to blame Jordan Poole for pulling on his knee. I still do not think that Poole actually caused the injury, but with all of the other conversations about dirty plays throughout the series, everything was being overanalyzed. Morant would not return for the rest of the series.
The Grizzlies won game five by 39 after Curry reportedly said the gameplan was to “whoop that trick”, a reference to the Hustle and Flow song that Grizzlies fans have made a part of their identity. However, without Morant in games 4 and 6 the Grizzlies simply could not make enough plays down the stretch against a more experienced Golden State team on the road.
What makes the matchup so intriguing?
There are a lot of storylines and conversations about these two teams, which make this matchup perfect for NBA rivalry. In my opinion, the Grizzlies and Warriors have the two most exciting players to watch in the NBA today. The Warriors are led by the shooting precision and offensive mastery of Steph Curry, while the Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, the best paint-scoring guard in the NBA. Curry has solidified himself as the league’s best point guard, a title that Morant is determined to take.
These two also produced the most social media views of the playoffs and were top 10 in jersey sales last season. The “experienced, certified superstar vs. the young star trying to solidify his place in the NBA” angle, and their contrasting styles are worthy of primetime TV slots every time they face off.
Multiple storylines also make the matchup more personal than most others in the NBA. Draymond Green and Jaren Jackson Jr. are both from Tom Izzo’s Michigan State program. On the court both are incredible defenders, but many do not know of their off the court relationship. Green actually called Jaren in 2018 telling him he should declare for the draft; even though Jackson ended up going 4th overall, he had considered playing a 2nd season in East Lansing. Izzo and Green both told Jackson that it would not be wise to return, he explained the call on the All the Smoke Podcast with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson at the 25-minute mark.
Jackson Jr. also attended high school with Jordan Poole at La Lumiere before the two committed to play for rival schools in college. The two were roommates at the Indiana boarding school and developed a close relationship. Rewatching some of the plays from the series with this in mind will change how you view their interactions, including this one from Game 6.
Rivalries are better when the players have connections like these between the Grizzlies and Warriors. Even though there can be a lot of talk on and off the court, the players also have a mutual respect for each other. Morant has called Curry a top-5 player of all time, Draymond Green called Morant one of the smartest players he’s ever played against, and Jaren Jackson Jr. made sure to congratulate Poole on winning his first championship.
Statistically and personnel wise, the Grizzlies and Warriors are tough matchups for each other. Curry has struggled at times against larger, lanky defenders, and the Grizzlies have multiple guys of that build including Ziaire Williams and Dillon Brooks. Curry still gets his points — that’s what the all-time greats do — but they do make it much harder on him. The Warriors also struggled to guard Morant, who averaged 38 points during the series against Golden State. The Warriors are also very turnover-prone, while the Grizzlies led the league in steals and fastbreak points which hurt the Warriors throughout the series.
The Warriors also provided matchup problems for Memphis, especially with the emergence of Andrew Wiggins who many would pick as the MVP from the series. He averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds with double-doubles in Games 4 and 6, which won the series. The ball movement of the Warriors offense also put a lot of strain on the Grizzlies defensive rotations throughout the series and exploited some of their defenciencies on that end of the court. On top of that, the Grizzlies could not find consistent answers for Golden State’s offensive rebounding without Steven Adams for most of the series, despite leading the league in that category during the regular season. Kevon Looney had his best game on the boards in Game 6 finishing with 22 rebounds, 11 on the offensive end.
The matchup is also even more intriguing considering the ages of the players on each team. Morant and Jackson Jr. were only 9 years old when Curry was drafted by the Warriors, and were in high school when the Warriors won their first championship in 2015. The Grizzlies are looking to make their way in the league while many of the Warriors have already solidified their place in NBA history.
Where it Stands Today
Over a month after defeating the Grizzlies, the Warriors won the NBA championship. During post-game press conference, Klay Thompson called Jaren Jackson Jr. a “bum” for tweeting “strength in numbers” after beating the Warriors in March. His comments were the start of the post-finals back and forth that has become popular in the media.
The next day, Ja Morant responded to Thompson’s comment claiming to have “real estate” in the heads of Thompson and the Warriors. This caught the attention of Warriors forward and newly 4-time NBA Champion Draymond Green.
The Twitter back and forth continued after a quote tweet centered around how the Grizzlies and Warriors should play in San Francisco on Christmas. I felt as if the NBA could capitalize on this budding rivalry that produced some of the most watched playoff games this year. Ja Morant and Draymond Green went back and forth, after Morant said the game should be played in Memphis. Green reminded him that the Champs play at home, and Morant was up to the challenge.
The back and forth continued during the Warriors championship parade as Green was seen chanting “Whoop that Trick” with the fans, Curry was also seen dancing to it after their parade. Thompson also pointed out a fan in the crowd whose towel read “Strength in Numbers freakin’ bum” and posted it on his Instagram story, tagging the Grizzlies in the process.
After a hard-fought playoff series and all of this back and forth, it’s safe to say the Grizzlies and Warriors might be on the cusp of the next NBA rivalry. It’s not quite there yet, as the Grizzlies still need to hold up their end of the bargain by knocking the Warriors out in the future, but the trash talk and animosity are already at a higher level than anywhere in the league right now. The intriguing matchup on the court along with the antics off the court make this budding rivalry one of the more interesting to watch going forward.
Every sport needs rivalries, and the NBA has been severely lacking in that department since Lebron James left Cleveland in 2018. Whether you are a Grizzlies fan, a Warriors fan, or indifferent; this rivalry would be good for the NBA. I love to see players going at each other on and off the court, especially when it’s between two of the best teams in the league.
Will the Grizzlies and Warriors meet again next postseason? Who knows. However, the NBA still needs to put this budding rivalry on full display. Christmas Day, MLK Day, Arbor Day, Tuesday; it doesn’t matter.
If the Grizzlies and Warriors are playing, it will be must-see TV.