Monday night, the Memphis Grizzlies were on the losing end of a hard-fought battle with the Philadelphia 76ers. Ja Morant was special once again, scoring a game-high 37 points in the 122-119 overtime loss. But the leadership displayed by the 22-year-old Morant after the game was even more impressive than his final stat line, offering up another reason why the young star is firmly in the MVP conversation.
Ja Morant nearly led the Grizzlies to a huge victory
The Grizzlies arrived in Philadelphia with a 34-18 record and as winners of their last three, so it’s not as if they needed a win. But for a vastly underrated team, any win over a contender can be used to make a statement.
Memphis recovered from a nine-point first-quarter deficit to force overtime. Morant scored 34 points through regulation on 14-of-25 shooting. 22 of those points came in the second half alone. Desmond Bane, Morant’s backcourt partner, offered up 29 points in regulation and tacked on an additional five in OT.
However, Morant’s night was far from perfect. Playing against a Sixers squad that was without MVP candidate Joel Embiid, the third-year guard went 0-of-5 from three and tied a season-high with nine turnovers. He also went just 1-of-5 in overtime and, after tying the game, missed a free throw that would have put Memphis up by one with eight seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Morant took ownership of the Grizzlies’ loss
Memphis had multiple chances to win the game. Ja’s missed free throw near the end of the fourth certainly hurt, as did his four consecutive missed shots in OT. He also passed the ball out to Ziaire Williams down one with seconds left in OT, but the rookie was unable to bury the shot.
The All-Star Game starter was asked after the game about his decision to pass to Williams instead of attempting the go-ahead shot himself.
“His man came to help. Right play,” Morant told the media. “If it happens again I’ll make the same pass. I passed it because I believe in him and know he’s capable of making that shot. If that play comes again, I’ll pass it again.”
Morant, who’s still just 22, also focused on his own shortcomings in an effort to take the blame for the disappointing defeat (h/t: Memphis Grizzlies).
“There’s nothing to hang our heads about or for people to be mad because [Williams] missed a shot. If there’s anybody you want to be mad at, it can be me. I had nine turnovers. Missed big free throws. Didn’t make a three. So if you pick anybody to be mad at, pick me.”Ja Morant
Morant’s attempt at redemption will come Wednesday against the New York Knicks in a nationally-televised game.
Morant’s postgame comments solifidy his legitimacy as a leader and MVP candidate
Based on numbers alone, Morant has a solid MVP case. The former Murray State star is averaging 26.4 points, 6.8 assists, and 6.0 rebounds while taking Memphis from play-in candidate to title contender. But Monday showcased a brand new argument for why Ja is a serious MVP candidate.
At 22 years old, Ja is focused on winning games. The stats are nice, but he will ultimately do whatever it takes to help the Grizzlies claim victory. If that means dishing the ball out to an open rookie for the game-winning shot, so be it. And if he does things like miss free throws or turn the ball over, he displays incredible accountability. He won’t throw other teammates under the bus no matter how bad things get.
Despite being in just his third professional season, Ja is closer to the Giannis/Curry/LeBron category than he is to his younger peers. Not only because of numbers but because he’s proving he can be a number one option for a title contender and be a leader in the process. There’s little doubt he’s committed to Memphis in the long run and playing an active role in building a long-term contender.
By all accounts, Ja is a winner. Even on nights when the Grizzlies fall short.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.