More stories

  • in

    Anybody Can Dribble a Basketball. But Few Can Do It Like This.

    There’s hardly a more exciting play in basketball.A player is pounding the ball up and down with eyes darting left and right, deciding a point of attack. The player feints with one hand, and leans that way, so the defender follows. The ball flicks the other way, and the hapless defender slips, or in an even more embarrassing outcome, falls. The crowd oohs and aahs.Few basketball skills require more consistent creativity than ball-handling. The opportunities for flashy dunks and showy passes come and go. But innovative ball-handling is a constant need, particularly in the N.B.A., where athletic defenders are primed to close off every point of attack.This year’s N.B.A. postseason has featured some of the best dribblers in basketball history, including Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry. Curry creates space for deep 3-pointers while defenders swarm him. Harden baits defenders into fouling him all over the court. Irving is a wizard at misdirections and spin moves to get to the rim. Paul operates the ball like it is on a string. All four can get by defenders with ease.The New York Times asked three generational dribblers to discuss ball-handling: God Shammgod, Tim Hardaway and Oscar Robertson.Shammgod, an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, had a brief N.B.A. career, but his dribbling became a thing of lore on New York City’s outdoor courts. His signature move — the Shammgod crossover, in which he pushes the ball forward with one hand and then pulls it across with the other — influenced a generation of players.Hardaway, who played in the N.B.A. from 1989 to 2003, was one of the league’s best point guards. His notable move was a double crossover called the UTEP Two Step, nodding to the college he played for, the University of Texas at El Paso.Oscar Robertson was an early purveyor of the crossover dribble in the 1960s.Focus on Sport, via Getty ImagesRobertson, a Hall of Famer and the first player to average a triple-double for an entire N.B.A. season, was an early purveyor of the crossover dribble in the 1960s.This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.What makes for a great ballhandler?SHAMMGOD Most of all imagination. Just learning how to manipulate the ball and manipulate angles. To be an elite dribbler, I would say you have to know how to use your body, use your footwork. Because dribbling is all footwork.HARDAWAY Not turning the ball over. Being under control. Knowing when to take your man and how to set your man up.ROBERTSON Experience and time. I started playing when I was young. I was a guard. I started hammering the ball, dribbling and making a lot of mistakes. And then, literally, you get involved and you learn different players, and what they’re trying to do to you. And you have the confidence in going inside at just anyone.Shooting is a skill that has evolved over time. Centers are now launching 3-pointers. How has the approach to ball-handling changed?SHAMMGOD It’s changed a lot by hiring different coaches to help. I like to say there’s a difference between teaching somebody moves and teaching somebody how to dribble. Most people, when they come and they work with somebody, they want to learn moves. They want to learn the Tim Hardaway UTEP Two Step. They want to learn the Shammgod crossover or [Allen] Iverson crossover. But to me, that’s really not dribbling. That’s learning how to do moves.Tim Hardaway, creator of the UTEP Two Step, in 1993.Brian Drake/NBAE, via Getty ImagesHARDAWAY You know, back when we were playing, there weren’t that many cameras. There wasn’t social media. So now they catch every little tidbit from each angle so it can be five different angles where you see a guy shaking his man and getting to the hole or crossing somebody over and getting to the hole. Five different angles where you see the guy slip or fall.ROBERTSON Guys who can handle and dribble the ball are the most successful athletes. If you cannot dribble the ball around anybody, you’re not going to do very well in basketball.How did you develop your crossover?SHAMMGOD Growing up, I used to just look at every dribble move I could imagine. And then I would go practice it in slow motion. I would have two-pound ankle weights on my wrist.I would dribble in slow motion. I would watch film in slow motion so I could watch the point guard’s footwork or how they do a move. And then the biggest thing for me is when I used to take the weights off my wrist, it’s just like when you punch with wrist weights off. You take them off your hands, they’re flying everywhere.HARDAWAY I’m from Chicago. My parents’ basement wasn’t finished, and so I used to go down there when it was cold outside. I just used to go downstairs and just dribble and just work on my game. Dribbling, pretending the man was in front of me. In and out moves between my legs, crossovers behind my back — I used to just spend hours downstairs at a time. Just dribble, dribble, dribble.ROBERTSON Just watching guys that I played with in Indianapolis, a place called the dust bowl, which was outside. It was on concrete, but they called it the dust bowl. And there were some really great basketball players. It’s almost unbelievable. I’m sure they have these players in all parts of the country who played great outdoors but didn’t do very well when they went inside.Who are your favorite ballhandlers?SHAMMGOD Of course, the ones that easily come to mind: Kyrie. Steph. James Harden, Chris Paul.HARDAWAY I grew up watching a great person named Isiah Thomas, great ballhandler. It moved on to myself. And then, it moved to Rod Strickland. Oh, man, Rod Strickland had crazy handles that nobody even recognizes anymore. And then, you know, you had guys that were coming up after us. Shammgod. And he’s out of New York. Derrick Rose had some nice handles out of Chicago. Then you look at these guys. Chris Paul, you know, at 37, still doing what he’s doing with the ball is amazing. Of course, Kyrie. Steph Curry, [Ja] Morant. James Harden.ROBERTSON I think Curry is very adept at handling the basketball. And also Ja Morant.They understand what the defense is trying to do to them. When you’re going out there, you’ve got to control your speed. To a certain extent, you can’t go 100 miles an hour because you don’t want to run into anybody. So these guys go in, they’re watching the defense.Stephen Curry fending off another skilled ballhandler, Ja Morant, last week during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals.Justin Ford/Getty ImagesWhat’s your most memorable crossover in a game?SHAMMGOD The game against Rutgers University. It was against Geoff Billet at Madison Square Garden at the [1997] Big East tournament. It was on the right side of the court. That was when I first did the move. I threw it out to go to the basket and he tried to run to steal the ball. And the only thing I could do is pull it back on my left hand.HARDAWAY It’s a crazy story. I’m driving, and my son said: “Dad, I know you don’t like talking in the car while you drive to the game. But I want to ask you. Everyone is talking about the crossover. What is a crossover?”I said, “Boy, you’ve never seen me do the crossover?” He said, “No!” I said: “OK, I see it, but you can’t go nowhere. You’ve got to stay in your seat.” Because he liked to roam and walk around. Go back to the play room, play PlayStation and all this and all that. I say: “You’ve got to stay in your seat for the whole game. At halftime, you go use the bathroom. Other than that, you’ve got to stay in your seat the whole game because I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I guarantee you it’s going to happen.”And sure enough, like the second play of the game against New York Knicks, Game 7 [of the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals]. I came down and I said, “I’m going to point to you.” And I did a crossover, laid it up and I pointed to him. I could see him jumping up and down, point blank, being like: “Yeah, OK, I see it. I understand.” So that was one of those memorable moments when you would talk to your son and then show him in action what was the crossover and how you do it.ROBERTSON I didn’t think about it, to be honest.To what extent is ball-handling an art?SHAMMGOD I think it’s art to the fullest extent. It’s crazy, because right now, even if you say my name to a dictionary, it won’t bring up me. It will bring up a move and it will bring up the way the move is done.HARDAWAY Man, it’s like rhythm. It’s like dancing. Isiah used to do it. Nate Archibald used to do it. I used to do it. Dribbling a ball is like dancing and keeping up with the beat of a song. And if you watch Kyrie, that’s how he dribbles. If you watch Rod Strickland, that’s how he dribbles.You watch Kemba Walker and if you watch Steph Curry, it’s like dribbling to a beat of a song. When you see those basketball commercials and they’re bouncing a ball, it is like going to the beat of the song. That’s how it is. And it’s just gracefully just moving with the basketball and really having that confidence that nobody can guard you. Nobody can stick you, and you get around them and you look at them in their eyeballs, and you will see that fear in their eyes, “Damn, I’m in trouble.” That’s the art of dribbling right there.ROBERTSON I just think you either have it or you don’t.Source photographs: Focus on Sport/Getty Images; Joe Murphy/NBAE, via Getty Images; Dale Tait/NBAE, via Getty Images; Jeff Chiu/Associated Press; Cary Edmondson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters; Daniel Dunn/USA Today Sports, via Reuters; Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports, via Reuters More

  • 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

    These N.B.A. Playoffs Burst 2020’s Bubble

    The confined, roiled 2020 N.B.A. playoffs reflected their times. So, too, do this year’s celebratory games.Last August, as the N.B.A. began its 2020 postseason in the confined bubble of Walt Disney World in Florida, the coronavirus pandemic raged, a vaccine was nothing but a dream and the battle for racial justice stood firmly at the forefront of every game.That was then, and this is now: The playoffs are back, but this time set against a much different backdrop. Vaccines have softened the pandemic’s blow, allowing America to reopen and N.B.A. fans to attend games in numbers that, while still limited, would have shocked last summer.Black Lives Matter slogans are not painted on the courts or stitched on jerseys. Players no longer lock arms and kneel during the playing of the national anthem.Last year’s N.B.A. postseason reflected the tension, tenor and tone of society. The league’s players, 75 percent of whom are Black, sparked a movement that spread to other sports when they boycotted games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis. These days, as the 2021 playoffs get off the ground, shootings continue without such stoppages.The tinderbox days of the bubble seem like forever ago.This postseason is more about moving forward and sloughing off, however tentatively, the raw pain of the last year. It’s about welcoming new possibilities. It’s about basketball, the pure sport and entertainment of it.And so far, after the first few days of action, it can’t get much better.It began with the so-called play-in tournament, an innovation first tried in the Florida bubble, which gives the league’s middle-of-the-pack teams a shot at making the playoffs.The tournament, held last week, gave us Jayson Tatum leading his Boston Celtics over the Washington Wizards, sinking every shot imaginable as he went for a cool 50 points.It gave us another unforgettable duel between the two players and two teams that have defined basketball in the 21st century. That the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors struggled through injury-filled seasons hardly mattered. Wednesday’s matchup was LeBron James against Steph Curry in a game with real meaning — even if it wasn’t the N.B.A. finals, where they met four times before.It ended like poetry, with James squaring his shoulders, setting his feet and nailing a 34-foot jumper with seconds on the shot clock and less than a minute left in the game. That he did so over the outstretched arms of Curry, his longtime nemesis, added to the moment’s indelible heft.Friday night, reeling from the heartbreak loss to the Lakers, there was Curry again, only this time his Warriors were playing on their home court, in their still new arena in downtown San Francisco. Roughly 7,500 fans were on hand, the largest, most boisterous crowd at Chase Center this season.Many lament that Steph Curry, left, will not be a part of a playoff run but what would the N.B.A. be without the emergence of fresh talent like Ja Morant, right?Jed Jacobsohn/Associated PressAnd this time, they played against the league’s youngest team, the Memphis Grizzlies, with everything on the line. The winner would advance to the playoffs. The loser, to vacation.Curry claims to be 33. Maybe he’s fooling us. Coming off an M.V.P.-caliber regular season in which he led a hobbled, patchwork team to the league’s most improved record, he barely took a breather. True, there were signs of fatigue. His slow walk during breaks in action. The occasional slump of his shoulders. The slight hint of bewilderment in his face as he endured another night of battering from swarming defenders.And yet he scored 39 points and willed his team from a 17-point deficit to force an overtime.The narrative, so said almost every pundit, would belong to Curry and the Warriors in the end. Ja Morant had other ideas. Memphis’s 21-year-old, catlike point guard outdueled Curry. Normally underwhelming from long range, Morant made five of his 10 3-point attempts. And when it counted most, in the last two minutes of overtime, he showed why he is one of the brightest young stars in the league, ready to emerge from the shadow of Zion Williamson, who was taken one spot ahead of Morant in the 2019 N.B.A. draft. Morant finessed his way past the Warriors’ defense in the last gasps of overtime and sank a pair of deft push shots to seal a Memphis win, 117-112.Many lament that Curry, global icon, will not be a part of a playoff run. Many still grouse about the play-in tournament, claiming it is unfair or that it cheapens the regular season. Remember when James said, seemingly only partly in jest, that the N.B.A. official who drew up the tournament should be fired? Considering the feast the games provided as an appetizer to the main course — and, of course, the high television ratings — the criticism seems silly now.Sure, we don’t have Curry and the Warriors in the playoffs, but what fun is sport without surprises and novelty? What would the N.B.A. be without the steady emergence of fresh talent like Morant and his cast of young Grizzlies teammates, who now must prove themselves anew in their first-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, holders of the league’s best record, which began Sunday night?Last year, the N.B.A. reflected the mood of our society. Angered, standing up in the face of worry and fear.But if our sports are to be a mirror, they must also mirror our hope and joy and celebrate new genius.That’s what we’re seeing now: an N.B.A. still wary about the troubles of the past year but ready to do what it does best. Ready, as the playoffs of 2021 get underway, to put on a show. More