A victory that the Minnesota Timberwolves seemingly had tethered to their bus out of town became Memphis’ gain when NBA sensation Ja Morant and a cast of Grizzlies characters stepped up to claim it.
The win in the Game 5 Playoff thriller went to Memphis 111-109, triggering a raise-the-roof celebration at FedExForum on Tuesday night. The manner of the victory became an instant buzz, largely because of the highlight-reel, second-half play by Morant.
A day after Memphis’ defeat-defying escape from the Timberwolves’ grasp, the game, which earned the Grizzlies a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven, opening-round series, was being talked about in some manner on various mediums and communication platforms reaching eager listeners, readers and viewers in myriad parts of the country.
The No. 2. seed Memphis now has a chance to close out the series on Friday in Minnesota, with the Grizzlies in possession of their home-court advantage in case things go sideways at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
Morant, who scored the last 13 points for Memphis, scooped the winning layup into the basket with his left hand with barely time to say “my goodness” – or some variation – to go. A desperation heave by the Timberwolves’ menace at center, Karl-Anthony Towns, fell harmlessly short.
Once again, the Grizzlies found the escape hatch from a double-digit, late-in-the-game hole.
“It feels good when you win,” said Morant (30 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists). “But, me personally, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of playing from behind.”
Referencing the Grizzlies’ blowout win over Minnesota in Game 2 (played at FedExForum), Morant said, “You see what happens when we come out play from the jump. We’ve just got to have that mindset that we had going into Game 2 into Game 6; not give them too much life. Go ahead and come out and play hard. Play with energy. Start early.”
Morant – and noone who has really watched them during a historic winning regular season – thinks that the Grizzlies have played their best basketball over the last three games. Still, “I’m giving it my all,” said Morant, adding, that he was “ready to lay down.”
By no means was Morant a lone soldier against the tenacious Timberwolves. Desmond Bane shot and drove his way to 25 points, adding four rebounds and an assist.
And Brandon Clarke, well, he was about as big as an X-factor can get in a playoff game. While shaky at the free-throw line, he energized his way to 21 points and 15 rebounds. With the game in the balance, he managed to slap a loose ball to Morant, who hit a three that put Memphis on the precipice of victory.
“I was just focused on trying to win, trying to find a way to help us win. That’s just been me the whole year really, just kind of bringing that fight and bringing that kind of energy off the bench,” said Clarke.
“That’s really what I do, and Coach (Taylor Jenkins) trusted me to be in the game in the fourth (quarter). I just knew that I was trying to find a way to win and just trying to make plays to just get boards and pass it out and let Des (Desmond Bane) or Ja (Morant) hit the big shots….
With the win secured and those in the FedExForum crowd finally able to do what they wanted (yell and scream like they won the lottery), Clarke found Morant and hugged him from behind as Morant soaked up the postgame adulation.
“I was like, ‘Thank God, we got you (Morant). And thank God that you’re as good as you are.’ Because we had just fought so hard, and Ant (Anthony Edwards) hit a really tough three.”
Clarke rotated to defend Edwards (22 points) but could not stop Minnesota’s sharpshooter from completing a well-executed play with a three-pointer from the corner with 3.7 seconds to play. And while that took the air from the Grizz faithful, the crowd – like the team – bounced back.
“Tons of credit to our guys just staying the course,” said Jenkins. “Obviously, there’s things that we can always clean up, but I thought, for the most part, our effort was great. Our execution was great defensively. Our execution offense was great. Just missing open shots, missing layups, missing threes, missing free throws.
“Our spirit never wavered. This was a tough test …”
The winning play, said Jenkins, was pretty much executed as planned.
“It’s a play we’ve worked on before. Great execution. Great find by (Dillon Brooks) with length on the passer. And then, Ja made a heck of a move and a heck of a finish.”
As big as the win was and as amazing Morant’s layup was, it was his dunk over Malik Beasley at the end of the third quarter that was reverberating around the country in myriad forums and conversations.
“Just poor guy,” said Bane of Beasley. “I mean, having to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yeah, Ja does what he does, but poor guy. I like (Malik) Beasley too, but poor guy.”