The Memphis Grizzlies have been the most fun team of 2020, and it hasn’t been particularly close. The Griz, current occupants of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, entered Tuesday’s matchup with the Rockets firing on all cylinders. Not only did they pull off a 121-110 win, their sixth straight, they put on a show.
“Tell that motherf***er about me.”- Ja Morant— NBA RETWEET (@RTNBA) January 15, 2020
When Harden gave him space from the 3 point line pic.twitter.com/vRqpU7ExkC
Ja Morant, as Zach Kram wrote on The Ringer earlier this week, is on pace to be just the ninth rookie in NBA history to average 17 points and six assists per game, joining Hall of Famers like Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson. On Tuesday, he filled up the stat sheet, scoring 26 points on 10-for-11 shooting, with eight assists, and he did it with style. First, it was a dribble that pulled three defenders onto him before launching a behind-the-back pass to Jaren Jackson Jr. for an easy layup.
Then, a steal and another fancy dribble to set Jackson up for a thunderous slam. He even put a defender through the spin cycle in the interim for good measure.
As my Ringer colleague Paolo Uggetti put it, swapping Mike Conley for Ja Morant is like trading in a Prius for a Porsche. Memphis looked at the eponymous girl from Cake’s “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” and said, “No thanks, we prefer the MG.” The no. 2 pick leads all rookies in scoring, dropping 18 points per game on 49.4 percent shooting. His 6.9 assists per night is more than three dimes per game higher than the next-highest challenger. And no first-year player draws more fouls than Memphis’s young guard. With Zion Williamson still waiting to make his NBA debut, Morant has sprinted to the front of the Rookie of the Year race.
Morant isn’t carrying Memphis on his own, though. In Jackson, Morant has an ideal running mate. The big man entered the league touted for his versatility and ability to space the floor. As a rookie, he showed flashes, shooting 35.9 percent from deep on 2.4 attempts per game while rejecting 1.4 shots per contest. This season, he’s maintained his defensive prowess, blocking just as many attempts, but it’s his offense that has unlocked the Grizzlies’ potential. On Tuesday, Jackson was everywhere Morant needed him to be, finishing more than one fast break, and kick-starting a few of his own.
It helps that Jackson has turned into a 6-foot-11 Steph Curry in the past month. Since December 9, the big man has shot 44.9 percent from beyond the arc on 7.6 tries per game, scoring 20.2 points per night. Memphis went 12-6 in those 18 contests entering Tuesday’s matchup with the Rockets. Even beyond his recent shooting bonanza, Jackson’s performance has placed him in rarefied air. Only three other players in NBA history have logged seasons averaging at least 2.5 made 3s per night, and at least one block: Danny Granger, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Durant (twice).
Earlier this season, speaking to Jonathan Tjarks, first-year Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins said that Jackson was the Grizzlies’ skeleton key.
“He has the ability to not just score on the low block, or be a pick-and-roll roller, but also be on the perimeter and facilitate with the ball in his hands,” Jenkins said. “That’s going to make our offense so much more multidimensional.”
And Morant and Jackson aren’t the only promising young players on Jenkins’s squad. Third-year wing Dillon Brooks has played with the same intensity this season that he showed at Oregon, and rookie Brandon Clarke has displayed the traits that convinced more than one draftnik he was a top-10 talent coming out of Gonzaga. On Tuesday, the pair combined for 38 points on 58 percent shooting, helping the Grizzlies compete with one of the league’s most dynamic offenses despite converting just 13 of their 37 tries from 3. And Jonas Valanciunas, at 27 the elder statesman of Tuesday’s starting lineup, has played a major role. The only Memphis starter against the Rockets old enough to rent a car dropped 19 on the West’s fifth-best team.
James Harden broke 40 points for the 16th time this season, and even that wasn’t enough to best the streaking Griz. Whereas Harden was a true one-man show, accounting for about 40 percent of his team’s points and shots, the Grizzlies showed off how well-rounded they already are, with five players logging at least 14 points, and none taking more than 17 shots—seven fewer than Harden averages per game.
The last time the basketball writers here at The Ringer grouped the league’s teams, we placed Memphis with squads like the Bulls, Cavs, and Wizards. They were bad, but not hopeless, we said. But that was December, and things have changed. On Tuesday, we collectively bumped them up to the playoff bubble, and that might not have been a big enough jump.
This season has seen its share of up-and-coming squads with hot young talent, but the others have fizzled. The Suns shot out of the gate, winning seven of their first 11 before coming back to earth. Then it was the Timberwolves, who were 10-8 before dropping 11 in a row. And the Kings, last season’s youthful darlings, have stumbled more than they’ve stood, with five-game and eight-game losing streaks logged before the new year. Only Memphis, now 19-22, and a half-game up on the ninth-place Spurs, looks fit to weather the storm.
With Morant and Jackson looking like ascendant talents, and Brooks and Clarke not far behind, it seems like the only thing standing between the Grizzlies and a potential first-round playoff upset is a veteran player—maybe a wing—that can solidify their ability on both ends of the floor. Thankfully for them, they won’t have to look far.