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Grizzlies’ Ja Morant officially arrives as NBA star 

Grizzlies' Ja Morant officially arrives as NBA starÂ

NEW YORK – Kevin Durant was having trouble navigating the Memphis Grizzlies’ swarming defense. James Harden could not hit his target in the third quarter. Patty Mills was held scoreless.

But despite the shooting woes of their key cogs, the Brooklyn Nets were still in the game, within striking distance of the young but audacious Grizzlies.

After Durant clanked a 3-pointer and Harden missed a floater, Grizzlies center Steven Adams corralled the rebound and immediately searched for their point guard, Ja Morant.

Like a grizzly bear, Morant hunted down his shot with his speed. He smelled blood from a distance.

Morant outraced Durant.

Then in one quick motion, Morant switched the ball from his left to right and threw down a vicious dunk that rocked the Barclays Center to its core.

The Memphis bench and some of the 17,089 fans in attendance roared in approval.

That dunk announced Morant’s arrival as an NBA star.

Fresh from being named NBA Western Conference Player of the Week, Morant scored half of his 36 points in that huge third-quarter run where Memphis broke the game wide open and led by as many as 28 points.

Morant spearheaded the Grizzlies’ attack, hitting 14 of 22 shots, six rebounds, eight assists and a game-high plus-24 to bounce the slumping Nets, 118-104, out of their building Monday night (Tuesday, Manila time).

A week after Morant dropped 33 points on Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns and 41 points on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, it was Durant and the Nets’ turn to get wrecked by the Grizzlies’ freight train.

“Those guys are some of the best [players] who ever played the game. Being able to go out there and compete with guys at that level is definitely special. I just try to be myself and go out there and do what I have to do on the floor and try to put my team in a position to win,” Morant said after his masterful performance in Brooklyn.

Durant turned into a fan when he was asked about Morant.

“He’s just controlling the game,” Durant said of Morant. “He’s always been an efficient player who can run the point guard spot. He’s developed into a major scorer as well. He just plays with a great pace out there, plays with joy and enthusiasm, and you see him blossoming in front of our eyes.”

Game recognizes game.

“I mean, since college he’s, been on this trajectory, and as a basketball fan, you can’t wait to see what it’s like years going forward,” Durant mused.

For the Grizzlies that haven’t been relevant since the Grit’ n Grind era in the first half of the last decade, they’ve been waiting for this moment to arrive.

The future is here.

Morant’s 36 points against the Nets was his franchise-record fourth consecutive 30-plus-point game. Over his last four games, the 22-year-old point guard averaged 35.0 points on 57.6% shooting overall and 73.7% from the 3-point territory, 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

The Grizzlies have strung up five straight victories against playoff favorites Nets, Lakers, Suns, and the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings.

They could extend that to six Tuesday night (Wednesday in Manila) against the depleted Cleveland Cavaliers.

For the season, Morant is having a career year across the board. He averages 25.1 points on 49% shooting from the floor and 40% from deep, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals — all career-highs. He is also dropping 6.7 dimes, just a shade from his career-high 7.4 assists last season.

Morant is the engine that drives Memphis like a freight train.

In his third year in the league, Morant has catapulted the Grizzlies from a play-in team last season to currently the fourth seed in the West with a 24-14 record and just six games behind the league-leading Golden State Warriors (29-7).

“I’ve come out and said he’s absolutely an All-Star, but I think the follow-up to that is because he impacts winning with his style of play,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. “But a performance like that, all he cares about is let’s keep winning, let’s keep winning, let’s keep winning. Obviously, he’s a huge piece to our winning, but really, he just empowers his teammates, too. He’s a driving force for us.”

Against the superstar-laden Nets, Morant was unperturbed.

He conducted the Grizzlies’ offense like a maestro. He played with a verve and high tenor that shattered the Nets’ spirits.

Morant picked his spots. He found his open teammates and played solid defense.

His light frame hides the wrecking ball that resides within his 6-foot-3, 173-pound body. He was like a contortionist that bent the Nets’ defense to score at will from all angles.

Morant and Desmond Bane thoroughly outplayed the Nets’ backcourt of Harden and Mills.

Bane, a stocky 6-foot-5, 216-pound bruiser and sharpshooter, is the perfect complement to Morant’s lightning-quick pace.

Bane scored 29 points on 12 of 23 shots, including five triples, and collected eight rebounds, two assists and two steals.

Together, they represent the new era of Memphis basketball.

They overwhelmed the Nets’ starting backcourt. Harden and Mills combined to shoot a measly 5-for-20 from the field, with the Australian guard missing all six shots. It didn’t help that Durant bled for 26 points on 24 shots.

Three more Grizzlies scored at least 12 points off the bench as they followed Morant’s lead.

“He’s special,” said Bane speaking of his backcourt mate. “People debate whether or not he should be an All-Star, but I think we should be debating whether he’s the best point guard in the league.”

“I don’t think it’s any question he’s an All-Star. The real conversation is, ‘Is he the best point guard in the league?'”

Playing an MVP-type season, Stephen Curry is still today’s golden standard. Then there’s last playoffs’ breakout star Trae Young, a Curry disciple, who exploded for a career-high 56 points in a road loss in Portland on the same night Morant rocked Brooklyn. And it’s just a matter of time before Damian Lillard could turn the corner in what is currently a down year.

But make no mistake, Morant, the second overall pick in the 2019 Draft, has officially arrived as an NBA star and has joined the conversation.

He prefers his game to do the talking.

“I’m just going out there and prove my case,” Morant said.

***

Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and writes for the New York-based sports website empiresportsmedia.com.

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Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com

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