Out on that basketball court during the season, there are any number of ways in which Ja Morant is nothing like us. The way he jumps, the way he sees the floor, the way he carries himself, they’ve all coalesced to create a burgeoning NBA superstar.
But out in the world when the offseason arrives, sometimes hidden behind the designer clothes and the diamond necklaces and the stream of consciousness social media posts, Morant often seems to think like us.
Or at least tweet like us.
So it only makes sense that Morant is watching the Western Conference finals just like us.
With a sense of what could have been, and maybe even a tinge of regret.
He sent out the “100” emoji over a fan tweet that sounded an awful lot like many conversations being had in living rooms across the area as the Golden State Warriors took a commanding 3-0 series lead on the Dallas Mavericks.
“What watching this Warriors-Mavericks series has taught me,” a Twitter user with the handle @GrizzHooping wrote, “is that if the Grizzlies were healthy we could’ve won it all.”
As Morant amplified that sentiment, national commentators joined the chorus.
“The real conference finals were last round,” FOX Sports provocateur Skip Bayless wrote while declaring the Grizzlies to be superior to Dallas.
“If the Grizzlies were healthy,” the ESPN on NBA account asked“Would they have won it all?”
It’s a ridiculous question that, given all the hypotheticals involved, could lead to an equally ridiculous answer.
Of course, the Grizzlies could have won it all!
But is that really the prism through which this playoff run should be remembered? As a missed opportunity more so than a necessary obstacle for a group that has run into shockingly few obstacles during Morant’s tenure.
The history of the NBA is riddled with homegrown championship teams, like these Grizzlies hope to one day become, who had to stomach playoff losses they had no choice but to digest. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks, the Shaq and Kobe era Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the Bad Boy Pistons, they all went through some form of what these Grizzlies just went through and credited those experiences for allowing them to eventually win a title.
Memphis lost Game 1 against Golden State because Morant missed a layup at the buzzer. It lost Game 4 despite leading for all but 45 seconds.
Morant missed the final three games, including two in which the absence of his fourth-quarter fireworks directly played into the result. Steven Adams missed the first two games of the series due to health and safety protocols and then did not play until garbage time in Game 3. Dillon Brooks missed most of Game 2 and all of Game 3 because of his flagrant foul on Gary Payton II .
The Grizzlies never played the Warriors with their complete starting five.
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Stephen Curry, reflecting on the Grizzlies in the midst of the Western Conference finals last week, described Golden State as “shook.” Memphis led Golden State by 55 points and won by 39 points in Game 5, a margin of victory unlikely to be matched by anyone else.
But there’s just as good an argument that Golden State could be in the midst of a historic championship run. That part of its allure is how fragile the Grizzlies made the Warriors look. That there’s an unspoken matchup love triangle at play here.
Memphis was a tough matchup for the Golden State just like Minnesota was a tough matchup for the Grizzlies. In the same vein, Golden State appears to be a bad matchup for Dallas just as during the regular season Dallas seemed to be a bad matchup for Memphis.
It’s so hard to apply the transitive property and think Memphis would do to Dallas what Golden State is doing to Dallas. It’s so hard to apply the ‘if they were healthy’ ‘hypothetical and not consider that injuries are as much a part of a playoff run as home court advantage.
Being healthy at the right time is one of the great challenges of the NBA postseason. Durability and peaking for these postseason moments, according to Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins and a handful of his players, was cited as one of the internal improvements Memphis could make based on this season.
Seeing what this looked like when Morant could not play in the playoffs, seeing Bane’s significance in spotlight moments, seeing Jaren Jackson Jr. recover from his discouraging performances in the Minnesota series, seeing them all deal with disappointment, that’s more valuable than fixating on the what-ifs.
Two things can ultimately be true.
The Grizzlies missed out on a legitimate chance to win an NBA championship this season. Morant is right to think like that.
But if they ever do win a championship in the future, chances are they’ll remember what they’re enduring right now as a lesson that led them there.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto