Game 5 between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies had huge implications for both teams, and it was only fitting that the game itself had an epic conclusion.
Ja Morant scored the last 13 points for the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter and answered Anthony Edwards’ game-tying 3-pointer with a nifty game-winning layup (while also making Edwards gamble as the ball was being inbound) that sent the home crowd into a frenzy.
Morant would finish with 18 points in the final quarter, an effort that largely helped Memphis rally back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit that didn’t disappear until the final minute of the game. Aside from scoring 30 points, the 13 rebounds and three steals he finished with in the 111-109 win were both postseason career-highs. Yet even with those solid numbers and the last-second layup, the highlight of the night was the fearless dunk that set the tone for the Grizzlies’ comeback.
The freshly-crowned Most Improved Player wasted no time in building on what has already been a stellar postseason career despite the drop in efficiency. Eventually, the fall in Morant’s shooting percentages may even be relegated to a mere footnote now that he has brought Memphis to within a win of advancing past the first round of the NBA postseason since the 2015 NBA Playoffs.
At 3-2, this series is far from over as a Wolves win would square things up and set up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Memphis. Nevertheless, one can’t rule out another virtuoso performance from Morant. Time and time again in this series, the 2022 All-Star has shown that the biggest moments bring out the best in him and even when his shot isn’t falling like in Game 3, he finds other ways to contribute in crunch time.
There is some merit to the notion that Morant has a much better team this postseason especially in terms of his team’s health and overall skill. Desmond Bane has made strides (or perhaps even STRIDES) in his sophomore year, while the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are healthier this year. On top of that, his 28.7 usage rate through five games in the 2022 postseason is lower than the 31.0 he had in five games in last year’s playoffs. These developments, among others, are reflected in the rise in Morant’s assists per game this postseason, which have gone up to 10.4 per game from 8.2 in 2021.
Then again, there is a lot a year can do when it comes to maturity. Morant has averaged more turnovers per game so far in the 2022 NBA Playoffs than in the previous year (4.0 to 3.4), but the rise was not as high as that of his assists. Aside from that, Morant has zoned in on scoring from inside, as only less than a fifth of his shots are from behind the 3-point line.
Among all his attributes, Morant’s fearlessness, which has been one of his hallmarks since his rookie year, will take him and the Grizzlies to greater heights. He isn’t afraid to challenge anyone at the rim nor is he worried about the missed shots when stepping into a 3-pointer like the one he knocked down with 1:03 left in Game 5.
The postseason is a totally different ball game and the raised stakes make it feel like a different season from the regular season itself. It wasn’t too long ago when many thought that Memphis was ahead of its timeline and while the current core of the Grizzlies hasn’t really changed, the mentality within the team has certainly changed. That its leader in Morant elevates (both figuratively and literally) only bodes well for the future of a franchise looking to achieve playoff success for seasons to come.
The playoff matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves has pretty much lived up to its billing and Ja Morant is a major reason for that. Games like these call for the stars to put up or shut up and it’s safe to say that the 22-year-old will be the one stepping up and silencing the opposition.