If Memphis gets to the Western Conference Playoffs and goes on a deep post-season run, their NBA ascent is likely to have been made with the kind of resolve that powered them past the Suns in Phoenix on Monday night.
One night after ending a three-game losing streak by pounding the Kings in Sacramento, the Grizzlies outlasted the Suns 115-114, improving their record to 21-14 as they occupy the fourth spot in the Western Conference chase for the playoffs.
Openly embracing the role of road warriors, the Grizzlies have a 10-6 mark away from FedExForum, are winners of seven of their last 10 overall and eight of the last 10 on the road. Taking down the Suns, the team with the second-best record in the league, required a down-to-the-buzzer resolve capped by NBA All-Star-worthy point guard Ja Morant.
Three games back from an extended absence forced by a sprained knee and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Morant accented a game-high, 33-points-and-four-assists performance with several highlight-reel scoring moves in the paint, including the game-winner with seconds remaining.
“The play was Ja go get a bucket. That’s what I did,” said Morant of the game-winner. “I like being in those pressure situations. I like taking on that challenge of being the guy, you know, to take that shot. I delivered tonight … big-time win for us against a great team.”
The high-profile victory came with NBA All-Star Voting 2021 now underway through Jan. 22 at 11 p.m. CT. Fans can vote starters to the NBA All-Star Game via the NBA App, NBA.com and Twitter. Reserves selected by NBA head coaches will be announced on Feb. 3 during “TNT NBA Tip-Off.”
“I mean I don’t even know why people still asking the question,” said Desmond Bane, responding to whether Morant is an All-Star this season. “I mean 33 points this third game back … dude just came off of injury COVID … against the Suns on the road. So, I don’t think it should be a discussion.”
Bane, too, was on fire against the Suns, scoring a career-high 32 points as he connected on 6 of 11 three-pointers.
Last week, Morant expressed frustration after a few fans suggested the Grizzlies, who had been on a roll without him, would be better off if he sat back down. He has responded by stepping up on the court.
“I’m thankful, I’m grateful for everybody supporting me,” said Morant. “It was times where I didn’t even know if I would be in this situation. If I would, you know, play at a D1 college. If I would be in the NBA. Having this opportunity, it’s a blessing. A lot of people wanna be here. So, to receive All-Star recognition is big time.”
The Suns were without two of their big inside threats, Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder, who helped them beat Memphis handily earlier in the year. Down by as many as 18 points in the second half, the Suns got a huge game from Devin Booker, who finished with 30 points and went 3 of 3 on three-pointers.
With eight seconds remaining, Booker hit a deep three, giving Phoenix its first lead since the Suns led 4-2 and sending the home-arena fans into delirium.
During its timeout, Memphis locked in on a play designed for Morant. Taking a pass from Bane, he attacked the rim, making a dazzling layup off the glass while leaving Phoenix with .5 seconds remaining. A desperation shot by the Suns missed the mark, allowing Memphis to win two of its three games on the road trip.
Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins credited the players for how they closed out the game.
“I mean there’s been a lot of learning over the last couple of weeks,” said Jenkins. “We’re trying to get our guys as prepared as possible for whatever … situation is called for. We had a couple of breakdowns there; obviously, you know, credit the Suns. They caught fire there in the second half, especially in that fourth quarter.”
Chris Paul had 13 points, with 13 assists for Phoenix
The Grizzlies played without Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton and Ives Yons, who are on the protocols list for dealing with COVID-19.
Jon Konchar, who got his first Memphis start against the Kings, followed up that performance of 11 points and 14 rebounds with seven points, nine rebounds and numerous hustle plays.
The defense of the Grizzlies held one of the best three-point shooting teams to only 11 made three-pointers. Memphis also had 10 steals in the game and outrebounded the Suns 50-35.
Center Steven Adams had another double-double with 13 points and 16 rebounds. Jaren Jackson Jr. finished with 11 points.
After what Jenkins summed up as, “A really good game against a really good ball club,” Bane said, “… our goal is to continue to get better … throughout the entire season, just continue to improve. That’s what we’ve done.”
Morant said the Grizzlies are an “unselfish group. So, guys don’t matter if they playing a lot of minutes or just a little bit. When their number is called, they’re ready to come out and, you know, compete at a very high level.
“I’ve been saying for a while, we have a lot of guys who can do a lot on the floor for us on both ends of the floor. I feel like now I know everybody is getting to see that. I missed some games; now with having Dylan and Melt out, other guys are stepping up in their roles. It just shows what a great core we have here.”