There isn't a night in which I would purposely choose NOT to watch former NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. The Memphis Grizzlies star is must-see-tv every single night, especially in this postseason.
But through two and a half quarters on Tuesday night, he wasn't living up to the hype. A friend actually texted our group-chat about his poor play through this crucial game 5. It's almost as if Morant was in the chat, because what came next was one of the most compelling closing performances in recent postseason history.
Morant's exploits fueled a fourth-quarter rally that lifted the Grizzlies to a 111-109 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 and a 3-2 series lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The late heroics started when he elevated for an emphatic highlight dunk in the closing seconds of the third quarter, sending an electric current through the crowd at FedEx Forum. The slam trimmed the Grizzlies deficit to 11 points and lifted Morant and his teammates from what was a miserable first 36 minutes of basketball.
"I always get the best view of his dunks," Grizzlies big man Brandon Clarke said. "I was right there. I was like, 'Yo, he just brought the ball all the way back and flushed it hard.' That's a play that can really get us going, can really get us hyped."
But still, more heroics were needed. After Timberwolves wing Anthony Edwards tied the game at 109-109 with a 3-pointer,he found himself guarding Morant with just over 5 seconds left. Edwards made the mistake of gambling for a deflection on the high side of the pass, allowing Morant a runway to drive into the paint, where he led the NBA in points per game. As he met Minnesota forward Jarred Vanderbilt in the lane, Morant elevated with the basketball between his hands, before contorting clockwise and lurching toward the basket with a left-handed scoop off the glass. Morant's acrobatics resulted in the game winner with one second remaining.
Asked to describe the play design of the final possession, Morant said only, "Go get a bucket, Ja."
Morant scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and ignited his team as the Grizzlies roared back to stage their second big comeback of the series. While the 11-point deficit was a far cry from the 21-point margin Memphis overcame in Game 3, the significance of Morant's play has larger repercussions for a team that has been desperate for a transcendent display from its superstar.
"He was huge," Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said, particularly in light of Morant's earlier struggles. "He just had a smile on his face. 'I made that shot a million times.' I said, 'You're going to make the next one. Just keep shooting, keep attacking.' This is the fun part about playoff basketball. You don't know how you're going to win. You just keep chipping away. Keep trusting it. And obviously, he had a brilliant fourth quarter."
Morant and teammate Clarke, who scored 21 points while leading the Grizzlies in minutes, embraced as the final buzzer rang. Clarke was asked what he told Morant in the celebratory moment.
"Thank God we got you," Clarke said he told Morant. "Thank God that you're as good as you are."