Ja Morant showed no mercy to anyone in a Golden State Warriors uniform Tuesday night. Even children in the stands.
When Morant made a layup with 28 seconds left in the Memphis Grizzlies’ 116-108 win on Tuesday night, a foul from Andrew Wiggins sent him to the edge of the crowd. With the game stopped, Morant strolling into the crowd, acknowledging his deserved ovation from his 29-point, 8-assist, 2-block performance. And then he spotted a child in a Warriors jersey trying to dap him up.
Ja was having none of it. “He was disrespectful with that jersey on,” said Morant. “We in Memphis. It looked like he wanted to cheer but he had that jersey on. I apologized to him but in that moment, bro, take that jersey off and then dap me up.”
Morant and the Grizzlies don’t have to apologize to anyone after holding off a Warriors comeback for their tenth straight win, a Grizzlies franchise record. Memphis led by as many as 18 points midway through the second quarter, but the Warriors stormed back to take the lead in the third. The game went back and forth in the 4th, until two consecutive Tyus Jones triples - he was a perfect 5/5 from three-point range in the game - seemingly iced the game for Memphis. Klay Thompson and Gary Payton II got the game within three late, but Morant scored the final five points of the game, including his triumphant and-one at the end.
For the Warriors, Steph Curry’s triple-double of 27 points, ten rebounds, and ten assists led the way, though his shooting continues to be off. He was 8-21 from the field and 2-9 from three-point range, and for the season, his field goal percentage is down to 42%. A tentative Andrew Wiggins had 14 points and four turnovers, Payton had 13 points and three steals off the bench, and Jordan Poole continued to struggle, scoring 12 points on 3-11 shooting.
Klay Thompson had 14 points in his second game back, a modest total, but he was a team-high +17 while he was on the court. That’s due to an incredible stretch for Klay and the Subs in the middle of the game. When Klay re-entered with 5:42 left, Golden State was down 49-31. When Klay gave way for Damion Lee, five minutes into the third quarter, Golden State led 71-66. I’ll do the math: That’s a 40-17 stretch. It wasn’t even his scoring - aside from threes to close the second and open the third, Thompson didn’t score.
But with Klay on the floor, the spacing opened up and the offense finally started to click. You can tell an opposing defense is scrambling when Kevon Looney starts going to the line (he hit four free throws in an 18-second period in the third quarter). Klay rebounded, he passed, he drove, he dribbled more times than he would in an entire month during the 2016-17 season. Thompson even accidentally leveled a female ref, in a play that felt like watching a scoop of ice cream topple off your cone to the pavement, or a slow-motion car wreck featuring your grandmother driving a Ford Pinto.
They were both fine.
Morant came out of the gate hot, scoring 15 points in the first quarter. Ten of those points came at the rim, which was both a testament to the Warriors’ trouble dealing with his speed and the Warriors’ trouble holding onto the ball. They committed six turnovers in the quarter, and 12 in the first half. At one point, Memphis had 20 points off turnovers, and the Warriors had…zero. The Grizzlies lead the league in steals with 10.2 per game (the Warriors are second with 9.6), but it’s the third time the teams have met this year. The ballhawking from Memphis’ perimeter players shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.
Who were the offenders? Wiggins had a few errant passes early, but the worst was replacement starter Juan Toscano-Anderson who had two turnovers and zero points in the quarter. When Kerr brought back JTA in the third quarter, he immediately turned the ball over and committed a loose ball foul, and was back on the bench 17 seconds later. Not surprisingly, Gary Payton II started the third, and JTA didn’t see the court again. Here’s his “highlight” reel:
A late rally narrowed the Grizzlies’ lead to four at the end of the quarter, sparked by Curry hitting teammates for a three and two layups in three straight possessions. He also nailed a three-shot foul. Look, Curry’s numbers have slipped from the outside (though it’s missed layups that are the real issue at present), but his 2-9 three-point shooting Tuesday doesn’t capture what a threat he was. He drew three shooting fouls beyond the arc and went 8-9 from the line, so he really scored 14 points off distance shooting. That’s just one fewer than Tyus Jones, who was wide open for the first four of his threes. Jones is an excellent backup point guard, but losing track of the guy who brought the ball up is inexcusable, especially when he’s shooting 40% from deep.
Where did the Warriors lose the game? Ultimately it was early in the second quarter, when Memphis went on a 13-0 run, featuring baskets from five different players. Memphis beat the Warriors at their own passing game Tuesday, with 30 assists, including eight on their first nine shots of the quarter. Golden State drew three quick fouls on Memphis in the first minute-and-a-half, and proceeded to exploit this by…bricking a bunch of outside shots. When Andrew Wiggins did finally drive, he was blocked by Kyle “Slo Mo” Anderson.
In the third, the Warriors managed to extend their lead to 74-66 on a Curry and-one (another hidden three-pointer). That’s when Grizzlies backup center Brandon Clarke came alive. In a 36-second stretch, Clarke scored five points and drew two fouls. A minute later, he stole a Curry pass that led to an alley oop dunk for rookie Ziaire Williams.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. in foul trouble most of the game, Clarke was huge off the bench. He finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, plus a steal and two blocks. While Xavier Tillman only shot 1-6, including two baffling missed threes, he played great interior defense for Memphis as well. In general, while Morant and Jones were unstoppable, it was the defense from Memphis that won them this game, particularly in the 4th quarter.
In the game’s final period, the Warriors finally stopped handing the ball to Memphis. Despite 16 turnovers in the game, they didn’t turn it over once in the 4th. Unfortunately, they also stopped making shots. Curry, Thompson, and Poole combined to go 3-16 from the field, and 1-9 from three-point range. In the final 11:19 of the game, Curry didn’t score a single point.
And the late-game rebounding wasn’t much better. Memphis out-rebounded the Warriors 19-9 down the stretch, including five offensive boards. One thing that makes Memphis so dangerous is their ability to adjust to different lineups. When the Warriors went to their small ball lineups late, Memphis happily played Clarke alongside Jackson, trusting the speed of their bigs.
Golden State played a second straight game without Draymond Green, who stayed back in the Bay with calf tightness that also made him miss all but the opening tip of Sunday’s Klayfest (sorry, Draft Kings). It’s not clear whether he’ll join the Warriors at any point on their four-game road trip, but our magic 8 ball says that signs point to no. That means they’re going to need someone else to step up, both on defense and to initiate the offense, which too often looked sloppy and stagnant against Memphis. All credit to the Grizz’s gritting and grinding, but the absence of Green really exposes the team’s lack of secondary playmakers. Specifically, Wiggins needs to get better at finding his teammates, and Poole needs to watch some of his own highlights from October for inspiration.
It’s the third straight road loss for the Warriors, and life away from the Chase Center isn’t getting easier anytime soon. Thursday they go to Milwaukee to play the defending champions, and then they get the top team in the East, the Chicago Bulls, on Friday night. Klay Thompson will miss at least one of those contests, and you have to expect Andre Iguodala and Otto Porter Jr. will also sit for one of the two. Hopefully the Warriors will have Jonathan Kuminga back, whose Tasmanian devil drives to the hoop would have been sorely useful in the even-numbered quarters.
Still, despite a disastrous six minutes of the second quarter and a team-wide bricklaying convention in the 4th, the Warriors were still within a basket with a minute to go. Last night’s game was more of a testament to the excellence of Morant and the Grizzlies than an indictment of the Warriors. Memphis did all this without usual starters Steven Adams and Dillon Brooks (who may have lost his starting job) and didn’t miss a beat. The Warriors visit Memphis one final time on March 28th to try and even up the season series, though it seems inevitable these teams will also meet in the playoffs. We’ll see which jersey that little kid in the crowd is wearing come May.