Performing at a level that stirs fans of the opposing team to chant M-V-P is the world that Memphis’ Ja Morant is living in now.
“It is surreal,” said the Grizzlies’ star point guard, referencing the MVP chants directed his way as Memphis took down the Brooklyn Nets (118-104) at the Barclay Center in New York on Monday night. “It is something I have been working for. My play of late has been helping with that and getting me a lot more recognition.
“Hearing the MVP chants on the road is different. It is from people that are rooting for the home team, but showing me love and respect.”
Keeping the “main” goal (winning) the “main thing,” Morant and the Grizzlies (25-14) kept it going against the improved Cavaliers in a back-to-back game win (110-106) on Tuesday night. Morant led the way with 26 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Jaren Jackson Jr. rebounded from a five-point outing against the Nets, scoring 22 points (3 rebounds, 1 assist).
Accolades are flowing Morant’s way. He was named the NBA Player of the Week (December 27-Jan. 2) for the Western Conference – his first such honor and the 11th for the franchise. He averaged 34.7 points and shot 55.7 percent.
Along the way, Morant and the Grizzlies have turned back superstars LeBron James (Lakers) and the Net’s Kevin Durant.
“Being able to compete against guys on that level is definitely special,” said Morant. “It gives you a lot of confidence. I just try to be myself and put my team in a position to win.”
Memphis led Brooklyn wire-to-wire, with Morant – for the fourth consecutive game – finishing with 30-plus points (36), a franchise record. He exploded for 18 points in the third quarter as Memphis blew the game wide open.
As has been the case since he returned from an extended absence (sprained knee and COVID-19 protocols), Morant got plenty of help. Starting at the shooting guard spot, Desmond Bane poured in 29 points and secured 8 rebounds.
Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said Morant and Bane have “organically developed the chemistry” the duo displayed against the Nets.
“It started when Desmond was drafted. Ja understood what he could bring from a play-making point of view,” said Jenkins. “I think there was a lot of work put in this offseason with those guys … around each other. Just watching them together from afar, I was really impressed … these guys have kind of found that (chemistry) pretty quickly (in) … their second year together.”
Bane said he and Morant are “workhorses. We both come in here with a chip on our shoulders. We have good chemistry off the court as well. It makes it easier when you are playing with someone you like. I love seeing Ja do well. He has cheered me on the same way. …
“People are debating if he (Morant) should be an All-Star; we should be debating if he is the best point guard in the league.”
Memphis opened the Brooklyn game on a 7-0 run and led by as many as 28 points. The Nets trimmed the deficit to 10 points late in the fourth quarter but were not able to get it any closer. Durant, who played against the Grizzlies for the first time in two-plus years, scored 26 points. All-Star James Hardin had 19 points and 8 assists for the Nets (23-12), who remained second in the Eastern Conference while suffering their third straight loss.
Once again, the Grizzlies reaped the benefits of a defensive reassessment that Jenkins said happened 18-19 games back. “Our guys really locked onto that and it just got better.”
The NBA Coach of the Month for December, Jenkins guided the Grizzlies to a league-high 12 wins (against four losses).
The Grizzlies benefitted, again, from a strong bench performance against the Nets. Brandon Clarke continues to deliver, this time contributing 16 points and 7 rebounds. Jarret Culver, who returned after a COVID-protocols absence, scored his franchise-high 12 points in 30 minutes of play.
“Everybody plays hard. No one has an ego,” Culver said of the Grizzlies’ culture. “We bond together as brothers and we go out and win. That is the main goal.”
With the win, Memphis carved out a winning streak of 5 or more games for the second time this season.
“I feel like we are all underdogs. We all want to win,” Morant said. “We love when our teammates are doing good. If winning is the main goal, then you have that we-over-me mindset throughout the entire organization. …
“We have a lot of talented players on this team. … Each night we go out and battle for 48 minutes. It has been working well for us.”