The Grizzlies weren’t ready for the moment against Portland, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be

Carmelo Anthony missed the wide open 3-pointer, Ja Morant collected the loose ball and then he began racing down court in the final seconds of a tie game. At that moment, everybody watching this unfold on television in Memphis had to be thinking the same thing, right?

Here was Morant’s most iconic play yet. A coast-to-coast buzzer beater in the Grizzlies’ first game that counts in 143 days. Against one of their biggest threats for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, no less. 

We all know what happened next. Morant weaved through traffic, slipped on a wet spot and fell to the court as the horn sounded. Memphis was never the same and Portland, in the words of Jaren Jackson Jr., “went crazy” in overtime.

The Grizzlies weren’t quite ready for the moment in their official debut inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble. But it doesn’t mean they won’t be.

“One game,” Coach Taylor Jenkins said, “is not going to dictate what the outcome is going to be at the end of this.”

This was arguably the most significant game the franchise has played since its last playoff game in 2017.  

This was a team full of 20-somethings, a team nobody predicted to be in this position at the start of the season, experiencing playoff intensity for the first time against an opponent who’s been through this rodeo many times before. 

This was exactly what Memphis needed, even if it came up short. Even if this adds more pressure to the Grizzlies’ games against San Antonio Sunday afternoon, and against New Orleans Monday night. 

This was, most importantly, a whole lot of fun. Even if all of Memphis couldn’t be in FedExForum together to collectively hold their breath, and wave their Growl Towels, and “Whoop That Trick” Friday night.

A pandemic, as it turned out, can’t ruin the rush of a playoff push.

That much was clear watching Morant soar through the air, his head at rim level when he caught the lob from Brandon Clarke with two hands, and threw down an alley oop dunk with so much force, it might’ve burst the NBA’s bubble. Or when Jackson started throwing in rainbow 3-pointers from all over the place, and coming out of nowhere to block shots.

Or when Clarke jumped like a pogo stick again, or dropped in one of those effortless floaters. Or when Jonas Valanciunas played bully ball in the paint once more.

The Grizzlies we remembered from nearly five months ago were there on our screen again. They were thrilling then, and they’re thrilling now. But they were also young then, and they’re still young now. Especially Morant and Jackson. 

If it wasn’t obvious already, Friday’s loss proved once more that the Grizzlies will only go as far as Morant and Jackson can take them. Now, and into the future. 

Debate Dillon Brooks’ ill-advised shots down the stretch, or Jenkins’ too-big-for-the-bubble rotation, or the impact the injury to Tyus Jones had, or the inconsistent defense, or the missed free throws, all you want. They were all issues, and they are all concerns moving forward.

But when Morant and Jackson are clicking like they were during that spectacular 30-6 third-quarter run, nobody competing with the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed is better. 

The problem, of course, is that playoff games — and that’s what Friday felt like — are won in the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies led by nine with under six minutes to go and had four empty possessions in a row with a chance to extend that advantage to double digits. 

Veterans Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Anthony knew better than to waste the opening Memphis gave them late.

So Morant will learn that he can’t just be assertive after halftime, and he said as much afterwards. 

“I put this loss on me. I got to be better in the first half,” Morant said, which was the right sentiment even if it wasn’t totally accurate.

Because this wasn’t, despite the result and despite the discouraging overtime, a reason to worry. The Grizzlies are still 2.5 games ahead of Portland in the standings. Their ahead-of-schedule regular season, and the NBA’s restart format, provided a cushion.

There will be more moments in the days and weeks ahead, and more tense fourth quarters, for Morant and company to prove they won’t slip and fall.

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto

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