No NBA team gets a pass into the playoffs based upon being the hottest team in the league over any 10-game period. Still, going 10-0 during such a span while also knocking off the latest version of the last hoops dynasty is cause for raising the roof on an in-season accomplishment.
Such is the case for the surging Memphis Grizzlies (29-14), who resoundingly defeated the Golden State Warriors 116-108 at FedExForum on Tuesday night. It was the tenth straight win for Memphis, whose stellar player is reverberating around the league.
“Number one is we’re one of the best teams in the league,” Memphis star guard Ja Morant (29 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) said, fielding a question about what the Grizzlies have learned during their historic run.
“Number two, I feel like, is how deep our roster is. No matter what’s thrown at us, we bounce back from it, come out and win games. Just got to keep it rolling. Continue to play together. Continue to battle and whatever is fueling us, continue to do.”
Warrior’s coach Steve Kerr, who led Golden State (30-10) to world titles in 2015, 2017 and 2018, said, “It was a great game. … Two of the best teams in the league and they’re the hottest team in the league. We gave ourselves a chance but we didn’t play well enough to win.”
Kerr acknowledged what a growing number of other NBA observers also are echoing: “Just a team that is really well-coached, really well put together. Play with a lot of confidence. The pieces fit. They have done a great job, the whole organization, building this team from the ground up over the last few years.
“They have nailed their draft picks and developed their players well,” said Kerr. (Head coach) Taylor (Jenkins) and his staff have been great in terms of forming an identity and building the team around Ja (Morant). Great job and they have turned into one of the best teams in the league.”
For the third straight game, Jenkins was out for health and safety protocols. Assistant Darko Rajakovic filled in against the Warriors.
“Our guys played another great game,” Rajakovic said. “They stayed together during the course of the game, through ups and downs. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the effort. I’m proud of the resiliency of this group.”
The Grizzlies led by eight points at halftime before Golden State came out swinging in the third, outscoring Memphis 39-28 and taking a three-point advantage into the decisive final frame.
Swag. Swag. We lost our swag. That was it, that was it,” said Rajakovic. “For a moment we stopped moving the ball. We didn’t have the energy that’s a characteristic for our team. All I told them was that we’ve got to get our strength back.”
Morant took Rajakovic’s swag reference in stride.
“My reaction, I actually agreed with him,” said Morant. “We got out to a big lead. Obviously, one of the greatest teams in the league, they went on a run. His message is we’ve got to get back to being us, playing with swag and having fun. Have a smile on our face basically.
“I feel like when we did that, we were winning in the games. We’ve just got to continue to do that. Like I said last game, our swag is just to go out there and battle for a full 48 minutes, play together. … It’s been working. Got to keep it going.”
The Warriors were paced by their superstar guard Stephen Curry and his triple-double: 27 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds. He associated the Warriors coming up short to turnovers, particularly in the first half.
“We had our chances against a team that has confidence in themselves, playing well, know who they are. … They are young, they have guys that have amazing opportunities, fueled by what Ja does. How explosive he is,” said Curry.
“They got us last year in the play-in game, got us twice this year, we got them once. It is a natural evolution of a team trying to take that next step. … A big part is you talk about it right now, you got to show it in the playoffs. We want to be there to do that, I know they want to too. I know nobody is trying to win the verbal conversation right now in January.”
Memphis rookie Zaire Williams (17 points) was assigned to guard Curry much of the game and Morant credited Williams’ performance.
“I think he did well. I gave him a lot of credit just now. Besides those fouls on the three, I felt like he did a great job at trying to make his shots as tough as possible. He’s 6’9, can move his feet.
“I wish you all could have seen him pregame, how much treatment he was doing to prepare for Steph. Locked in. He was in the recovery boots, had heat packs, he was doing balance tests. I had never seen him do that before. I think he was really locked in tonight. He delivered for us and got us a big win.”
The Grizzlies’ convincing victory came as Morant was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the second consecutive week.
“I didn’t know until I got off the plane and everyone was like, ‘Congrats.’ I was lost. It’s big time. I’m blessed. I’ve been working to be in the position that I am right now. I’ve just got to continue to keep playing my game, continue to be aggressive out there on the floor and do whatever it takes for us to get a win.
“Us winning games allowed me to be in position to get that award. You know what I’m going to say. It goes to my teammates. Without them being out there helping me, it wouldn’t be possible. Back-to-back player of the week goes to my teammates and my coaches.”