2022 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Grizzlies (2) vs. Warriors (3)

5 takeaways from Grizzlies' comeback win in Game 2 vs. Warriors

Ja Morant loomed large in the clutch in a game defined by physical play and postgame accusations as the Grizzlies evened the West semifinals 1-1.

Ja Morant scores 47 points and closes the game out with several clutch plays to lift Memphis to a Game 2 win.

Grizzlies vs. Warriors: Complete series coverage

MEMPHIS — Five takeaways from the Memphis Grizzlies’ 106-101 victory against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 Tuesday at FedEx Forum to pull even at 1-1 in their Western Conference semifinals series:

1. Morant nails the eye test

The NBA playoffs have given us an assortment of ailment-related games through the years. There was Michael Jordan’s “flu” in the 1997 Finals and Willis Reed’s gimpy knee against the Lakers in 1970. LeBron James cramped up in San Antonio when the air conditioning went kaput in 2014, and Paul Pierce’s “wheelchair game” in 2008 remains the stuff of urban legend.

What we got Tuesday night in Memphis was Ja Morant’s “eye test” game.

Morant, one of the league’s most compelling young talents, got inadvertently punched in the left eye near the end of the third quarter. Even as that period ticked away, he gestured a couple of times to the Grizzlies’ bench that he could not see. When the ball came to him anyway, he was feisty enough to launch a 3-pointer … but it missed because, well, he could not see.

Wouldn’t have know it from what followed, though.

Ja Morant was sensational in Game 2 against the Warriors as he tied his career playoff-high with 47 points.

Morant sat out the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, trying to clear his vision. He came back at 8:55, Memphis down 83-80 after Golden State used a 21-8 stretch to take its first lead. Morant completed a three-point play to tie at 89-89 at 6:11, but when Stephen Curry splashed a open three from the left side to make it 95-91, it was clear the home team needed more.

What it got was Morant as cavalry, as Batman and then as Mariano Rivera in one fell swoop. No one else scored for Memphis the rest of the night — it was Ja 15, the Warriors 6 over the final 4:33. He was everything you’ve seen in the highlights, not just from Game 2 but all season (he did win the Kia Most Improved Player Award, after all). He hypnotized defenders, rocking them back and forth before exploding to the rim. He drained a 3-pointer. He attacked the basket from obtuse angles, defied gravity to toss up shots on the way down or floated the ball above the fingertips of hapless Warriors defenders.

Morant wound up with 47 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a chance to pay back Curry with a parting holler.

“After Game 1, he came to me and Jaren [Jackson Jr.] and said it’s going to be a battle, we going to have some fun,” Morant said. “I was able to return that message tonight saying the same thing.”

Opponents might be forgiven if they catch themselves gawking at Morant’s dramatics every so often. Teammates certain do.

Asked what he thought when Morant blistered Golden State down the stretch, Memphis big man Xavier Tillman said: “‘Mama, there goes that man.’ He’s a bucket,” Tillman said. “Especially in clutch time, he knows how to get to where he wants to be.

“I feel like I’ve watched him transform into a true closer. At first he’d say, ‘OK, I’m gonna hit the open guy. OK, now I’m gonna take the shot. If I’m missing it, ahhh.’

“Now he’s like, ‘Nah, I’ve got it. The last three minutes I’ve got it. Don’t even worry about it.’ And it’s hard for the defense to stop that.”

Morant’s left eye didn’t look noticeably reddened or bruised afterward, but who’s to say how it looked to him. “I’ve got another good eye over here — 20/20 vision right here,” he said, gesturing. “Thank God for my right eye.”

2. The forgettable feat of Klay

Klay Thompson suffered through two serious surgeries and 941 days between appearances in NBA games. Then he suffered through Game 2.

Thompson looked out of rhythm and a little sluggish all night. He had tweaked a knee in Game 1 but had checked out fine, so his misfiring seemed to be just one of those nights. Thompson, one of the league’s most lethal shooters prior to his layoff, finished 5-of-19 and 2-of-12 on 3-pointers.

With only 1:26 left, he still was trying to locate the rim, so he launched a practice shot from the right corner. It missed. About a minute later, he tried a potential game-tying 3-pointer and got called for traveling.

Through two games Thompson is averaging just 13.5 points per game while shooting 28.9% and 22.7% on 3-pointers. He’s also at risk, if he visits social media, of finding stuff like this.

3. Physical play marks Game 2

Two games in and this series could end up as a war of attrition. Physical didn’t capture how bruising and, in Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s mind, downright dirty things got almost from tipoff Tuesday.

Kerr got irate just 2:52 into the game when Memphis forward Dillon Brooks wound up and slammed guard Gary Payton II across the head while Payton was trying to finish at the rim. He was still outraged afterward, especially with the news that Payton — Golden State’s best defender against Morant — suffered an elbow fracture when he crashed to the floor.

Dillon Brooks was charged with a Flagrant 2 foul and ejected from Game 2 for this play on Gary Payton II.

“I don’t know if that was intentional but it was dirty,” Kerr said. “Y’know, playoff basketball is supposed to be physical. But there’s a code in this league that players follow. You never put a guy’s season/career in jeopardy by taking somebody out in mid-air and clubbing him across the head.”

Brooks was ejected with a flagrant 2 foul, an easy call once the refs watched the replay. He’s a valued defender for the Grizzlies, matched up while he was around against the smaller, shiftier Curry. It’s possible he could miss more time if the league feels anywhere close to what Kerr was feeling.

“This is a guy [Payton] who’s been toiling the last six years trying to make it in this league,” Kerr said. “Finally found a home. Played his butt off this year. In the playoffs, this should be the time of his life. And a guy comes in, whacks him across the head in mid-air. He broke the code. Dillon Brooks broke the code.”

Steve Kerr called Dillon Brooks' Flagrant 2 foul on Gary Payton II in Game 2 a 'dirty' one.

Besides Payton’s dangerous fall and fractue, and Morant’s eye, Curry suffered a bloodied hand that stopped play and Draymond Green got hit in the face. As Green went to the locker room for treatment, fans near that tunnel jeered him into snapping off a two-handed middle-finger salute.

He expects the league to ding him for that.

Said Green of his gesture: “You’re gonna boo someone who got elbowed and has blood running down [his] face, you should get flipped off. I’ll take the fine.”

4. Youth already is getting served

Two younger-than-most rookies, Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga and Memphis’ Ziaire Williams, already have given their respective teams a boost through two games. The muscled Kuminga, 19, helped the Warriors in both games, learned a couple hard defensive lessons and finished Game 2 with nine points and five rebounds in 14 minutes.

Rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Ziaire Williams both delivered in Game 2 of the West semifinals.

Williams, 20, was even better. After missing Game 1 with a knee injury, the slender forward was a game-time decision who proved invaluable to the Grizzlies. He scored 14 points, hitting four of his eight 3-pointers and was a plus-8 in the win.

5. Series’ spotlight shifts to Chase Center

If Payton is out, the Warriors’ defensive options on Morant will be more limited. That could spell trouble, even as Games 3 and 4 shift to the Chase Center in San Francisco. The Warriors’ new home opened for the 2019-20 season, but the Warriors missed the playoffs that season.

The Warriors didn’t advance past the Play-In Tournament in 2020-21, so this playoff run is the first real test of the Chase Center as a raucous home court advantage. Can it match the ear-deafening “Roaracle” vibes from the Warriors’ much-loved old home in Oakland? Games 3 and 4 will be the first real test.

The Grizzlies have been excellent on the road all season (26-15, with two victories in Minnesota in the first round). Of course, the Warriors were 31-10 at home during the regular season and are 3-0 at Chase Center so far in the playoffs. Golden State’s fans are among the league’s most boisterous, and after seeing the lumps their guys took in Tennessee, they should be more loud and aggressive than usual.

Here’s one area the Warriors need to clean up in a hurry: Through two games, they have been outscored on 3-pointers by 27 points. They have shot 21-of-76 from the arc to the Grizzlies’ 30-of-85. And Curry and Thompson have shot 30-of-83 overall.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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