Ja Morant and the Memphis Friggin’ Grizzlies

“There’s a new sheriff in town… and his name is Reggie Hammond.”

-Eddie Murphy, 48 Hours, 1982

In the grand scheme of things, most NBA regular season games are relatively meaningless.

Every so often, however, one comes along that demonstrates an exact, tipping point in time where an axis shifts and a guard is changed, where the names we’ve come to know for so long suddenly look slower, and the new names, the ones with which we’re not as familiar, stake a claim in what is soon to be rightfully theirs.

This may have happened right before our very eyes Tuesday night in Memphis, Tennessee.

For the latter part of the last decade, the Golden State Warriors were the best team in the National Basketball Association.  One title in by 2015, they were already the best of the bunch.  Then they wooed Kevin Durant to Northern California and became unfairly good.  The Warriors reached five straight NBA Finals, winning three of them.

Then came the injury to one of their key players.  It took Klay Thompson a combined 941 days before returning to action.  His second night back came in Memphis, Tennessee against the Grizzlies, a nice young team with one budding superstar but not yet a team that many take seriously.

That was until Tuesday night.

Although the Grizzlies had been playing well lately (winners of nine straight games), you’d find very few people that wouldn’t agree Golden State was the better team, if not the best team in the league.  At 30 wins and 10 losses, the second-best record behind only the Phoenix Suns, Golden State sans Klay looked to be back to their former selves.  With Klay back, we had all but penciled them into the NBA Finals.

Memphis begged to differ.

Prior to their convincing and impressive win over the Warriors, the Grizzlies had a pretty good record themselves: 28-14.  They are led by a young man named Ja Morant.

Morant was the second pick in the 2019 Draft behind Zion Williamson and while the jury is still out on how good Zion can be (he’s only played in 85 games to Ja Morant’s healthy 159 and counting), this could end up being the most regretted top pick over a successful number two since the Portland Trailblazers picked Greg Oden over Kevin Durant.

To be clear, those comparisons are premature, one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a hint of drafter’s remorse creeping into the New Orleans organization about their selection.

All Morant is doing in Memphis right now is average 24.7 points per game.  He’s shooting at a 49% clip, which is insane for a young point guard, or any point guard for that matter.  He’s also averaging nearly six rebounds and seven assists a game.

His player efficiency rating (whatever that means) is good for seventh in the league, behind names like Jokic, the Freak, Embiid, LeBron, Durant and Trae Young.

The other night against the Los Angeles Lakers, a game the Grizzlies won in Los Angeles by eight (and it wasn’t that close), Ja Morant had a violent dunk that nearly shut down the internet and a blocked shot that instantly became meme-worthy.  For the record, the young Memphis Grizzlies are 3-0 against the Lakers this season.  They are hardly intimidated by Hall of Fame jackets.

Which brings us to Tuesday night’s game against Golden State.

It’s easy for young teams to fold under pressure when facing Steph Curry and the return of Klay Thompson.  In fact, Memphis got out to a comfortable cushion, leading by as many as 18 points in the first half, only to see that lead evaporate in the third quarter.  These things happen when you play Golden State. 

In the third quarter, the Warriors swallowed that deficit and soon led by as many as eight, but the Grizz did not back down.  They stood their ground, regained the lead, and never looked back.  The Memphis Grizzlies won by eight.

It is worth noting that during their current ten-game stretch, the Grizzlies have won at Phoenix, at Brooklyn, at the Clippers, at Sacramento, at Cleveland and have beaten the Lakers twice.  What this young team (statistically the second youngest in the league) is doing is not unprecedented but it is astounding.

What we may have witnessed last night was a changing of the proverbial guard, a friendly but unwilling handing of the baton from one generation to another (or at least the beginning of such a move) as Ja Morant loudly proclaimed to the rest of the league that he’s got next.

Yes, Klay Thompson has yet to get his sea legs back under him, but tectonic shifts in the league’s balance of power happen every generation and it sure as hell looked like that on Tuesday night.  The Lakers looked old against Memphis who is not necessarily a fun and gun team (third highest scoring team in the league) but will run you out of the building if they’re so inclined.

What I saw down the stretch against Golden State was a well-coached and disciplined young team that executed repeated quality possessions on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. 

I’ll be honest.  I had to look up who their coach was.  That man’s name is Taylor Jenkins and he’s been coaching this team since 2019.  He had no prior NBA head coaching experience.  In his first year at the helm, they missed the playoffs.  In his second year, they made the playoffs but lost in the first round.  I can pretty much guarantee you that in his third try, he’ll be bringing a team to the post-season that nobody will want any part of.

Yes, they’re young but they’re playing determined basketball against the best teams in the league.  I have a feeling this team doesn’t want to wait around while veterans with one foot out the door fight over what they think they deserve.  The Memphis Grizzlies look like a team that’s damn well ready to earn their keep.

They might not give the league MVP vote to Ja Morant.  These votes tend to be highly political in nature.  Sometimes young players like Morant (he’s 22) must pay their dues before they are deemed worthy of such an honor but anybody who has seen this guy play and command his team will be hard-pressed to keep him off their ballots.

I may be over-exaggerating to just one game, but I know what I saw.  The Warriors will still have some say in this thing.  The Lakers will want to as well.  The Milwaukee Bucks are an insane collection of young talent.  The Phoenix Suns want to finish the job they started last year.  Other NBA teams will not go quietly.  But what I saw from Memphis on Tuesday proved to me this team is on the right track and led by the right man.

In other words, be on the lookout for the Memphis Grizzlies, my friends.  You’ll be glad you did.

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