Calmly, maybe unknowingly, Ja Morant uttered five words to set the stage for his team’s 125-100 drubbing Friday of the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center.
During an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Wednesday, Morant was asked about the teams the Grizzlies might need to “run through” on the arduous journey to winning the franchise’s first NBA championship.
“Celtics,” he said.
Andrews then adeptly mentioned Morant referenced “no one in the West.”
“Nah,” the point guard said, shaking his head with a grin.
“I’m fine in the West.”
The Grizzlies showed as much in storming to a 21-point halftime lead in the first contest of the season that featured the team’s original starting five that includes Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams, Dillon Brooks, and Desmond Bane, who returned Friday after sitting out the last 17 games due to a sprained right big toe. Before Bane rejoined the group, Jackson missed Memphis’ first 14 outings recovering from offseason surgery on his right foot.
Finally whole again, the Grizzlies demolished a depleted Suns team missing Devin Booker, who ranks 10th in this week’s edition of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Booker watched from the bench for the third consecutive game with a groin injury after scoring a season-high 58 points on 21-of-35 shooting Saturday to lead a Phoenix comeback victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. That performance marked the 26-year-old’s fifth 50-point outing, as he became the youngest player to tally five such games in his career since 2003, when Kobe Bryant accomplished the feat at 24.
The Suns certainly needed Booker’s production Friday against a Memphis team that led wire to wire, and at one point built a 30-point advantage on the strength of Morant, Jackson, Adams, Brooks and Bane combining for 61 points through the first three quarters as the Grizzlies headed into the final frame leading 97-69. Morant finished with 12 points and 11 assists, while Jackson and Brandon Clarke led Memphis with 24 points apiece.
The victory marked the team’s seventh wire-to-wire win of the season, coming courtesy of a Phoenix squad that finished 2021-22 with the NBA’s best record (64-18), and entered Friday’s contest only one game behind both Memphis and the Denver Nuggets for the lead in the Western Conference.
Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic reported the Grizzlies reiterated Morant’s words Friday, walking off the floor shouting as they headed to the locker room in the aftermath of a 25-point victory.
“I’m fine in the West!” they hollered.
We’ll see. Winners of eight of their last 10 contests, the Grizzlies travel to San Francisco to play the franchise’s first-ever Christmas game Sunday against the Golden State Warriors at Chase Center.
Morant falls one spot to fifth in this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, while Kevin Durant inches up to No. 4. Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum moves to third in the midst of his team losing five of its last six outings.
Antetokounmpo and Jokic, meanwhile, occupy the top two positions in this reshuffling of the top five.
And now, the top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 31.6 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 5.1 apg
Antetokounmpo played well, albeit in a losing effort, at Brooklyn on Friday after initially being listed as probable with knee soreness. The Bucks’ superstar sat out of Saturday’s win against Utah due to left knee soreness, but he’s since put up back-to-back games with 40-plus points while shooting 65.9% from the field in addition to pulling down 10 rebounds or more. Counting the regular season and playoffs, Antetokounmpo’s latest scoring tear marks the fifth time in his career he’s scored 40-plus points in consecutive games. His current scoring average (31.6 ppg) is also a career-high by the way.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 24.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.2 apg
Seemingly every other night you hear some obscure statistic that puts Jokic’s name in with that of Wilt Chamberlain, and, at this point, you wonder whether he’ll join the latter as one of the players to win the MVP in three straight seasons. (Luckily, colleague Brian Martin already explored the possibility for our 2022-23 Kia Season Preview.) Jokic dropped a weird 13-13-13 stat line for his second straight triple-double in Tuesday’s win against Memphis. Two days prior, he became the first player — yes, since Chamberlain in 1968 — to finish a game with 40-plus points, 25-plus rebounds and 10 assists. In case you’re wondering, Larry Bird is the last player to win three consecutive MVPs.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg
Here’s the part where we tell Celtics fans not to fret because Tatum can move back into the No. 1 position just as quickly as he fell to third. Tatum missed Sunday’s loss to Orlando due to “personal reasons” and later it was reported he skipped the game to celebrate the birthday of his son, Deuce. Kudos to Tatum, 24, for understanding what’s most important. In his first game back, Tatum dropped 41 points on 52% from the field in a Wednesday loss to the Indiana Pacers. So, Tatum certainly wasn’t rusty. But he’s got to help Boston find its way as it has gone from winning eight of nine (Nov. 23 to Dec. 7) to its current state of dropping five of its last six games (Dec. 10-21).
4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.3 apg
Durant’s matchup with Antetokounmpo breaks the head-to-head tie between the two if we’re counting the playoffs. These two have matched up on 24 occasions total and the series is tied 12-12, with Antetokounmpo dialing up 43 points and 14 rebounds during an Oct. 26 Bucks victory. That Brooklyn team was vastly different than what we’re expecting Friday at Barclays Center, as Durant has led a Nets resurgence. Understandably, the league leader in total points (934) receives plenty of accolades for his offensive acumen. But he’s been a leader on the defensive end, too, logging eight steals in his last five games for a Nets squad that is 12-3 in clutch games this season.
5. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 7.8 apg
We saw arguably the league’s most formidable backcourt duo together again Friday in Phoenix. Desmond Bane was listed as questionable (right big toe sprain) before ultimately playing in the matchup against the Suns, knocking off some rust with 17 points on 30.8% shooting. Bane had missed 17 games with the toe injury, but Morant posted his backcourt mate’s jersey number Thursday in a cryptic tweet that hinted at Bane’s looming return. It’s worth noting that while Morant and Bane made plenty of noise earlier in the season, the duo still hadn’t played a game with Jaren Jackson Jr., who sat out the first 14 games.
The Next Five:
6. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
T-7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
T-7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
9. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Julius Randle, New York Knicks; Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings.
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