MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Emerging superstar point guard Ja Morant sliced through the Golden State Warriors‘ defense and finished with a left-handed layup despite being fouled, making it a three-possession game with 28.9 seconds remaining, a dagger that sealed the Memphis Grizzlies‘ 10th consecutive win.
After Morant landed, he flexed in celebration and strutted a few steps into the crowd, where a young fan raised his right hand in hopes of getting a high-five. Instead, Morant stared down the boy and barked a few words, expressing offense that the kid dared to wear a Warriors jersey to FedExForum on Tuesday night.
“He was disrespectful with that jersey on,” Morant said after the Grizzlies’ 116-108 win. “We Memphis. It looked like he wanted to cheer, but he had that jersey on. I apologize to him, but in that moment, bro, take that jersey off and then dap me up. Somebody find his information. I’ll send him one myself.”
Respect, or lack thereof, has been a frequent talking point for Morant over the past year. He didn’t think the Grizzlies were given their due last season, when Memphis finished 38-34 before winning a pair of play-in games — the second on the road over the Warriors — to earn a playoff berth.
“I bet you we’ve got it now,” Morant said after his 29-point, eight-assist performance in this win over the Warriors. “I bet you we’ve got it now.”
The Grizzlies have forced their way into conversations about the NBA’s elite teams by dominating for a stretch of more than six weeks. Memphis has won 20 of 24 games, a run that started when Morant suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for 12 games, to improve to 29-14, putting the Grizzlies percentage points behind the Utah Jazz for third place in the Western Conference standings.
“They’ve turned into one of the best teams in the league,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, praising the Grizzlies organization for “building this team from the ground up in the last few years.”
Memphis’ last loss was Dec. 23 to the Warriors in San Francisco. The Grizzlies’ franchise-record 10-game run — the league’s longest active winning streak — includes victories over the top two teams in the West (Phoenix Suns and Warriors). The Grizzlies have also beaten Las Vegas’ two preseason title favorites — the Los Angeles Lakers (twice) and Brooklyn Nets — during the streak.
“Number one, we’re one of the best teams in the league,” said Morant, 22, who is the youngest player to average at least 25 points per game in a double-digit winning streak in NBA history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. “I feel like that’s number one. And number two, we’re showing how deep our roster is. No matter what’s thrown at us, we bounce back from it and come out and win games. We’ve got to keep it rolling, continue to play together, continue to battle.”
The Grizzlies pounced on the Warriors in the first half, leading by as many as 18 points. Golden State, sparked by Gary Payton II‘s energy, stormed back in the third quarter to take the lead. But Memphis closed it out in crunch time, getting 3s on back-to-back possessions by backup point guard Tyus Jones (17 points, six rebounds, eight assists) to push the cushion to nine points and buckets off two Morant drives in the final minute to kill any Warriors comeback hopes.
“They’re obviously fueled by everything that Ja does and how explosive he is,” said Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, who had a 27-point triple-double but scored only two points in the fourth quarter. “They obviously got us last year in the play-in game and got us twice this year, and we got them once, so it’s a natural evolution of a team trying to take that next step.
“The big part is you talk about it right now; you’ve got to show it in the playoffs. We want to be there to try to do that. I know they want to, too. Nobody’s trying to win the verbal conversation right now of who we are in January.”