After an opening-act win in front of a seriously ready-for-basketball crowd at FedExForum, the Memphis Grizzlies have headed west for an early Western Conference test.
Far from stellar (5-21) in openers entering Wednesday’s game against Cleveland, Memphis fed off its frenzied fans and held on for a 132-121 victory over the visiting Cavaliers.
“Phenomenal,” said head coach Taylor Jenkins, assessing the opening-night crowd. “I mean, there was a moment … they (the Cavaliers) went on a big time run … and then the crowd just rises and says, ‘let’s go, alright, we’re good.’ … I mean just having that support back in the building, we were talking about that before the game.”
Star guard Ja Morant scored 37 points, registering an alley-oop dunk and a soaring block that knotted two slots in ESPN’s nightly – and wildly popular – Top Ten plays of the night.
“It felt like basketball,” said Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane (22 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists). “Not to say last year didn’t feel like basketball, but something was missing. The Grizzlies fans showed up and showed out tonight. It was live in there, for sure. I’m looking forward to the whole entire season.”
Memphis (1-0) now faces an early four-game test, beginning with the Clippers and Lakers in Los Angeles Oct. 23-24 before taking on the Portland Trailblazers and then ending the west-coast swing against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
On Wednesday night, the Grizzlies’ defense was the star element in the game. With 1:37 remaining, the Cavs cut the Memphis led to 119-118. The Grizzlies responded by turning up the defensive pressure, holding Cleveland to three points the rest of the way while scoring 13.
“We said all game, our defense generates our offense,” said Morant. “When we lock in defensively, we are a very dangerous team. It allows us to get out in transition. We have a lot of shooters on the floor. Our mindset was to get stops late and go on the other end and execute.”
In the waning seconds and with Morant at the free throw line with a chance to seal the victory, the crowd began to shout “MVP”.
“I ain’t going to lie. Those MVP chants almost made me miss my free throws,” said Morant. “I shook and the only thing going through my mind was ‘wow.’ At the same time was, ‘you got to make these free throws.’ I had to lock in.”
Bane and guard De’Anthony Melton (20 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) both were game-one starters.
“It felt great. My name was called and I knew the assignment,” said Melton. “I knew go in, play my game, play hard, play defense, get stops and get out. I was just doing what I knew how to do.”
Morant’s alley-oop dunk was set up by Melton and went viral on social media. It was rivaled by Morant’s flying, first-half block. After Bane drained a three-pointer from the far corner, the Cavs quickly advanced the ball to the front of the rim. A speeding Morant caught up to the ball and skied for block, sending the crowed into – Yes! – a frenzy.
“I was celebrating the three I hit,” said Bane. “Coach was yelling at me to get back and I didn’t know how much time was left on the clock, then here comes Ja out of nowhere mopping it off the top of the backboard. I’m thankful because that surely would have been on film tomorrow.”
Melton said he spotted Morant around half court.
“Ja starts full-speed sprinting, then you already know where he wants to go. I just threw it up there. If it didn’t get tipped, he was going to catch it. I just threw it high enough to where only he could get it. He did the rest with it.”
Taking the measure of Morant’s highlight dunk and block, Melton said, “He hit his head on both of them pretty much. Probably the block, though. We take pride in defense over here. I think his block was definitely a game changer for us.”
Morant acknowledged that he surprised himself on the block.
“It was kinda high when I saw the replay. I had to duck my head a little bit. My main focus is to be more active on the defensive end. I feel like we are a better team when I am locked in.”
- Jaren Jackson Jr. finished with 13 points.
- Rookie Ziaire Williams, the Grizzlies’ No. 1draft pick, finished with 3 points in 17 minutes of play.
- For the Cavaliers, Rookie Evan Mobley had a solid game, finishing with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Jarrett Allen led the Cavs with 25 points.
- The Grizzlies will return home to play the Miami Heat on Saturday Oct. 30.