The first scoring play of the season for the Memphis Grizzlies was a layup by Ja Morant in a title-seeking NBA campaign being associated with the moniker “Big Memphis.”
A sold-out FedExForum crowd of 18,202 was entertained from the opening tip to the final whistle as the Grizzlies out-grinded the New York Knicks 118-117 in triple overtime in the home and season opener for the 2022-23 season.
Morant scored 10 of the first 13 points by the Grizzlies, who saw their 19-point, third-quarter advantage worked away by the Knicks en route to a 96-95 lead when newly-acquired point guard Jalen Brunson scored with 3:24 remaining.
With every Grizzlies fan in the arena calling on “12” (Morant’s number) as the clock wound down, Memphis’ superstar guard was called for a charge against Brunson as he attacked for a winning layup.
“That is a block for sure,” said Morant, who finished with 34 points and 9 assists. “He (Brunson) even told me … that is what was crazy … told me I jumped around him.
“So, we were not supposed to play that extra five minutes. I can’t control that. Being a ref is a very tough job. He made the call. We had to deal with it, turn the page, go out, and win.”
For Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, it was the beginning of year four as head coach of the Grizzlies. Noting “how we’re built,” Jenkins took from the game a fresh appreciation that the team collectively is committed to proven anchor points for success, including competing together and striving to get better.
“What a battle between two competitive teams. Credit to our group coming out with a great edge to start the first half,” Jenkins said. “Knew the Knicks were going to respond. They did a phenomenal job second half just playing physical.
“Gave up way too many points in the paint. We did a little bit better job with second-chance points in the second half. It’s just finding a way to make winning plays.”
Overtime yielded a prime example, with the Grizzlies controlling the extra five minutes to seize the opening-game victory. The play that got the most buzz was Morant’s basket-stopping block of a Brunson breakaway layup attempt, followed by Morant’s alley-oop on the other end to Brandon Clarke.
“Game slowed down, the pace wasn’t really there in overtime,” said Jenkins, “but we just found a way to make those winning plays, come up with some big stops. Much better execution down the stretch.”
One game into the 82-game season, the Grizzlies already are leaning on their next-man-up mentality. Dillon Brooks and Ziaire Williams were not available and Desmond Bane left the game with what was reported as leg cramps at a critical juncture down the stretch.
Manning the power forward position in the absence of the injured Jared Jackson Jr., second-year player Santi Aldama had an impressive 18 points and 11 rebounds.
“Like I always say, it’s (a lot of) work, but I was locked in,” said Aldama. “I knew they were a good team, so I just tried to play good defense and on offense, just be ready to shoot.
“I think we did a good job just moving the ball like we always do, and getting stops down the stretch, especially. I was excited obviously, first start. It was a great feeling, but it was even better to get the win. That’s always how to finish games.”
Morant said the preaching to Aldama has been “to be aggressive at all times. He is able to shoot the ball well and his size and length (helps him be) able to shoot over guys inside in the paint.
“So, we just preach be aggressive, be ready to shoot at all times and he played very well for us on both ends of the floor … taking a tough matchup (against Julius) Randall (24 points, 11 rebounds) and helping us come out with this win. Just got to keep it going.”
With the game’s outcome in the balance, reserve guard Tyus Jones (15 points) hit a key three-pointer off an assist from Morant to secure the win.
“First game (with) 38 minutes is tough, but that’s why I have my teammates,” said Morant. “It is a team game. It is not just me out there. I had a lot of guys step up and put us in position to win, and that is how we know we came out with a win. Tyus came in hit a big-time three for us and put us up and we finished it off from there.”
Memphis will hit the road for Texas for their next two games, playing the Houston Rockets on Friday (Oct. 21) and the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday (Oct. 22).
The next FedExForum opportunity for a Big Memphis performance will be against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets on Monday (Oct. 24).