SENSING AN ACROBATIC opportunity, Ja Morant skips with excitement and raises his left hand. He’s already calling for a lob as he approaches the 3-point line on the left wing, with Memphis Grizzlies backcourt mate Desmond Bane crossing half court in transition.
Bane picks up his dribble, takes two long strides down the middle of the floor and lofts a pass high over Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanley Johnson in the paint. As Morant launches, every player on the Memphis bench erupts from their seats as the 22-year-old superstar soars to catch the pass, flicks the ball through the hoop and ducks his head to avoid hitting it on the rim.
As the Grizzlies’ lead swells to 17 early in the third quarter of the Jan. 9 game, the Lakers call timeout and Morant makes a detour to reply to a front-row fan who taunted him after a turnover the previous possession, several of his teammates strut and celebrate on the Crypto.com Arena court.
But all this Grizzlies’ fun is too much for LeBron James, who didn’t make it past the free throw line in the backcourt during Memphis’ latest highlight.
A minute later, a Lakers turnover leads to another fast break for the Grizzlies. Bane swishes a trailer 3 — wide open because James is slow getting back in transition — and lets the all-time great know about it:
“Them footsteps ain’t scaring nobody.”
These high-flying and in-everyone’s-face Grizzlies — who face the New York Knicks on Wednesday night (7:30 ET on ESPN) — are a tight-knit, young team that is ruffling the feathers of the NBA’s old guard. It’s a squad with a collective cockiness, a core of players that has yet to win a playoff series but firmly believes it’s on the verge of something big.
Their 35-18 record, third best in the NBA, indicates they’re probably right. And the Grizzlies are happy to let a future Hall of Fame opponent — and anyone else — hear about it.
AFTER PONDERING FOR a moment, Morant comes up with a word to describe the Grizzlies’ culture.
“Drippy,” Morant says. “If anybody knows what that means.”
Rough translation: a supreme level of swagger, a palpable confidence in the way the Grizzlies carry themselves, how the bench celebrates by dancing, laughing and falling over one another, the constant chatter coming from Memphis players’ mouths.
“That’s our identity, and that’s going to continue to be our identity,” says Morant, a first-time All-Star selection who has earned a reputation for fearlessness, leading the league in points in the paint (16.0 per game) as a 6-foot-3, 174-pound point guard. “Some guys don’t like it, but it gives us an edge. It gives us a boost, a lot of energy out there on the floor, so we’re going to continue to do it.”
The Grizzlies pride themselves on player development and fundamentals, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s a franchise built around 22-year-old cornerstones in Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — Bane, 23, has joined the pair with his breakout season — and the Grizzlies act their age.
Morant usually ends his pregame routine by playing dodgeball with the assistant coaches who run his workouts. Jackson makes outlandish fashion decisions based on the cities the Grizzlies visit, like the “fiesta pants” he sported in San Antonio — black designer jeans with frills down the sides.
Dillon Brooks, 26, is known in Memphis for snarling defensive stops and an extensive collection of extravagant shades, which he routinely rotates in postgame media sessions.
Steven Adams, the 28-year-old big man from New Zealand whose off-court footwear collection consists solely of flip-flops, has fit in Memphis since arriving in an offseason trade, providing the Grizzlies toughness, savvy and comedic relief.
“We definitely feel like an AAU team more than whatever you want to call other teams,” says Jackson, who has emerged as an All-Defensive candidate.
“Everybody listens to the same music. Everybody does the same things, watches the same stuff. We all vibe together. We like hanging around each other, and it translates.”
JAMES COUGHS UP the ball on a drive, and Memphis rookie Ziaire Williams — a teammate of James’ son Bronny at Sierra Canyon High School two seasons ago — scoops it up, all of 11 seconds after Bane hit the transition 3 and talked a little trash to the Lakers legend.
Whoosh. Off go the Grizzlies once again.
This fast break ends with Morant getting fouled by Malik Monk, who gets turned around and backs into the Grizzlies point guard. Avery Bradley also hacks Morant, who still manages to almost get the and-1, as his floater hits back iron. Williams and Jackson sandwich Morant with hugs on the baseline as the trio giggles and smiles. Bane joins the party, hollering as he exchanges high-fives with his teammates.
James has seen and heard enough, especially from Bane. James breaks up the Grizzlies’ party in the paint to confront him under the basket.
“That’s your last time,” James says to Bane, loud enough to be heard clearly on the local television broadcast. “That’s your last motherf—ing time. That’s your last time disrespecting me.”
Bane barks back at James before Jackson jovially puts his hands on his teammate’s shoulders and escorts him away from the lecturing legend. Morant, playing peacemaker, steps toward James but is unable to contain his grin.
“All of us on our team pretty much grew up watching [James] play,” Morant says later. “All of us are still fans of this guy. We know he’s one of the greatest ever to touch a basketball, but inside those four lines, if you’re buddy-buddy, you’re lost. That’s pretty much what went into it. Bron is a big-time competitor and Des is the same way.
“Seeing those guys go at it was funny to me. I loved it, because it just shows that no matter who it is, our guys don’t back down.”
AS GIGGLY AND goofy as the Grizzlies often are, there’s a poise that’s atypical given their inexperience. Memphis ranks second in the NBA in clutch winning percentage, going 16-7 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes or overtime. The Grizzlies rank fourth in net rating in those situations, outscoring opponents by 15.7 points per 100 possessions.
“We’ve got probably the most clutch performer in the game at our point guard position,” Jackson said following last Wednesday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs. “That does help.”
Quite a strong case could be made for Chris Paul, an elite closer since Morant was in elementary school whose NBA-leading Phoenix Suns have the league’s best clutch record (19-3) and net rating (plus-44.7). Morant, however, leads the league in scoring in one-possession games in the final minute with 25 points. That includes a last-second game winner in Phoenix that Morant banked in after driving and contorting his body in traffic.
As sensational as Morant has been, averaging 26.4 points and 6.8 assists per game, the Grizzlies are not a one-man show. That much was proven when Memphis went 10-2 while Morant was sidelined half of December because of a knee injury. That stretch showcased Memphis’ depth and epitomized the team’s ethos of exceeding expectations.
“We know he’s one of the greatest ever to touch a basketball, but inside those four lines, if you’re buddy-buddy, you’re lost.”
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, on facing LeBron James
Much of Memphis’ chippiness is rooted in a roster loaded with players who delight in proving projections wrong. Before Morant was a franchise-lifting No. 2 overall pick, he was hardly recruited out of high school, going to mid-major Murray State. Bane fell to the last pick of the 2020 first round, downgraded by NBA scouts and executives because he had short arms and a long college career at TCU. Brooks lasted until midway through the 2017 second round.
“It’s in our DNA,” Bane says, “just being underdogs.”
After a Jan. 11 win over the Warriors, Morant mentioned that he “bet” the Grizzlies would get their due recognition. They were feeling awfully good about themselves 10 games into what ended up being a franchise-record 11-game winning streak, which featured victories over James’ Lakers (twice), Paul’s Suns, Kevin Durant‘s Brooklyn Nets and Stephen Curry‘s Warriors.
Curry, for his part, was complimentary of the Grizzlies that night, particularly Morant, but diplomatically offered a reminder that Memphis was missing a requirement to be considered among the league’s elite.
“It’s a natural evolution of a team trying to take that next step,” Curry said. “The big part is, you’ve got to show it in the playoffs. We want to be there to try to do that. I know they want to, too. Nobody’s trying to win the verbal conversation right now of who we are in January.”
It’s a fair point, Morant acknowledged in response, but he added he felt “like we’re just getting started.”
Added Bane: “Now that we’re here on this stage, on the biggest stage, we’re letting everybody know that we’re here and we’re here to stay.”
JAMES CONTINUES VENTING while Morant makes his pair of free throws, profanely declining a polite request from Anderson — the veteran forward who is a relative graybeard on a Memphis roster lacking any players older than 28 — to “Chill out, LeBron.”
“I’m not chillin’!” James replies as they line up. “Nah, he ain’t hoopin’. He talkin’ s—. This is the last motherf—ing time I’m gonna say it.
“You start making a couple of shots, then you start talking s—. … F— that, I don’t play that s—.”
Morant makes both free throws. The Grizzlies are up 22 — and with all due respect, they don’t seem to be the least bit remorseful about provoking James.
“It’s nothing new to us,” Jackson says with a shrug a few weeks later. “It’s just like, yeah, somebody’s mad that we’re talking s—. … We never care. If they get pissed off, great. If they don’t, great. We’re going to have fun regardless. We’re going to talk s—“.
Bane matter-of-factly explains “that little ordeal at the free throw line that everybody saw” this way: It all started, he says, after he drove for an and-1 layup in the first half and got an extra bump and shove from James after the whistle. There were more bumps and shoves exchanged and “chirping back and forth,” as Bane puts it, throughout the game, when he led Memphis with 23 points in 26 minutes.
Bane figures James felt the need to express his frustration after giving up the transition 3, hearing a little more talk and then committing a turnover. So Bane got an earful, which was fine with him.
“After that, I mean, we were up by 25 or 30 points,” Bane says, punctuating the sentence with laughter, “so I went over there and rested.”
MORANT MADE A statement last week in San Antonio, where the Grizzlies wrapped up a four-game road trip. He scored a season-high-tying 41 points in the 118-110 win against the Spurs, putting on the kind of show people have come to expect. He produced highlights — the best a behind-the-back dribble to split a double team before driving and delivering a lefty lob to fellow high-flier Brandon Clarke — and dominated crunch time.
But Morant was upset because this was originally scheduled to be one of only seven nationally televised Grizzlies games this season before ESPN opted out of it five days prior, despite Memphis’ recent 11-game win streak. He lambasted the perceived snub via his very active Twitter account when the decision was made. Unsolicited, he addressed it again during postgame media availability.
“Shoutout to whoever took us off TV,” Morant said. “Appreciate you for that. That game right there was for you, too. You want to take us off? I don’t know what went into that.”
It’s one of many times Morant has put a spotlight on what he considers slights to himself or his team, ranging from national commentary, or lack thereof, to random Twitter mentions. He uses social media to unabashedly promote himself and his teammates, campaigning for honors, posting highlights and praise, and occasionally firing back at critics.
He successfully lobbied to get himself voted in as an All-Star starter and frequently pushes Bane for Most Improved Player and Jackson for Defensive Player of the Year. Morant recently quote tweeted a video featuring his highlights with commentary “nah this tough” and a fire emoji.
The Grizzlies’ rise back to NBA relevancy hasn’t been nearly as difficult as anticipated.
Conventional wisdom was that Memphis would need to undergo a long rebuild after the Grit ‘n Grind era ended in June 2019 with Mike Conley‘s trade to the Utah Jazz, but the Grizzlies qualified for the Western Conference play-in series in Morant’s rookie season, when he scored 35 points in a thrilling loss to Damian Lillard‘s Portland Trail Blazers. Memphis built on that momentum by earning a playoff bid last season, punching their postseason ticket with a play-in win on the Warriors’ home court, when Morant had another 35-point performance.
The Grizzlies have taken a big enough leap this season to not just make the playoffs, but to potentially do so with a Game 1 in Memphis.
“Obviously, everybody’s ultimate goal is to win a championship,” Morant says. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re laying brick by brick each day to get better.
“At the end, we’ll build an empire.”