Leave it to the New York Knicks to be on the receiving end of the coolest play of the NBA’s opening night. That’s what happens when the luck of the draw has them facing Defector’s Hell Yeah Team of the Season right off the bat. The Knicks traveled to Memphis on Wednesday night for a showdown with the flawed but electrifying Grizzlies, and last season’s Western Conference two-seed managed to perfectly fit both of those descriptors.
I’ll get to that shortly, but first let’s fast forward all the way to overtime, and to Ja Morant. With the score tied at 108 after Cam Reddish’s late three-pointer at the end of regulation, the two teams trotted back out for an additional five. After Desmond Bane turned the ball over around 40 seconds into free basketball, Reddish chucked a half-outlet pass up to Jalen Brunson, New York’s marquee summer signing, and the diminutive point guard found himself with a lot of open court ahead of him.
Well, he would have, if not for Morant perfectly timing his run back on the far side of the court. Instead of a Brunson lay-up to give New York its first lead since 17-15 in the first quarter, Morant pinned the ball against the backboard, whereupon it was collected by John Konchar. The third-year guard wisely gave the ball right back to Morant, who sauntered up to around the free-throw line and lobbed a perfect alley for Brandon Clarke to oop.
Was that block a goaltend? Yeah, probably; Brunson appears to hit the backboard with his layup attempt before Morant rejects the shit out of it. Did Morant foul Brunson? That’s less clear, but my gut says that it could have been called just as easily as it was not. Do I care about either of those things when Morant is one of only a handful of players in the league that can pull of that exact sequence in just that way? Not even a little.
Back to the Knicks for a moment: The Grizzlies needed the same version of last year’s Morant to hold New York off, as the ‘bockers weathered a terrible second quarter and a 15-point halftime deficit. The Knicks roared back, eventually tying the game at 98-98 with just under three minutes to go. As they often do, the Grizzlies turned to Morant, who scored seven of Memphis’ remaining 10 points to help push the game to overtime. (He also had a charge called against him to essentially end the game after Reddish’s three, because, again, the Grizzlies and by extension their superstar are not quite there yet.)
Still, though, Morant helped keep Memphis in it after they, for lack of a better term, blew it in the second half, which allowed him to be in the perfect position for the block-alley-oop double whammy. He immediately followed that up by shaking off Mike Breen’s “Morant looks tired” call and driving into the lane, swishing a floater, and drawing the foul. (He would go on to miss the free throw.) The Knicks refused to go away, though, forcing Morant into a pretty terrible behind-the-back turnover that led, on the other side, to a 112-112 score.
Did that turnover prevent Morant from driving into the lane again? You know it didn’t. After a bit of dribble penetration drew the Knicks’ defense in towards him, he found Tyus Jones at the wing for what would turn out to be the game-winning three-pointer.
At his best, this is what Morant is capable of, all in one overtime period. He’s not the best defender in the world, but he tries hard enough that he can create magic like his block on Brunson. On the other end, he’s such a threat driving in that it frees him up to find the open man whenever he’s not dunking on people or magicking his body into cubistic angles for lay-ups. (To go along with his game-high 34 points, Morant dished nine assists on Wednesday, none bigger than the one to Jones.) When he’s fully locked in—and healthy; he missed 25 games last year with a variety of lower body injuries—Memphis goes from being the most fun viewing experience in the NBA to a real contender.
Sure, the Knicks aren’t the best opponent on which to test a team’s mettle, but credit to New York for fighting back and forcing Morant to take over. That he did, in Game 1 of 82, is a welcome harbinger for what Memphis will and can be this season. There was no shame in its exit from the playoffs last year, in a hard-fought series against the eventual champions of Golden State, but now they are in the Thunder Zone as a young team who is oh-so-close to crashing into the realm of veritable title threats. Things can and often do go wrong from here for those types of teams, but if Morant keeps playing like he did on Wednesday, and like he did in his healthiest moments last season, there’s no reason he can’t propel them further this time around.