Jan 11, 2022; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzles guard Ja Morant (12) drives to the basket as Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins (22) defends during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Already one of the NBA’s surprise stories of the season, the Grizzlies figured to be a factor in the Western Conference. The ongoing ascension of Ja Morant would be appointment viewing in the postseason. And with the way Taylor Jenkins’ club scraps, Memphis would be a difficult out for any opponent in a seven-game series. Logic, however, dictated that more playoff dues had to be paid before the Grizzlies could realistically compete with the big boys.

That assumption may not apply anymore. After winning 10 consecutive games — and shooting up four spots in this week’s rankings to No. 3 — the Grizzlies could be primed to make noise now.

Their loudest statement to date was made Tuesday, when they absorbed every punch from the revitalized (and still top-ranked) Warriors and were left standing with an impressive 116-108 victory at FedExForum. It was Memphis’ second win of the season against Golden State, which didn’t have Draymond Green on Tuesday but had a healthy Green in the teams’ first meeting in October and still lost in overtime.

The Warriors won’t be the only team hoping not to face the Grizzlies in the playoffs. Suffocating defense is in the Memphis DNA, originating from the Grindhouse heyday of first-team all-defense Tony Allen and Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. This new group of tough, rugged defenders has the Grizz leading the NBA in rebounding (48.3 per game), steals (10.2) and blocks (6.3). Offensively, Memphis still does most of its damage closer to the rim, leading the league in offensive rebounding and percentage of points in the paint.

What’s different about this group is Morant, the sinewy 6-foot-3 point guard who seemingly raises his game to new heights every week. A combination of Derrick Rose and Allen Iverson, Morant is enjoying career bests in scoring (24.9 points per game), field-goal percentage (48.9), 3-point percentage (37.9), rebounding (5.7) and steals (1.3). His assists are down (6.7 per game), but so are his turnovers (3.1).

Perhaps the most impressive quality about the 22-year-old is his team-first attitude. Morant is the breakout star of the NBA season, producing nightly viral plays to boost his profile and brand, but he’s the unique franchise player who’s quick to deflect individual credit and place the spotlight on his teammates. Such humbleness belies his on-court swagger.

After Tuesday’s loss in Memphis, Warriors coach Steve Kerr praised the Grizzlies for drafting well, developing their talent and shaping a team identity with Morant as the focal point. “They’ve turned into one of the best teams in the league,” he said.

“They were on the brink and closing in on becoming a playoff team, and that requires a lot of work and a little bit of a leap of faith and a leap of belief,” Kerr added. “But once you make the playoffs like they did last year, then there’s a deeper sense of belief and confidence. And I think it shows in their play now.”

The Grizzlies might not be ready to make a championship run. But their presence in the postseason is sure to bring more unpredictability to the West playoffs.

Let’s look at the rest of the top 10 and catch up on the bottom five.

Records and statistics are through Jan. 11

The Top 10

1. Golden State Warriors (30-10, Last week: 1): Steph Curry’s career-low shooting numbers aren’t cause for concern — not yet anyway.

2. Phoenix Suns (31-9, LW: 2): After his beef with the Raptors mascot went viral — much to the delight of Twitter — Devin Booker didn’t leave the arena until he patched things up.

3. Memphis Grizzlies (29-14, LW: 7): Leave it to LeBron James to provide the best description of Ja Morant’s jet-propelled jumping ability.

4. Chicago Bulls (27-11, LW: 3): With a 2 1/2-game lead, Billy Donovan’s squad is starting to settle in as the East’s No. 1 seed.

5. Utah Jazz (28-13, LW: 4): They’ve lost three straight games and are entering a stretch of the season that could decide the team’s future. Also, Rudy Gobert tested positive again for COVID-19.

6. Milwaukee Bucks (26-17, LW: 6): The champs have dropped two straight, but really, their season doesn’t begin until April, when it’s time to defend their crown.

7. Brooklyn Nets (25-14, LW: 5): They’ve slipped from third to fifth to seventh in our rankings, but they’re still the betting favorite to win it all.

8. Miami Heat (25-15, LW: 8): They're still the East’s 3 seed despite having to rely on Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven and Kyle Guy, so why isn't Erik Spoelstra getting more Coach of the Year buzz?

9. Philadelphia 76ers (23-16, LW: 9t): They’ve won seven in a row and, not surprisingly, Joel Embiid has scored 30 or more points in each victory, averaging 32.9 points and 10.1 rebounds during the streak.

10. Dallas Mavericks (22-18, LW: Not ranked): They’ve won six straight despite Luka Doncic missing two games and Kristaps Porzingis missing five.

FALLING DOWN: Cleveland Cavaliers (23-18, LW: 9t).

The Bottom Five

30. Orlando Magic (7-34, Last week: 30): The ongoing rebuild by president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond got a big vote of confidence this week with their contract extensions through 2025-26.

29. Detroit Pistons (9-31, LW: 28t): Cade Cunningham has a new intriguing alley-oop partner in 7-foot-2 Bol Bol, who was acquired from the Nuggets.

28. Houston Rockets (11-31, LW: 28t): No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green has averaged 17.7 points on 44.2% shooting from the field (50 for 113), including 40.7% on 3-pointers (24 for 59), since returning from a hamstring injury.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-27, LW: 27): A case can be made for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander getting an All-Star nod.

26. New Orleans Pelicans (16-26, LW: 26): It’s still fun to watch Brandon Ingram drill a cold-blooded buzzer-beater.


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