Just over a week ago, Memphis Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant felt the heat. After suffering an ankle injury earlier in the season, Morant watched his team go 10-2 and become an NBA darling in his absence, only for the Grizzlies two straight games in his return to the lineup.
Morant could have buckled after enduring backlash from the fans in Memphis. Instead, he rose to the occasion on Monday, providing remarkable heroics against one of the best teams in the Western Conference and reminding fans he has the confidence and ability to make the Grizzlies legitimate contenders.
Ja Morant shines bright in the biggest of moments
Ja Morant is developing a knack for having “statement games.”
Remember last season’s Western Conference play-in, when the Grizzlies took on an MVP-level Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in Oakland? Morant played spoiler. Ja scored 15 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, including a dagger floater with under five seconds to play.
Though the Grizzlies lost their first-round matchup against the Utah Jazz, Morant led them to a win in Game 1 and averaged 30.2 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds for the series. He never wilted under pressure, even if Memphis simply didn’t have enough for Utah.
Let’s go back further, though. Morant’s profile slowly increased during his sophomore season at Murray State. Still, he didn’t really get a chance to perform in front of a national audience until the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The former Racers star made good on his first time in the spotlight, posting a sensational triple-double in a first-round upset of Marquette. It encapsulated his journey from no-star recruit to top draft pick.
In short, Morant has pretty steadily indicated his capacity for meeting challenges head-on. So with his back against the ropes, he once again showed his resilience on Monday against the Suns.
Morant downed the Suns in shocking fashion
Morant simply refused to let the Grizzlies lose to a Suns team hoping to bounce back from a Christmas Day loss at the hands of the Warriors.
The Grizzlies star scored 33 points on 14-of-25 shooting, including 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc. He poured in 15 points in the third quarter, almost single-handedly keeping Memphis in command of the contest.
Phoenix charged back into the game in the fourth quarter and seemed destined to complete its comeback when Devin Booker hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with just seconds remaining. But Ja had something else in mind.
Memphis trailed by a point when Morant received the ball on the left wing. With just under four seconds to play, he drove right at Suns defensive ace Mikal Bridges. Though Bridges stayed with him step for step, Morant absorbed the contact and avoided Booker’s help defense, laying the ball up and in to give the Grizzlies a dramatic victory.
Memphis’ point guard keeps playing like he has something to prove. At just 22 years old, he is already establishing himself as one of the greatest challenge-takers in the NBA.
Solidifying his “gamer” credentials
While Morant’s lifelong status as an underdog gave him reason to play with a chip on his shoulder, this performance against the Suns felt different.
The Grizzlies began the season more as an upstart in the West. But they find themselves as the No. 4 seed nearly halfway through the campaign. They’re no longer a sleeping giant who can sneak up on opposing teams.
Memphis took it to the Suns. When Phoenix fought back, Morant and the Grizzlies answered. Moreover, Ja issued a telling response to his detractors following his unsavory return against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week.
At worst, Morant’s willingness to meet challenges solidifies the idea that he’s a superstar. But at best, it could make the Grizzlies a real threat to make a deep playoff run.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.