With the announcement of Ja Morant’s bone bruise and the likely scenario of him missing the rest of the postseason following a knee injury in Game 3, the Grizzlies’ future in this series looked doomed. Memphis easily could have folded, despairing without their 22-year-old point guard. Instead, they stepped on the Warriors’ necks. 134-95. Klay Thompson called it “embarrassing.” He was right.
Memphis is now 21-6 when missing Ja on the court this season. He’s still on the bench, bringing his trademark energy, but instead of falling apart in the absence of their top-scoring centerpiece, everyone else stepped up. Desmond Bane, Tyus Jones, and Jaren Jackson Jr. all put up 21-point games, with four other guys contributing double-digits in the scoring column. Up 77-50 at halftime, it was pretty clear the direction that this game — and this series — were going in. At one point, the Grizzlies were up by 55 points, coming oh-so-close to breaking the point margin playoff record.
With Morant playing, the Grizzlies are 41-25 this year — as the team’s leader in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals, he’s obviously making an enormous impact, but perhaps not one as fundamentally necessary to the team’s success as we may have thought. Or maybe it’s just the win-or-go-home playoff mindset of a team that is quickly forced to deal with the reality of benching their best player. They can (and frequently do) win without him — so without minimizing his impact on the team, let’s look at why the Grizzlies remain so complete without Morant playing.
The Nets went 8-19 without Kevin Durant on the court this season. The Bucks have gone 6-9 when missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bulls were 9-7 without Zach Lavine, who isn’t quite the superstar that these other players are, but still. The Suns are 8-6 without Devin Booker, but they have another star in Chris Paul. But the Grizzlies are 21-and-freaking-6 without a player who leads the team’s scoring average per game by nine points above the second-highest scorer. How, how, how? It shouldn’t be possible, but here we are, heading to a Game 6.
Perhaps it’s their untamed youth — coached by a 37-year-old, built by a 34-year-old, and the oldest player on the team not yet 30, their lack of an experienced leader to lean on is looking to be more and more of a benefit. They don’t panic without their star because he’s not a Durant-style legend or a Giannis-type leader. He brings his A-game, energy, and talent to the court, of course, but he’s still 22, and while they can rely on him for putting up numbers, they don’t have to rely on him in the same way for being the glue that holds the team together.
They’re a fearless, physical team whose defense actually improves without Morant out there, allowing fewer points and forcing more turnovers. And of course, there’s the factor of unpredictability for opposing defenses without a star shooter to focus on.
There’s always the chance that they lose tomorrow night or in Game 7, if it comes to that, but it won’t be for lack of effort, hope, or energy. Sometimes your leading scorer is the difference-maker — but sometimes, a game like last night’s happens. The Warriors may not be ready for what’s coming their way.
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