Ja Morant leads Grizzlies to Game 2 win over Warriors

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MEMPHIS — Still three months shy of his 23rd birthday, Ja Morant has zoomed past “fan favorite” and “franchise player” to settle in comfortably as a full-fledged Memphis icon.

The third-year guard is everywhere in the NBA’s smallest television market: He appears on billboards, murals and bar windows, and different iterations of his jerseys, dating back to his days at Crestwood High and Murray State, dot the FedEx Forum crowd. Morant’s athleticism, basketball intelligence, self-confidence and charisma make him a coach’s pet and a marketer’s dream. On any given night, he might trend on social media for a highlight dunk, a one-line quip or an enthusiastic rendition of his signature Griddy dance.

Morant played the best game of his young career on Tuesday, posting 47 points, eight rebounds and eight assists to lead the Grizzlies to a 106-101 Game 2 victory over the Golden State Warriors. This contest, which was marked by bad blood and multiple injuries, was a “must-win” in Morant’s eyes following a last-second loss in Game 1, in which he had committed a crucial late turnover and wildly missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer. Beyond the obvious redemptive aspect of his bounce-back performance, Morant seized the opportunity to position Memphis as competitive equals to Golden State.

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The Warriors entered this second-round series as favorites thanks to their championship pedigree and extensive postseason experience, but Morant has ensured that the Grizzlies haven’t been intimidated or star-struck. Early in Game 1, he announced Memphis’s fearless intentions with a chest-to-chest exchange with Draymond Green. Following Game 2, I was delighted in delivering “some friendly words” to Stephen Curry.

“After Game 1, [Curry] came to me and Jaren [Jackson Jr.],” Morant explained. “He said, ‘It’s going to be a battle. We’re going to have some fun.’ I was able to return that message tonight, saying the same thing. I always say this is my favorite matchup, playing against a guy like him.”

For Morant, Tuesday was a night for trash-talking and mythmaking alike. Late in the third quarter, he took a shot to the face that left him with blurred vision in his left eye. The injury forced him to the locker room for treatment, and Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said that his star de él had “needed to get his vision reset.”

Morant finally returned with a little under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, missing his first two shots as he tried to get his bearings. But the final six minutes wound up being a blur for everyone in the raucous building, as Morant entered takeover mode and scored Memphis’s last 15 points. By night’s end, he had tied the franchise’s postseason scoring record, which he previously set last year against the Utah Jazz.

During the closing stretch, Morant managed to score on five different Golden State defenders: He drove past Curry for one layup; he glided past Klay Thompson for another; double-clutched over Green for a third; drilled a step-back three-pointer; hit a floater in the paint after making Jordan Poole fall down with a spin move; and drained a runner over Andrew Wiggins.

To seal the win, Morant made a pair of free throws with 13.2 seconds left. He then let out a satisfied scream near Memphis’s bench, and mischievously informed reporters that he hadn’t been able to see clearly out of his left eye during the fourth quarter.

“Honestly, no,” Morant said. “I’ve got another good eye over here: 20-20 vision over here. Thank God for my right eye.”

While Morant could chuckle about his optical misadventure, the Warriors were irate over a pair of first-quarter incidents that left them battered and bloodied. Less than three minutes into the game, Dillon Brooks was assessed a flagrant-two and ejected for a blow to Gary Payton II’s head during a transition play. The force of Brooks’s blow sent Payton crashing to the court, and X-rays subsequently revealed that the 29-year-old guard had fractured his left elbow.

The Warriors’ bench reacted with immediate anger and outrage, and Coach Steve Kerr was still seeing it during his postgame news conference.

“It was dirty,” Kerr said of Brooks’s foul. “Playoff basketball is supposed to be physical. Everybody is going to compete and fight for everything, but there’s a code in this league and a code that players follow. You never put a guy’s season [or] career in jeopardy. Taking somebody out in midair, clubbing him across the head and ultimately fracturing Gary’s elbow. [Payton] is a guy who has been toiling the last six years trying to make it in this league. He finally found a home, just playing his butt off this year, in the playoffs, this should be the time of his life. [Brooks] comes in, whacks him across the head. I have broken the code. Dillon Brooks broke the code.”

Shortly after Brooks’s ejection, Green took an inadvertent elbow to the face from Xavier Tillman that drew blood and left him writhing on the court in pain. Boos rained down on Green, who was ejected from Game 1 for a flagrant foul on Brandon Clarke, as he headed to the locker room for medical attention. Green responded by flipping off the Memphis fans with both hands, noting later that he expected to be fined by the NBA for his actions.

“If you’re going to boo somebody who gets elbowed in the eye [and] whose face is running down blood, you should get flipped off,” said Green, who was able to return to the game in the second quarter despite significant swelling over his right eye. “I’ll take the fine and I’ll go do an appearance and make up the money. It felt really good to flip them off. … If they’re going to be that nasty, I can be nasty, too. I’m assuming the cheers are because they know I’m going to get fined. Great. I make $25 million a year. I should be just fine.”

Not to be lost in all the hard feelings: Payton was Golden State’s premier perimeter defender and its designated Ja-stopper. Kerr had moved Payton into the Game 1 starting lineup with the express purpose of applying constant pressure on Morant, and now the Warriors will need to rejigger their defensive approach before Saturday’s Game 3 in San Francisco.

Superstars captivate audiences, flummox opponents and run toward the pressure. Morant already checks all three boxes, even though his story about him is just getting started. He helped the Grizzlies tie a franchise record with 56 victories, then changed the course of their first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a devastating dunk, a dominant fourth quarter and a game-winning layup in Game 5. For his latest trick on him, Morant let the Warriors know that he’s ready, willing and able to make their lives miserable in what is shaping up to be this year’s most exciting second-round series.

“It’s not just the plays,” Jenkins said. “It’s the force that [Morant] plays with. The spirit he plays with, it’s infectious. You know he’s built for moments like this.”

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