More stories

  • in

    Against Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors Feel Range of Emotions

    A tense playoff series against the Grizzlies has Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green reliving the emotional roller coaster of their championship runs.MEMPHIS — The Golden State Warriors expected a physical fight in Game 2 of their second-round N.B.A. playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. But to lose that game, 106-101, and to lose a beloved defender to a fractured elbow? Those events they did not expect.It created a mélange of emotions after the game — anger, disappointment, frustration.Still, point guard Stephen Curry, the emotional center of the team, offered several reasons Golden State did not plan to panic.“It’s going to be a long three days with that feeling, but we understand what we need to do,” he said.And also: “We’ve been in a lot of different series that’s taken a lot of twists and turns.”And later: “Lot of adversity, a lot of adrenaline and emotion. We’ve just got to win four games somehow some way.”The loss, on Tuesday night, showed the challenge of the emotional balance the Warriors pride themselves on having. As they attempt to win another championship, they are finally getting to play in high-stakes games after a two-year postseason drought. With that comes the potential for highs, like their emotional 1-point win in Game 1 against the Grizzlies, but also lows, like the way they felt after their loss Tuesday. The series, which is tied 1-1, will continue in San Francisco with Game 3 on Saturday.“Everybody’s bummed out,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “But it’s the playoffs, so everybody will shower up and we’ll get on the plane and head home. We’re in a good spot.”Golden State forward Draymond Green raised his middle fingers toward a booing Memphis crowd as he left the court after an inadvertent elbow to the face left him bloodied.Brandon Dill/Associated PressThe two years during which Golden State missed the playoffs made those players who had been through the championship years that much more wistful for the thrill of playoff stakes.“I think it’s almost like a drug in some ways,” said the assistant coach Ron Adams, who has been with the team since 2014.Only six players from the last N.B.A. finals run, in 2019, remain, but they have returned to the playoffs with a deeper understanding of their emotions.“I got excited after Game 1 because it was such a hard-fought game, but as soon as I went back to the hotel that adrenaline wore off and I realized it’s just one game and it’s a marathon,” guard Klay Thompson, 32, said. “For me, I think I’m a lot more centered than I was our first time doing this.”He also believes some things haven’t changed, and shouldn’t.“I’ve been through the biggest battles with Dray, and he embraces those moments, he embraces being the villain,” Thompson said of forward Draymond Green. “We need that. He really makes us go, and without him, we’re not the Warriors.”On Tuesday morning, Kerr had said Golden State expected Game 2 to be the most physical game the team had played all season.It roiled their emotions, with the hostile Grizzlies crowd lifting the home team. Memphis guard Ja Morant scored 47 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, and the Grizzlies capitalized on Golden State’s mistakes late. But the opening minutes set a tense tone.Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks was ejected less than three minutes into the game, having received a flagrant-2 foul after swiping Gary Payton II across the head as Payton was in the air to try to make a basket. Payton fractured his elbow when he landed awkwardly.“I don’t know if it was intentional, but it was dirty,” Kerr said, later accusing Brooks of jeopardizing Payton’s career.Green also left the game in the first quarter after Xavier Tillman inadvertently elbowed him in the face. Hearing boos from the crowd, Green raised his middle fingers toward the fans as he left the court to get stitches above his right eye.“It felt really good to flip them off,” said Green, who answered other questions about the night in clipped sentences. “You’re going to boo someone that got elbowed in the eye and had blood running down your face? I could’ve had a concussion or anything. So if they’re going to be that nasty, I can be nasty, too. I’m assuming the cheers was because they know I’ll get fined. Great. I make $25 million a year. I should be just fine.”Green and Grizzlies fans were already on bad terms coming into the game. He had been ejected from Game 1 after a hard foul on Memphis forward Brandon Clarke. On Tuesday, Green returned to the game at the start of the second quarter with his right eye nearly swollen shut.All the while, Golden State was figuring out how to recover from a hot Grizzlies start and Payton’s injury.“It was like 8-0 at the time, so I was trying to get settled in the game,” Curry said. “That play happens. It pisses you off, you have a reaction, understand there’s 45 minutes left in the game. You’ve got to kind of settle back in emotionally. We did a really good job until the fourth quarter.”It was a marked change from Golden State’s demeanor following the Game 1 win, but that shift is typical in playoff series, particularly the closer they are to the finals.Curry’s signature emotion is happiness. Lately, as Golden State has advanced in the playoffs, as the games have become more crucial and challenging, those around him have seen more of that.“Just the simple phrase, ‘You got to love it’; heard him say that a few times,” Bruce Fraser, an assistant coach who works closely with Curry, said Tuesday morning. “You can feel his energy. He walks around with an energy around him. I know him so well it’s hard for me to describe what that is because I just feel it.”Golden State guard Klay Thompson. left, was riding high after beating Memphis in Game 1.Joe Rondone/USA Today Sports, via ReutersBeing able to prevent an emotionally taxing loss from changing that has been a part of Golden State’s success in the past.On Tuesday morning, Thompson spoke not just about his efforts to stay calm in exciting moments, but also about his improved ability to not worry too much in more negative moments. He said he loved to play in any game he could, given his two-year absence from the sport as he recovered from two leg injuries.He also spoke about his confidence that Golden State could handle anything, because in his years playing with Curry and Green, they have, he said, “been through everything.”He recalled a playoff series against the Grizzlies in 2015 and how aggressively that Memphis team played. Golden State also lost Game 2 of that series before winning it on the way to Thompson, Curry and Green’s first championship. That’s not to say the situations are identical. In 2015, Golden State was the top seed in the Western Conference, while Memphis was fifth. This season, the Grizzlies had the second-best record in the N.B.A., while Golden State was third.Those types of experiences, though, help keep emotions stable.After Tuesday’s game, Curry spoke with reporters before he even changed out of his game uniform. Still, he already seemed to be moving past the emotion of the game. He exhibited the cerebral quality that leads the rest of his team.“It’s in our DNA,” Curry said when asked how Golden State would recover from this loss. “We know what to do.” More

  • in

    Draymond Green Leaves Early, but Golden State Shows Tenacity Late

    Jordan Poole came off the bench to score 31 points as Golden State overcame Green’s first-half ejection.MEMPHIS — Moments before they learned Draymond Green had been ejected from the game, Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr and guard Stephen Curry looked out at the crowd Green had enraged. Kerr and Curry laughed as fans chanted, “Throw him out.”But the longer the referees took to review Green’s hard foul on Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke, the more concerned they looked. Green sat on the scorer’s table, expressionless, until the referees delivered his fate.Chaos ensued.Kerr and Curry started shouting at the officials about how outrageous they found the call. Green leaped from his seat and ran to the opposite sideline, returning to the Golden State bench to say goodbye to his teammates. Fans cheered, and Green motioned for them to get louder. They were happy to oblige and jeered at Green as he skipped backward toward the tunnel to the locker room, where he watched the rest of the game.Golden State has experience with all this — with Green being ejected, with a hostile crowd, with a young opponent that isn’t afraid. So, at halftime, the team wasn’t concerned. In this game, the Warriors drew on their experience, their determination and their delight at being back in the playoffs after a two-year drought to beat Memphis, 117-116, in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series.“I just missed everything about this atmosphere and opportunity to play meaningful games that require everything,” Curry said. “I missed everything about it.”The Grizzlies got to this point with the second-best record in the N.B.A. this season, and reached the second round with a taxing win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. It took them six games, and they often saw big deficits. They closed games with enough ferocity that the Timberwolves ran out of steam.Memphis finished that series on Friday night, then traveled home to welcome the Warriors two days later.Golden State, which had the third-best record in the league, needed only five games to beat the Denver Nuggets. They ended the season of Nikola Jokic, a top candidate to win the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award and had a three-day break before Sunday’s game.They had missed the playoffs in the past two seasons because Klay Thompson had been hurt for both seasons entirely, and Curry for parts of each. Healthy once the playoffs started, Golden State had the luxury of combining seasoned youngsters like Gary Payton II, who started the game and helped on a game-saving defensive stop, and Jordan Poole, who scored 31 points off the bench, with three men who won three championships together in Curry, Green and Thompson. It gave Golden State an edge, but not one that scared the Grizzlies.Famously confident, particularly in front of its boisterous home crowd, Memphis punched first in the game, with back-to-back 3s by Ja Morant. Memphis led the Warriors by 10 points in the first quarter and had a 6-point lead at halftime, behind Morant’s 18 and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 14. Jackson, who had struggled against a bigger Timberwolves team, finished with a season-high 33 points.Poole started throughout the first round, but needing Payton’s defensive presence, Kerr switched his lineup for this game.“Tonight is the rule rather than the exception,” Kerr said. “The Jordan we’ve seen now the last few months, this is what he looks like.”Golden State guard Jordan Poole, driving on Memphis’s De’Anthony Melton, had 31 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds on Sunday.Brandon Dill/Associated PressThroughout the first half, the Grizzlies looked capable of challenging the Warriors, even though this was their first time, as a group, to make it to the second round of the playoffs.When Green fouled Clarke, Memphis led by three.Green’s right and left hands struck Clarke, and a replay in the arena showed Green grabbing and pulling on Clarke’s jersey, then grabbing it to prevent him from hitting the ground too hard.“He’s been known for flagrant fouls in his career; I’ve watched him on TV my whole life it feels like,” said Clarke, who is seven years younger than Green. “So I wasn’t really shocked.”Green said on his podcast that he was trying to hold Clarke up, and hoped the league would reduce the foul from a flagrant-2 to the lesser offense of a flagrant-1. Each flagrant foul accumulates points, and during the 2016 N.B.A. finals, Green was suspended for a pivotal game because he accrued too many flagrant points. The Warriors lost the series.Golden State did not expect an ejection, but Green’s body language as he left the court during the replay indicated he knew he had erred. Kerr said the referees told him that Green’s ejection came because he hit Clarke in the face and threw him to the ground.“It’s unfortunate,” Thompson said. “We’re not the same team without him. But I’m incredibly proud of how we responded.”At halftime, Golden State steeled its resolve, but still needed late heroics to win the game. As young and inexperienced as they were, Memphis did not yield easily.With 39.7 seconds left, the Warriors secured a jump ball and Thompson hit a 3-pointer to give the Warriors a 117-116 lead.Curry stripped Morant on the Grizzlies’ next possession, leaving Golden State seconds from a victory. Asked about the play after the game, Curry said he barely remembered it. In that moment, rather than looking pleased, the Warriors looked angry and defiant, with Curry sauntering across the court.“I played angry,” Thompson admitted after the game.Thompson missed two free throws with 6.7 seconds remaining, giving Memphis one last chance.“I’ve learned from so much experience that you have to move forward,” Thompson said. “We still had the lead, still had time on the clock. We had to get a stop.”Said Curry, when told of Thompson’s quote: “That’s just championship DNA and being able to focus on what helps win games.”Morant backed away from the basket as his team set up a play.“They put him in the backcourt, and we knew they were going to try to get him to go downhill,” Poole said. He added: “Seen that play a couple times.”The game ended with a miss by Morant, who was guarded by Thompson and Payton.“I was actually beat on the play,” Payton said. “Thank God Klay Thompson had my back and sniffed it out.”Thompson ran to midcourt screaming “Come on!” as the fans filed out.“It feels really good to know that these guys have been in the fight and they have championship experience,” Poole said. “They know how important specific possessions are. It was huge. Just being able to follow in those guys’ footsteps and watch the way that they move was huge for us today.”Curry joined Thompson at midcourt after the game, shouting in celebration. Television cameras caught Green celebrating in the tunnel, waiting for them. More

  • in

    The Fathers Talk Trash Courtside. The Sons Battle in the N.B.A.

    They’re friends in real life, but Karl Towns and Tee Morant are bringing the heat for the Grizzlies-Timberwolves playoff series between their sons.MINNEAPOLIS — Karl Towns sat in his courtside seat about an hour before Game 3 of the Timberwolves’ first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies tipped off. His friend Tee Morant was pacing a few feet away, wearing reflective sunglasses, a black bucket hat, a white Polo Ralph Lauren shirt, white pants and a black jacket.Recently, a viral tweet had compared the appearance of the singer Usher to that of Morant.“Right now we’re trash-talking about how many people are going to know him when he’s in the building,” Towns said. “And I said he can’t go around calling himself Usher because that’s not right!“He walks up to people and says, ‘You know who I am?’ They don’t know who you are in Minnesota!”Towns knew that wasn’t true. The two of them had appeared together on NBA TV and on the Timberwolves’ local broadcast during Game 2. But when it comes to Morant, Towns never lets facts impede a good roast.Their sons are the two of the biggest stars in N.B.A.’s Western Conference playoffs: Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, 22, and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, 26, who is sometimes referred to as KAT.Each team has won two games in the best-of-seven series, which continues with Game 5 Tuesday in Memphis. Their fathers have watched proudly and have inadvertently achieved minor celebrity status through television appearances highlighting their friendly rivalry from courtside seats. They’ve made wagers about the games, and rolled their eyes at each other’s boasts.“It’s not a fight; it’s never a fight,” Tee Morant, center, said. “Because right here, all of this is competition. But once the clock goes zero, you’ve got to go back to your life.”Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images“Win or lose, we’re family,” Karl said. “That’s never going to change. This is my family right here. It’s just not about basketball — it’s about a family loving each other. We just have a good relationship. What people see is we’re just being genuine, we’re just being ourselves. And you know what, we’re proud of our kids, but we also enjoy our relationship.”They met three years ago when Ja was a rookie. Karl invited Tee to join a group for N.B.A. fathers, and they connected at an event in Orlando, Fla. Karl was on his way to pick up a meal for his wife, Jackie. Tee joined him and began “shadowing him,” as Tee put it. Their friendship blossomed from there.“I was like, ‘Yeah, I like this dude,’” Tee said. “He’s funny.” Unable to let a compliment lie, he added: “He’s not funnier than me.”Karl rolled his eyes.“I’m funny five days,” Karl said. “He’s got to take the weekend off.”Trash talk is a major part of their friendship, one that’s based mostly on their sons’ basketball careers. But there is a more meaningful element to it. Through basketball, they’ve gotten to know each other’s families. They aren’t vacationing together or visiting each other’s homes, but they still feel strongly about their bond.“I got genuine love for him because he takes time out of his day to think about me,” Tee said. “That’s the type of relationship we’ve built, as far as knowing that he got love for me, I got love for him. I got love for big KAT.”“I got love for Ja,” Karl said.They’ve been friends through some difficult times. When Jackie Cruz-Towns, Karl’s wife and Karl-Anthony’s mother, died of Covid-19 in April 2020, Tee called a few days later to tell Karl he was praying for the family, conscious of not wanting to burden him further.“I understood enough to give him space,” Tee said.Karl sends Tee passages from the Bible regularly, and Tee appreciates the gesture, though he doesn’t always read every word.“I want him to know that God is always on our side,” Karl said. “It’s a blessing to be on this Earth to see our kids do this.”They resist the idea that they’ve become celebrities, saying their sons are the real ones. They say they are just two fathers who are endlessly proud of their children.“I just stayed there long enough for my son to conquer his dream,” Tee said. “Just like he did.”“Just like I did,” Karl said.On Thursday morning, Ja was asked if he’d seen the interviews with his and Karl-Anthony’s fathers. He wore a serious expression.“Were they arguing?” Ja asked.He was told they were.“Like serious arguing?” Ja asked.He was told they weren’t, and his posture relaxed. In truth, their back-and-forth ribbing never gets too serious.Karl-Anthony Towns, left, and Ja Morant, right, have led their teams to a 2-2 series tie in the first round of the N.B.A. playoffs.Justin Ford/Getty Images“It’s not a fight; it’s never a fight,” Tee said. “Because right here, all of this is competition. But once the clock goes zero, you’ve got to go back to your life. Real life, this is my guy. Just because KAT had 30-something the first game and they beat us, and then Ja almost had a triple-double Game 2 and we beat them.“And then once we beat them by 20-something, he’s still going to love me. He’s going to cry a little bit.”Karl rolled his eyes again.“He slid that in real smooth, right?” Karl said. “But you know what? It’s OK. Because once we beat them, they don’t got to go far because the hotel is hooked to the place. You just walk across right to the hotel right through the tunnel.”They have said they placed a friendly wager on the series and whoever loses will have to wear the jersey of the other’s son. There are also smaller wagers.“After we beat them the first time he was supposed to take me to dinner,” Karl said. “You know what I saw? The back of his car leaving me.”Tee burst out laughing.He laughed again when Karl said the Timberwolves would win the series in six games.“No disrespect, but there’s no way you could win a game and play Prince,” Tee said, treading into dangerous territory by invoking the name of the musician, who died in 2016, one of Minnesota’s most beloved figures.“You hear this?” Karl asked. “Prince is a legend. He’s out of control right now. He’s out of control, you hear that? I’m about to revoke his ticket.”Karl began to ask every person who walked by if they wanted to trade seats with Tee.“I don’t even want to sit by him,” Karl said.One woman gave up the joke, reminding Karl he’d asked to have Tee be seated next to him.Karl-Anthony Towns, right, greets his father, Karl, left, and Tee Morant after Game 4.Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesJa took the court for warm-ups about 45 minutes before Game 3 began. He smiled and looked over at his father in between shooting 3-pointers, teasing him about how stylish he looked.“Do you know who my son is?” Tee hollered toward Ja. “I’ve got to put this on.”Tee spent much of the game’s wild swings standing up out of either excitement or frustration. He yelled at the referees when things were going poorly for the Grizzlies. He joked with Grizzlies players when things were going well for Memphis.After the bizarre and thrilling Grizzlies victory, in which Memphis recovered from multiple 25-point deficits, Tee turned to Karl and shook Karl’s jacket affectionately. He told Karl they wouldn’t be back in Minnesota after Games 3 and 4, implying that the Grizzlies would win the series in five games.Ja — like Tee might do to Karl — poked fun at Karl-Anthony on Twitter after Memphis won Game 3.But Tee was wrong: The Grizzlies will need at least six games to win the series, because the Timberwolves won Game 4 on Saturday. Afterward Karl-Anthony found his father on the sideline to hug him. Then he approached Tee, smiling.“He wasn’t getting the ball the game before, he said,” Tee recalled. “He took control and got to show what he’s capable of.”The fathers laugh together after every game, no matter who wins.Karl told Tee he’d see him in Memphis for Game 5, and reminded Tee to get him seats. They’ll be sitting courtside, right next to each other.When this series ends, will they both still be rooting for whichever team wins?“Afterward, I’m pretty sure he’s going to root for Ja,” Tee said.Said Karl: “I sure hope he still calls me as we advance in the playoffs.” More

  • in

    Grizzlies Deflate Timberwolves With Jaw-Dropping Playoff Comeback

    The Memphis Grizzlies were down by more than 20 points — twice — against the Timberwolves in Minnesota but won anyway. And it wasn’t because of their biggest star.MINNEAPOLIS — The job was almost finished, and Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane looked out across the court, flashed a triumphant smile and wiggled his eyebrows.The Grizzlies had overcome not one but two deficits of more than 20 points. They had fallen behind by 26 points early in the second quarter, pushed around by a punishing Timberwolves defense, but punched back and cut the deficit to 7 at halftime. A 15-0 run that helped them do it included three 3-pointers from Bane.But it didn’t stick.The Grizzlies trailed by 25 with 3:10 left in the third quarter, and Coach Taylor Jenkins screamed “one possession” through the deafening roar in the building. He reminded his team to focus on each possession instead of the daunting deficit.With each Grizzlies stop the arena got quieter. They outscored the Timberwolves, 50-16, over the rest of the game, again with Bane’s help from deep and an unyielding defensive effort that allowed only 12 fourth-quarter points.The Minnesota crowd filed out of the building, stunned by a result they half expected from years of Timberwolves futility. The Grizzlies love to boast when they’ve earned it, and Thursday night they certainly did.“I ain’t never been down 20 twice and won,” Bane said. “It was just a weird game. It was a weird game.”The attention that comes the Grizzlies’ way often focuses on Ja Morant, the effervescent 22-year-old point guard whose dunks seem to be aided by a pogo stick. But Morant has spent all season trying to shower more attention on the rest of his team.On Thursday night, the Grizzlies beat the Timberwolves, 104-95, to take a two-games-to-one lead in their best-of-seven first-round series in the Western Conference. It was a game that gave Morant more ammunition as he campaigned for his teammates. They won even though Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks were 11 of 38 from the field after starting.“They deserve a lot more respect and recognition for what they do for us on the floor,” Morant said of his teammates as he sat next to Tyus Jones, his backup. “Like you said, us three struggled, but that’s why we got this guy alongside of me and the rest of our teammates to be there to pick us up. That’s why we’re really the deepest team in the league and we’re so good.”This was not the first time the Grizzlies had proved their ability to succeed even when key players were struggling or absent.Morant missed 25 games of the regular season, and the Grizzlies lost only five of them. When the team sat four starters against the league-leading Phoenix Suns on April 1, Memphis won anyway.Bane didn’t play in that game against the Suns, but he has been a major reason for the Grizzlies’ success this season. He was drafted 30th overall in 2020 and has gone from being a role player in his rookie year to a starter this year — from averaging 9.2 points a game to 18.2 points a game this regular season.“Last year I kind of felt like I was learning all year long, trying to learn, absorb as much information as I can so I could apply it in years to come,” Bane said in an interview Thursday morning. “Obviously, I’m still learning. I’m a young player, but I have a different role so I’m being extremely aggressive and having fun.”Bane scored 17 points in the Grizzlies’ Game 1 loss to the Timberwolves and 16 in their Game 2 win. On Thursday he led all scorers with 26 points. Game 4 is Saturday.The series pits against each other two young teams who are short on playoff experience but brimming with confidence. The Grizzlies had the second-best record in the league this year. The Timberwolves used a late push to force their way into the playoffs.As soon as the Grizzlies lost Game 1, a memory of last season came in handy. They had defeated the Jazz in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series last year, then Utah won the next four games.Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke made several critical shots down the stretch as Memphis, somehow, took the lead late after being down by as many as 26 points.Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports, via ReutersWhen Morant was asked pregame if he would like to steal a win from the Timberwolves on their home court, he said, “I want to steal two.”When asked why he loved road games so much, Morant was equally succinct.“Sending their fans home mad,” he said.The Timberwolves fans booed Morant every time he touched the ball, and Minnesota’s defense prioritized stopping him. Relative to his usual performances, it did. Morant, who averaged 27.4 points a game in the regular season, scored just 16 on Thursday. But the win was enough for him. As time expired, Morant asked for the ball and threw it up into the rafters as the crowd, seeming more sad than mad, departed.Jones, whom Morant introduced as “Point God” after the game, scored 11 points with 4 assists and 5 rebounds.Brandon Clarke scored 20 points, and took the podium after Morant and Jones. As they crossed paths, Morant playfully chided him for hiding his jewelry under his shirt. Morant wanted him to shine.The early playoff baptism for this young Grizzlies team is likely to pay off as their careers progress.“This is the best player development you can get,” Memphis Coach Taylor Jenkins said. He added: “The mental focus that you’ve got to have. The attention to detail we pride ourselves on all season long. Game plan discipline, night in and night out. That’s all the work that our guys put in. When you get to this level and you’re playing high stakes game to game, ups and downs. Just staying even keeled throughout.”Bane is quite aware of how unusual his first two seasons in the N.B.A. have been. Not everyone comes into a young team where they can make an immediate impact and also go to the playoffs.“Some players go their whole career without ever making the playoffs,” Bane said Thursday morning. “And for me to be able to do it my first two years in the league, I don’t want anything else. I want to get to the playoffs every year.”A smile brightened his face as he said it and thought about such a future.In the shorter term, Bane is thinking bigger.“We want to make some noise in this postseason,” Bane said. “We want to make a run. It’s obviously exciting times, and we’re confident about where we’re at and what we’ve done, but there’s still a lot to be done.” More

  • in

    How it Feels to Watch Ja Morant Fly: ‘A Magician Up There’

    Sarah Bolton maneuvers in the air for a living, using silks and hammocks to defy gravity at heights of up to 25 feet. The sensation of being in the air, she said, is often one of empowerment, an extension of childhood fantasies becoming adult realities.Bolton runs the aerial arts school High Expectations in Memphis, where Ja Morant, too, is a high-flyer, as the All-Star point guard of the N.B.A.’s Grizzlies. Bolton said she can appreciate the similarities between her livelihood and Morant’s, especially his windmill dunk to finish an alley-oop against the Orlando Magic last season.“To do that while he’s in the air with nothing to push up against, that’s incredible,” Bolton said.One aerial artist can certainly recognize another.Morant’s Grizzlies, set to play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs, were one of the most satisfying surprises this season. Memphis finished 56-26, second in the Western Conference, with an exciting young core who compete at a frenetic pace. They are a far cry from the popular grit-and-grind Grizzlies of the 2010s who pounded the ball in to post mainstays like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.Morant is the lofty, dynamic centerpiece to Memphis’s makeover, a guard who skies in the air and executes in a manner arguably unvisited since the ascendant takeoffs of Vince Carter and Michael Jordan.Wendell Cruz/USA Today Sports, via ReutersRocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesNot many people in the world — N.B.A. players included — know what it’s like to elevate and seemingly levitate quite like Morant. He recorded a standing vertical leap of 44 inches before the Grizzlies drafted him No. 2 overall, behind New Orleans’ selection of Zion Williamson, in 2019.“Think it’s just pure skill,” Morant said. “I don’t know too much that I can say about it. It’s just a natural thing for me.”But some in Memphis and West Tennessee, those like Bolton who often operate in the air, recognize and applaud Morant’s vertical capabilities.“I enjoy the looks on his face when he has those moments,” Bolton said. “He does these things that you think is physically impossible and it’s just this pure joy.”The 6-foot-3 Morant is a few inches shorter than his vaulting predecessors Carter and Jordan, which makes his gravity-defying exploits all the more impressive.He is an aerial dynamo playing in an era when most players his height are stretching the game horizontally by expanding their shooting range. He does that, too, but he lives in the air.There was his dunk all over Jakob Poeltl, the San Antonio Spurs’ 7-foot-1 center, in February, and his soaring left-handed alley-oop finish against the Boston Celtics in March. In January, Morant used both of his hands (and banged his brow against the backboard) against the Los Angeles Lakers to block Avery Bradley’s attempt. “Instinctual,” Morant said of his elevation efforts.And those are just some of his displays from this season.“Like, how do you bump your head on the backboard,” said Aaron Shafer, a California transplant who opened Society Memphis, an indoor skating park and coffee shop. “I don’t understand it.”Even Morant’s misses provide highlight-worthy clips because of his athleticism and the audacity of his imagination.Morant did not start dunking regularly until near the end of his high school career in Sumter, S.C. By then, Williamson, a former A.A.U. teammate, had long ago become a national dunking sensation.For a while, Morant had the ambition, but not the ability.“It’s a practiced intuition,” Shafer said. “It’s something that he’s put so many hours into over his lifetime, starting as a kid. You are having the right to have that intuition, it’s not something that you just get.”Morant warms up before the game with a between-the-legs dunk.Brandon Dill/Associated PressSawyer Sides, a 14-year-old BMX rider at Tennessee’s Shelby Farms, equated Morant’s ability to anticipate plays before his leaps with competing in a motocross race.“Say I’m in second or third,” Sides said. “I have to get where other people aren’t if I want to make a pass. You can see a window opening 10 seconds before it even starts happening. It’s like him thinking about the play as if he’s on the other side of the court already.”SJ Smith, who is training to become an instructor at High Expectations, said Morant’s successful vertical forays begin when he steers his momentum into a strong plié and bends his knees before lifting off.“In order to gain height, you have to set that up,” Smith said. “He is so kinesthetically intelligent and intuitive, where he’s internalized and practiced a crap ton to set himself up to be a magician up there.”Bolton, a former dancer, entered aerial arts for the freedom that operating in the air provides.Like a Morant dunk, aerial artistry involves a mix of control and technique through core and upper body strength and the constant interplay between activating muscles and releasing them.“You have to really understand where your body is in space before you can layer on the momentum,” Bolton said. “Using momentum, you’re putting your body almost at the whim of this external force, but you have to learn how to control it. When I watch Ja do what he does, it’s similar. He’s so strong, but there’s also this float and this release that he finds.”Bolton thought back to the play against Orlando last season, when Morant appeared to pause midair to control the basketball before continuing his ascent.“He’s using the scissoring of his legs to basically pass power to himself upward,” Bolton said. “It’s like he’s using his body to create resistance in the air. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a basketball player do it to that extent.”Alex Coker, a tandem instructor for West Tennessee Skydiving, likened Morant’s adaptability under duress to what is required of him in his job taking people thousands of feet in the air before jumping from a plane.Coker compared each of Morant’s leaps to an emergency where he was forced to make a critical decision in milliseconds. Like Morant adjusting midair to account for an incoming defender, Coker’s job requires him to be nimble in a crisis.Morant adjusting as he goes up for a shot against defenders.Justin Ford/Getty Images“There’s pages of malfunctions of all the possibilities that could happen, and it’s very important that every 90 days we look over those emergency procedures of scenarios that we can perform like a secondhand nature,” Coker said. “If it happens you know how to instantly react.”Of course, every jump is not the same for Morant, and neither are those by Ezra Deleon, a BMX racer and coach at Shelby Farms. His leaps can span between 20 and 30 feet, he said.“It’s kind of a controlled chaos in a way,” Deleon said. “You know what you’re doing, but you always have a bunch of variables, like wind, other riders, how the pitch of your jump has a different weight and tosses you up in the air.”While most aerial aficionados focused on Morant’s leaping ability, Shafer spotlighted his descent.Sticking the landing is crucial for Morant, just like it is for Shafer in skateboarding.Several years back, Doran, Shafer’s son who was then 10 years old, tried dunking a basketball after a 360-degree rotation in the air on his skateboard. He broke his tibia and fibula when he did not land properly.“A lot of skateboarding is knowing what to do when we don’t pull off that trick,” Shafer said. “How do we get out of that?”Referring to Morant, Shafer added: “He has to do that every single time he makes a basket. How am I going to get out of this jam after I accomplish my goal?”Flying so high makes Morant especially vulnerable when it comes time to land.Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports, via ReutersMorant, so far, has been lucky while ascendant and vulnerable.“I just worry about finishing the play,” he said.Morant missed two dozen games with knee injuries but returned for the final game of the regular season, allowing for the frequent takeoffs that even those who spend much of their time in the air can only fantasize about.“I would love to be able to just hang in the air for an extra second or two without any apparatus like he can,” Smith said. “The way he moves, it makes me think of being in a dream and moving in ways that we can’t in real life.” More

  • in

    Playoff Makeovers May Upend the N.B.A. Championship Chase

    Injured stars could return for the postseason, creating an undercurrent of unpredictability for their opponents.Stephen Curry appeared at a recent practice for the Golden State Warriors without a walking boot on his sprained left foot. In Los Angeles, the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, who has not played all season, was spotted by local reporters participating in shooting drills. And the Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, also sidelined since last season, is again soaring for dunks, according to some impeccable sources: his own teammates.“Just a matter of time, I guess,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris told reporters recently, “so hopefully we can get him back and make that push.”Ahead of the start of the N.B.A. playoffs on Saturday, a slew of teams, many of them contenders, could be primed for makeovers. Golden State could stage an on-court reunion of its Big Three — Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — for the first time in the playoffs since 2019. The Nuggets have left the door ajar for Murray’s long-awaited return from knee surgery. The Clippers only recently reintroduced Paul George to their starting lineup after he had been absent since December with a torn ligament in his elbow, and is it possible that Leonard, who injured his right knee last June, could make a surprise appearance in the coming weeks?The list goes on. Ja Morant, the All-Star point guard of the Memphis Grizzlies, just returned from injury over the weekend. And there are teams like the Nets, who now have the luxury of playing Kyrie Irving in home games, and the Milwaukee Bucks, the defending champions, who have been building Brook Lopez’s minutes after he missed 67 games with a bad back. Chris Paul of the Phoenix Suns is getting back into rhythm after missing a month with a thumb injury.What does it all mean? Potential headaches for opponents, and an undercurrent of unpredictability that will run through the early rounds of the postseason.Suns guard Chris Paul missed a month down the stretch because of a thumb injury. He averaged 12.7 points and 11.2 assists per game in his first six games back.Joe Rondone/USA Today Sports, via Reuters“I think it’s unusual that we’re waiting to hear about that from so many teams,” Stan Van Gundy, the former N.B.A. coach, said in a telephone interview, “and that guys could come back in the playoffs who either haven’t played all year or for a good part of the year.”Facing teams with stars who may or may not play creates a unique set of challenges for opposing coaches, said Eric Musselman, a former coach of the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings who now coaches the men’s basketball team at Arkansas. On the one hand, he said, you want to relay to your team that the injured player will be a threat if he actually appears in uniform.“I’ll never say, ‘This guy might be out of sync,’ or, ‘He’s going to be rusty,’” Musselman said. “It’s always: ‘This guy is an All-Star, he’s been working out, and he’s in playoff shape.’ You need to be ready for anything.”On the other hand, Musselman said, you need to guard against a letdown in focus and intensity if that player winds up sitting out. Uncertainty, in its own way, can create a competitive advantage.So even if the Nuggets decide not to play Murray in the playoffs, or the Nets officially pull the plug on Ben Simmons and his balky back, it might behoove those teams to keep that information to themselves, Van Gundy said. There is no harm, he said, in leaving opponents guessing. Force them to concoct multiple game plans. Make them plan for something that will never happen.“I’m going to want to add to your preparation time,” said Van Gundy, now an analyst for TNT and Turner Sports.Van Gundy cited the Orlando Magic’s 2009 playoff run when they faced the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star center, had been sidelined for several weeks with an injured knee, and Van Gundy, who was the Magic’s coach at the time, said he knew there was “virtually no chance” that Garnett would make an appearance in the series. But Garnett was still a presence on Orlando’s scouting report, and the team still studied film of him.Jamal Murray has yet to play this season after injuring his knee last year, but he could be a difference-maker for the Nuggets in the playoffs.Ethan Mito/Clarkson Creative/Getty Images“If he came back, we didn’t want to lose a game in a seven-game series because we got caught by surprise,” Van Gundy said.Over the coming days and weeks, opposing coaches will overprepare for the possibility that long-injured stars could return, said Brendan Suhr, a former longtime N.B.A. assistant. And if one does?“I’m immediately going to trap him,” Suhr said. “I’m going to try to do stuff he’s not used to seeing. I would make it very difficult for him. Because his workouts, especially his noncontact workouts, were very soft — coming off pick-and-rolls, getting into rhythm, making shots. And now I’m going to force him to make very tough, under-pressure decisions.”At the other end of the court, make that player defend. “Especially if he’s coming back from a leg injury,” Suhr said.With all that in mind, teams with stars on the mend must weigh the delicate calculus about whether to bring them back at all — and if so, when. Will they be ineffective? Susceptible to further harm? Van Gundy recalled a conversation he had with Tyronn Lue, the coach of the Clippers, last month, before George returned to the team’s lineup on March 29.“He was talking about how there would be a cutoff point in terms of bringing Paul George back,” Van Gundy said. “If he couldn’t get in X amount of regular-season games, he wouldn’t want to play him in the playoffs.”There are, of course, cautionary tales from playoffs past. Consider Golden State’s tortured postseason experience in 2019, when Kevin Durant, who was then one of the team’s stars, strained his right calf in the Western Conference semifinals. After missing nine straight games, he returned for Game 5 of the N.B.A. finals against the Toronto Raptors and ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon. The Warriors lost the series, and Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season after signing with the Nets.Michael Malone, the coach of the Nuggets, told reporters this month that Murray “wants to be back” and that the team was “keeping hope alive.” Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ do-everything center and a favorite to repeat as the league’s most valuable player, sounded more cautious about the situation.The Grizzlies have been fearsome with and without Ja Morant, center, who is expected to return for the playoffs.Petre Thomas/USA Today Sports, via Reuters“I told him, ‘If you’re not 100 percent ready to go, don’t come back,’” Jokic said. “It’s stupid. You’re going to get injured. I mean, if you’re not 100 percent ready to go, especially for the playoffs …”His voice trailed off.After getting past the Garnett-less Celtics in 2009, the Magic advanced to the N.B.A. finals that year against the Los Angeles Lakers. Ahead of Game 1, Van Gundy decided to activate Jameer Nelson, his starting point guard. Nelson had missed the previous four months with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Van Gundy opted to bring him off the bench against the Lakers.“He was our leader, and he was having an All-Star year until he got hurt,” Van Gundy recalled.And because Nelson was returning from a shoulder injury, that meant that he had been able to run and stay in relatively decent shape during his long layoff.“That’s a little different than if you’ve got a knee injury and you’re limited in what you can do,” Van Gundy said.Still, even with Nelson back in the rotation, the Magic lost the series in five games. Van Gundy has never regretted the move.“You want to go into the biggest games with your best people,” he said. More

  • in

    Who Are The NBA's Early Breakout Stars of 2021-22 Season?

    Three players in particular have given hope to their antsy fans, despite injuries, Covid-related absences and the hiccups of being new to the league.Whether it’s because of injuries, the N.B.A.’s Covid-19 health and safety protocols or a general yearly churn, the league has seen an unexpectedly rapid ascension of young stars this season. Some of this is unique to this year: With several top stars missing in action, there is more room in the spotlight for new talents.Tyler Herro, the third-year Miami Heat guard, is helping to keep the team afloat in the face of injuries to its top players. Cole Anthony, the second-year guard for the Orlando Magic, has developed into a strong all-around player with a workable jump shot. And the 23-year-old center Jarrett Allen is scoring almost 17 points a game for the Cleveland Cavaliers on better than 70 percent shooting. Allen has a strong chance to make his first All-Star game this season.The strong play from three players in particular has given hope to their teams’ beleaguered fans: Evan Mobley, the lanky Cavaliers rookie, and Anthony Edwards, the Minnesota Timberwolves swingman in his second year. And in the case of the second-year Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane, he thrived during the injury absence of the team’s top player, Ja Morant, which could have sent Memphis into a tailspin.All three succeed in different ways — Mobley with his height and agility; Edwards with his slashing and dunking; Bane with his shooting prowess. But all of them are helping their teams be competitive and they’re — if nothing else — fun to watch.None of the three are likely to make the All-Star team this season, but making future ones is certainly within reach.Here’s what makes them three of the season’s early breakout stars.Evan Mobley, Cleveland CavaliersCleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley is drawing comparisons to the Lakers’ big man Anthony Davis in his rookie season.Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports, via Jerome Miron-Usa Today SportsAs the Cleveland Cavaliers have pulled themselves out of the league’s cellar, one of the most exciting developments for the franchise’s future has been the emergence of the rookie forward Evan Mobley.With a body type and skill set that have drawn comparisons to a young Anthony Davis, Mobley is an early contender for the Rookie of the Year Award. He was named the season’s inaugural rookie of the month, which covers October and November. During that span, Mobley’s 30 blocks were twice that of the next best rookie, Toronto’s Scottie Barnes.More important, his play is helping his team win. The Cavaliers were the only team that played a rookie more than 400 minutes through November to also have a winning record.Heading into Christmas, Mobley led all rookies in blocks per game with 1.8 and was tied with Barnes for most rookie rebounds per game. His defensive rating is among the top 10 of players who have played at least 25 games this season.The 6-foot-11 center from Temecula, Calif., was expected to shine in the N.B.A. He was a star in high school and spent one season at the University of Southern California, where he was named the Pac-12’s player of the year, defensive player of the year and freshman of the year.But rookies don’t always enter the N.B.A. quite this polished.Anthony Edwards, Minnesota TimberwolvesMinnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards has become a more vocal leader in his second season.David Berding/Getty ImagesAnthony Edwards made his mark as a high-flying slasher during his rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves last year. He was a delight to watch, particularly because of his elite dunking. But there were some questions about his offensive efficiency as he entered his second year in the league. He shot only 32.9 percent from 3 last season and 41.7 percent overall. The N.B.A. has a long and storied list of inefficient scorers who had inflated stats, because they were on bad teams that needed someone to put the ball in the hoop.But this season, Edwards is shooting a bit better, including from 3, and keeping the Timberwolves competitive. This month, Edwards hit 10 3-pointers in a game against the Denver Nuggets. He still has work to do to become a top scorer, but at 20 years old, he’s already one of the best young players in the league. He’s also diversified his game otherwise, improving his rebounding and passing, allowing him to contribute in games even when his shot isn’t falling. If Minnesota makes the playoffs, Edwards’s leap will be one of the biggest reasons.He’s also established himself as a leader unafraid to respectfully call out teammates, like Karl-Anthony Towns, or not-so-respectfully do so to stars on other teams, like Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. He’s a keeper for Minnesota and has an outside shot at making the All-Star team this year, as well as, you know, an actual outside shot.Desmond Bane, Memphis GrizzliesMemphis guard Desmond Bane helped the Grizzlies stay afloat when their best player, Ja Morant, went down with an injury.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports, via John E. Sokolowski-Usa Today SportsAt the 2020 N.B.A. draft, Desmond Bane was little more than an afterthought — to nearly everyone, that is, except the Memphis Grizzlies, who traded a pair of second-round picks to the Boston Celtics as part of a three-team deal so that they could move up in the order and select Bane with the final pick of the first round.Before the draft pundits had questions about Bane, a 6-foot-5 guard who had spent a full four seasons at Texas Christian University, a red flag in an era when most top prospects are one-and-done. Would Bane merely be a spot-up shooter in the N.B.A. or would he be able to create his own looks? And weren’t his arms a bit on the short side? Bane had heard it all.As a rookie, Bane earned a rotation spot for the Grizzlies as a dependable outside threat. Now a full-time starter in his second season, he is the team’s third-leading scorer behind Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, and he ranks among the league leaders in 3-point shooting (41.3 percent going into Christmas). His value was especially apparent when Morant went down with a knee injury at the end of November. The Grizzlies won 10 of 12 games without him, and Bane was a steadying force — and occasionally spectacular. He had a career-high 29 points in a win against the Dallas Mavericks.Morant has since returned, and the Grizzlies are in the thick of the playoff chase as one of the Western Conference’s most surprising young teams. More

  • in

    Oklahoma City Thunder Lose by an NBA-Record 73 Points

    In a 152-79 loss, a rebuilding Oklahoma City team took record-setting lumps from the Memphis Grizzlies.Bookmakers took a look at the Grizzlies-Thunder game in Memphis on Thursday night, weighed all the factors, and decided that the Grizzlies should be 9-point favorites.Yeah, I think they covered.The Grizzlies led by 15 after a quarter, 36 at the half, and 51 after three quarters on their way to a 152-79 win. The 73-point margin of victory was the largest in N.B.A. history.Even an arithmophobe could find some amazing numbers in the box score.The Thunder, for instance, were outscored by 56 points when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (2 points on 0-7 shooting) was on the floor. Oklahoma City was outrebounded, 53-26, and had two steals against 19 turnovers.On the plus side, they made 82 percent of their free throws, better than the Grizzlies’ 72 percent. Good thing too, or it might have really turned into a blowout.The happier-looking Grizzlies numbers included 27 points on 9 of 11 shooting for Jaren Jackson Jr. and nine assists in 21 minutes for Tyus Jones. Santi Aldama put up a plus-52 despite coming off the bench.“Tonight’s not necessarily who we are,” Thunder Coach Mark Daigneault said. Not necessarily, he said. Yikes.He went on the philosophize a bit. “When you compete, you have exposure to the highs and lows of competition. And competition comes with great joy. It also comes with grief and frustration and anger.”Tre Mann had 12 points in 27 minutes for the Thunder. Oklahoma City was outscored by 47 points when he was on the floor. Brandon Dill/Associated PressIn the Thunder’s favor, they were missing their leading scorer, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who entered the concussion protocol on Thursday. Still, the Grizzlies were without their own star, Ja Morant, who has a knee injury.The Thunder have now lost eight straight and sit 6-16 in what was always expected to be another rebuilding year (last season they were 22-50). They still have a better record than the Pelicans, Rockets, Magic and Pistons (4-18!). But none of those teams, not even the Pistons, has lost by 73.The Thunder now have three nights off before a game on Monday at … the Pistons. Get your tickets now.The previous record blowout was set by the 1991-92 Cavaliers, who beat the Heat, an eventual playoff team, by 68, 148-80. “I don’t know what we played, but it wasn’t basketball,” Glen Rice of the Heat said afterward.That eclipsed an earlier record margin of 63, which was set in 1972 by the eventual champion Lakers, who beat the Warriors behind 30 points from Gail Goodrich.Going back still further, on Christmas Day in 1960, the Syracuse Nats of Dolph Schayes and Hal Greer beat the Knicks, 162-100.Ty Jerome, a former Virginia player who started Thursday’s game for Oklahoma City, tried to find a silver lining on Thursday night. “My sophomore year in college, we were the first seed to ever lose to a 16 seed,” he told The Oklahoman after the game. “Like, that’s way more embarrassing than this N.B.A. game.” More