I apologize to those who believed we resolved the dispute last year. Still, new information from the Memphis Grizzlies’ 103-93 victory on Wednesday night means we must re-examine our strong case.
Are the Grizzlies genuinely better off without their star point guard Ja Morant?
The two-time All-Star missed the Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Lakers with an injured right hand, which lifted Memphis’ record without Morant to 33-17 (including the playoffs) since the start of the 2021-22 season, per The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. That’s too large of a sample to dismiss.
But first, some background.
After a home victory against a No. 7 seed that saw some genuinely horrible performances from important players, the Grizzlies won’t be staging a parade.
In 30 minutes, D’Angelo Russell had a 2-of-11 shooting percentage and frequently roamed about the floor as if he had had less sleep the night before than he had on the court. Anthony Davis was a historically underproductive person by his own standards.
Anthony Davis shot 29% from the field, his worst field goal percentage in a playoff game in his career in which he took 10 shots (36 games). @ESPNStatsInfo
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 20, 2023
In the final minutes, Los Angeles ran an ineffective offense, shot 26.9 percent from beyond the arc, and found themselves unable to defend third-string center Xavier Tillman, who had a career-best performance with 22 points and 13 rebounds.
Remember that starter Steven Adams at the center and essential backup Brandon Clarke, both of whom are out for the season, was also sitting out along with Morant.
Though that assessment arguably undersells Memphis’ effort and defensive fortitude, this specific Ja-less win was likely more the result of the Lakers’ ineptitude than anything the Grizzlies achieved.
Speaking of which, it has long been the best justification for the Grizzlies’ propensity for success without their top scorer and playmaker.
According to John Hollinger of The Athletic from last year: “The Grizzlies give up more points per possession with Morant on the court than with any other rotation player, and that fact is immune to whatever arbitrary data endpoints you want to use. For the season, they give up 111.2 per 100 with Morant and just 105.3 without him.”
That math includes some opponent shooting luck, but what held true on Wednesday mostly held true from the previous season. Memphis made up for its lack of star power by doing the grunt work and taking advantage of every opportunity as it pursued the Lakers all over the court, contesting shots in the open court and around the rim.
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More than anything, Memphis’ performance appears to have taken on urgency due to Morant’s absence, a sense that the game cannot be won with valor and highlight heroism.
It almost seems the contemporary Grizzlies can call upon some of the vintage Grit ‘n Grind when the situation calls for it.
After the game, Lakers guard Austin Reaves stated, “They were desperate, and they played harder than us.”
“They were desperate and they played harder than us but we feel like we have a good opportunity regardless of who we are playing.” Austin Reaves credits Memphis for their play tonight and more on @SpectrumSN. pic.twitter.com/ZB9L1nZA99
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) April 20, 2023
A squad that speaks more than most must choose to act instead of talk on nights like Wednesday. Forget the chit-chat about living comfortably in the West and not dodging smoke.
When one of the most athletically unstoppable forces on Earth pulls off exploits that call into question the nature of physics, it’s simple to chirp. It makes sense that Morant’s rejection of gravity gives his squad the impression that all they need to do is believe in order to achieve their goals.
Watching a man levitate makes everything seem feasible.
This replay of Ja Morant’s poster dunk on Jalen Smith… pic.twitter.com/04i72LdA9H
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 15, 2023
But perhaps all that will evaporate when Morant is sidelined, forcing the Grizzlies to make up for their lost swag with substance.
Success in those conditions mainly rests on effort and execution. Examples include Tillman pushing for every available inch of space en route to a game-high five offensive rebounds, Jaren Jackson Jr. taking a battering on his way to the foul line for 10 free-throw attempts, and Tyus Jones calming the situation with low-mistake game management.
Dillon Brooks chatted nonstop, disproving that notion. But perhaps he is simply the exception that demonstrates the rule.
Dillon Brooks stared down LeBron after this 3 pic.twitter.com/8tkkrakCJW
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 20, 2023
For what it’s worth, he had a 3-of-11 record before hitting that shot. After the game, he continued to be loud.
A tweet from Tim MacMahon’s official Twitter account:
Classic Dillon Brooks on his confrontation with LeBron James: “I don’t care. He’s old. … I poke bears. I don’t respect someone until he gives me 40.”
And Brooks had plenty more to say. pic.twitter.com/uWLONrubPZ
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 20, 2023
Ultimately, the Grizzlies won’t need to worry about these conflicting identities. And you can bet that if you asked every employee in the company whether they would like to have Morant on the team or have him removed and receive his salary slot back, they would all choose the former in a heartbeat.
Memphis may learn from life with and without Morant because it is still in its comparatively early development stages. It will ideally blend the guts, defense, and commitment of its Ja-less selves with the energy and spectacle Morant’s presence offers.
The Grizzlies may use this challenge as a chance to realize they don’t have to choose between two identities. Both are possible.
This lesson applies to all teams, not just the Grizzlies who played the Lakers on the court.
Morant, observing from the sidelines, must also learn the lesson. Something extraordinary could be in the works if he adopts the way his teammates play without him and emulates their level of ferocious competition whenever he returns.
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