The Memphis Grizzlies’ 119-109 win over the Utah Jazz was quite symbolic of the progress that this team has made and their ascendance to the Western Conference’s elite.
Playing against the last remaining active player from their iconic Grit and Grind teams from the previous decade and Utah’s current starting point guard Mike Conley, Ja Morant let it be known–as if there was still any doubt remaining–that this is now his franchise. Conley may still hold the unofficial title as the best point guard in Grizzlies history, but Morant’s meteoric rise may wrest away that designation within a couple of years, if not even sooner.
While it was not the most efficient of nights for Morant (10-of-22 shooting from the field, only eight made free throws out of 13 attempts, and six turnovers), he still had a 30-point triple double. It was the latest impressive statline from the 22-year-old point guard who was just named an NBA All-Star, and a starter at that, for the first time in his three-year career.
Morant is now averaging 25.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, seven assists, and 1.3 steals per game this season and the knee injury that he suffered two months ago seems to have no lingering effects. If he can keep up this level of elite play and it continues to lead to wins, then it is feasible that Morant may enter the NBA Most Valuable Player conversation over the next few weeks.
It is not wishful thinking or hyperbole to consider Morant a potential MVP winner despite his youth. 11 years ago, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls won the league’s most coveted individual award in what was also his age-22 season and third year in the league. In that campaign, the young Bulls made a leap in the standings similar to what the Grizzlies have done so far in ‘21-’22 following a brief postseason appearance that came to an abrupt halt last June.
In those playoffs, Utah overpowered the Grizzlies in five games, winning four consecutive contests following a stunning defeat in the series opener. The seasoned Jazz were too much for this wide-eyed Memphis team, but just a little over half a year later, the tables seem to have turned.
The Grizzlies are now the third seed in the Western Conference after overtaking this same Utah team just a couple of days ago. It has been a miserable month for the Jazz as they have racked up loss after loss over the past few weeks due to an unfortunate spate of injuries, the last of which involved their two stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Once just a breath away from the West-leading Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, Utah is now only a game and a half above the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks who are riding a youth revolution of their own.
Memphis has won 15 of their last 18 games, highlighted by an 11-game winning streak that bridged December and January, and have shown no signs of slowing down. Beyond Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane have thrived and developed into borderline All-Stars, rounding out a trio that is quickly becoming the envy of the league. The chemistry that this young core has developed with their veterans is the type that can transform a good team into a special one.
The Grizzlies are already ahead of schedule and exceeding expectations this season, although it may be too soon to consider them anything more than a darkhorse title contender at this point in time. However, it would be wise not to bet against this team that is proving to be one of the hungriest and most resilient ones in the league today.
Though they are far more athletic than Conley and the rest of their predecessors from their franchise’s most beloved iteration, these present day Grizzlies are built on the same fundamental concepts that those Grit and Grind teams embodied. They play an excellent brand of team defense and are greater than the sum of their parts, regardless of how spectacular they already are on their own.
Morant and company are ready for their time in the limelight and it is only a matter of time before they begin to make memorable (and hopefully several) playoff runs of their own.