2021 State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament

Morant, Grizzlies send Warriors into uncertain future

A stage that appeared set for Stephen Curry's brilliance instead shone its spotlight on Ja Morant's rise and the Warriors' fall.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

How the Grizzlies frustrated Curry and Warriors' attack

The Golden State Warriors were frustrated all night by the Memphis Grizzlies' defense.

With Klay Thompson hurt and the Warriors sifting through new blood to see who sticks, this was supposed to be a bridge year anyway, so who cares if there’s water under it already?

The NBA playoffs will now commence without Steph Curry, a finalist for MVP who chewed up his mouthpiece Friday but couldn’t take a big enough bite out of the young and plucky Grizzlies. Memphis took the final State Farm NBA Play-In Tournament game from the Warriors, 117-112, seizing the stage from Curry and handing it instead to Ja Morant, who’s no Curry but also nobody’s second fiddle, either.

The Grizzlies used a healthy portion of Morant and some key stops in overtime to overcome a case of fourth-quarter jitters suffered not only by the players, but second-year coach Taylor Jenkins, who for some reason refused to order a replay of a crucial foul that went against Memphis in the final minute of regulation.

Morant was massive throughout the game, finishing with 35 points, dropping 3-pointers at a personal record pace — so much for the scouting report — and rising to meet the moment in overtime with big buckets. Arguably, he was the best point guard on a floor shared with You Know Who. Overall, Memphis took a significant step in its development, given the number of playoff first-timers in the rotation.

Stephen Curry & Ja Morant duel in Play-In Tournament classic

Stephen Curry and Ja Morant duel in Play-In Tournament classic

But first, this is about the eliminated Warriors, the more glamorous team, the one with Everyone’s Favorite Shooter, the one with the Self-Proclaimed Greatest Defender, and everything that goes with a franchise so accustomed to being in prime time. Basketball fans must make do without Curry playing at least four more games which, given the entertaining season he just had, will seem like a deflating loss.

Curry was so brilliant in 2020-21 as a mostly solo act on the Warriors that he pushed his own legacy to another level. No question, without him, the Warriors might be mistaken for the Timberwolves. That said, should an MVP finalist at least lead his team to the playoffs? Was that really too much to ask of a two-time MVP and superstar who had Draymond Green if little else?

Sometimes the narrative changes, depending on the player. For example, Russell Westbrook just finished another triple-double season and was epic over the last few months as he rallied the Wizards from oblivion to the playoffs. But he wasn’t voted an All-Star, received no MVP notice and is unlikely to make All-NBA … for essentially having the same season he had four years ago when he won MVP and took a stripped-down OKC team to the playoffs without Kevin Durant.

Steph is the darling, though, who just led the NBA in scoring and reminded everyone in the basketball world why they love the sport. At times against the Grizzlies, he flashed his usual shooting and dribbling brilliance. Other times, though, he struggled a bit, with seven turnovers and, when guarded stickily by Dillon Brooks, shot a mortal 6-for-15.

Morant shreds Warriors, leads Grizzlies to playoffs

Next up for the Grizzlies: The top-seeded Jazz, who swept the season series.

The Warriors will re-tool, as they were expected to do, in preparation for next season when Thompson returns from his second major leg injury in as many years. However, that’s when the clock resumes ticking on a remaining core that won three titles in four years. Curry, Thompson and Green will all be in their 30s next season and there’s no guarantee Thompson will be the same impact player as before on both ends. Meanwhile, the largely untested supporting cast on the Warriors was sketchy this season; a trade (James Wiseman?) might be necessary if it can fetch a rotational upgrade.

While Curry disappears for a second straight summer, a new point guard eagerly takes his spot now. Morant generated conversation and raised eyebrows months ago when he declared himself a top-five point guard. Well: Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving would all like a word. And guess what? So would Morant.

He is small with a body like Allen Iverson but, judging from Friday’s performance, is capable of expanding like a puffer fish when the moment calls for a player who isn’t scared. Again: Morant just went toe-to-toe with a Kia MVP finalist and lived to tell the tale. Therefore, nothing he’ll see in the first round against the Jazz — and coincidently Mike Conley, the point guard he replaced in Memphis — will intimidate him. He has earned his Play-In stripes if nothing else.

This concludes the NBA’s Play-In Tournament, which featured two unexpected participants in the Lakers and Warriors. You might say those teams were much too good to be involved, and you would be right about one of them.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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