In the third quarter of last night’s Grizzlies-Nets game, Ja Morant received an ordinary and seemingly unthreatening outlet pass from Steven Adams before sharpening his gaze and turning up the court. He quickly put Kevin Durant on his hip, sprinted with the ball to overstretch two Brooklyn helpers, wound up from the three-point line, and exploded into the sky for the slam. The dunk catalyzed what would turn out to be a game-winning surge from the Grizz, giving them their fifth win in a row over pretty stiff competition. As violent as the dunk was, it was maybe not even Morant’s fifth-coolest play since Christmas.
The Grizzlies are smoking everyone right now, and Morant is leading the charge. They’ve beaten the Suns, Nets, and Lakers during their five-game winning streak, with Morant producing a treasury of absurd highlights every time out (this pass, this flying three, this parting shot at Lakers fans, this piece of progressive Westbrookery, this series of nesting fakes, this geometrically profane game-winner in Phoenix). Morant is making the leap—in both the figurative and literal sense—and his no-shit superstar play against the best competition in the NBA has made the Grizzlies a solid fourth in the Western Conference and one of the toughest outs in the league. They fight and scrap and sprint everywhere, which is not surprising since Steven Adams is in the middle, Taylor Jenkins has always coached hard-nosed teams, and the jerseys say “Memphis Grizzlies.” Where they break with the grit-and-grind past is that, with Morant and Desmond Bane leading the offense, there’s a real beauty at the heart of it all. The Grizz might not be the feel-good surprise of this strange, stilted season (that’s the Bulls), but they are the best team to watch on any given night, and they’ve produced this winning streak despite being gouged by COVID just as deeply as every other team in the league.
It’s precisely that context that makes Morant stand out so brightly. The majority of NBA basketball being played right now is, if we are going to be nice, pretty compromised. When the league elected to push on against the headwind of a resurgent coronavirus, they chose to doom themselves and their fans—at least for a few months—to some dreary and highly contingent basketball played between hollowed-out teams patched over with 10-day contract heroes. I like that guys like Xavier Moon, Charlie Brown Jr., and Mario Chalmers are getting chances in the league, though the basketball-qua-basketball that has resulted has been so flat that it’s kind of hard to put too much stock into most anything happening in the league right now. The Hawks, for example, would be up for a roasting for wasting Trae Young’s 56-point night by surrendering 136 to the Lillard-less Blazers, a loss that seemingly caused their GM to turn doomer, but also they were missing four players and were reintegrating six players off the COVID list. Did the embarrassing loss really teach us anything? COVID-ball is ugly, but it also feels so unrepresentative as to be meaningless.
This stodginess is not all the virus’s fault, as recent contenders like the Nuggets, Clippers, and Sixers would probably be pushing the six actual good teams were it not for injuries and Ben Simmons. But the first 82-game season in three years already feels like a brutally attritive grind, and it’s not even halfway done. Seeing Morant playing at his exhilarating and all-devouring peak makes that contrast clear, as did the Suns-Warriors Christmas Day game. The two best teams in the NBA pushed each other hard for 48 minutes, executing at a higher level than any of their peers by a significant margin and showing us what we’ve all been missing while we’ve had to sit through, say, whole quarters of literally Lance Stephenson. What’s the point of spending time watching a G-League all-star game masquerading as Mavericks-Nuggets when the Suns and Warriors have shown everyone exactly what they’re missing?
There are little things to be excited about—Tyrese Haliburton seizing control of an offense, the Pistons winning two in a row, other stuff that many normal people care about—though those feel especially small given the ground-bound state of affairs across the league. The brilliance of Morant’s extravagant low-gravity bullshit stands out even more against the backdrop of a league that now employs Craig Sword. Morant’s acrobatics are not the only redemptive moments in the league—see: DeRozan, DeMar—but they are simply the best thing the NBA has going for it right now.