- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print.
This week, we feature amazing — and season-long! — interior defense from the 6-foot-3 Ja Morant, clever new moves from an MVP and two rising Blazers, then show some love for “The Legend of Zelda” and its gold cartridge.
1. Ja Morant’s rim protection was a thing before The Block
We witnessed man take flight in Los Angeles on Sunday, when Morant — the snarling, trash-talking, audacious soul of the league’s hottest team — rose from the dotted line to impale Avery Bradley’s shot into the backboard.
Morant was moving up and forward, on an diagonal trajectory like a rising stock price, up until the second he obliterated Bradley’s layup. He almost literally resembled a superhero taking to the skies.
But it’s the tranquility that makes the play — makes you tremble at what possibilities this comet of a point guard holds within him. Morant floated down from the heavens after the block, landed easily on two feet, and jogged the ball up the floor as if nothing remarkable had happened — as if the block was no big deal, a feat of revenge he expected to execute the moment Bradley stole the ball from him.
Morant has been leaping in front of enemy layups with ferocity and precision all season:
That is Morant fulfilling his job as low man, with verticality that would make Roy Hibbert proud.
There he is thwarting another fast break — this time against Stephen Curry during the Memphis Grizzlies’ statement win Tuesday.
Morant has played the best defense of his career since returning from injury, and the Grizz rank sixth in points allowed per possession in that stretch. Watching the franchise player fling himself into (sometimes) unglamorous parts of defense has a catalyzing effect on chemistry. It sets the tone for the team — defines what it stands for.
One reason Morant is the real deal as a franchise player is that he never carries himself as if the franchise belongs to him. One of Morant’s clutch buckets against Golden State came on a catch-and-go drive out of a Tyus Jones pick-and-roll; Jones was cooking, and Morant was happy to cede some late-game offense to him. (Jones unlocked a new level of aggression when Morant was out, and has sustained it; the Grizz are plus-7 per 100 possessions when their two point guards play together.)
Earlier in that game, Morant slowed down in semi-transition, pitched the ball back to Desmond Bane, and in one motion screened off Bane’s man to create a trail 3. Morant could outrun everyone if he wanted, but he senses when slowing down might open a pocket of space for a teammate.
He also dunked out of a backdoor cut; Morant entered the league with an advanced off-ball game — rare for a young point guard. He doesn’t just cut to score, either; he cuts to suck in attention that might create a shot for someone else.
This guy is special. The Grizz — having just passed the Utah Jazz for No. 3 in the West — might be, too, and way ahead of schedule.
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