Ja Morant was rolling, making acrobatic drives to the basket. Stephen Curry was taking and knocking down step-back threes.
Yes, the All-Star guards got plenty of help in Game 1 of the Memphis Grizzlies-Golden State Warriors playoff series, but they didn’t disappoint in the opener of their highly-anticipated showdown.
“Oh yeah, friendly competition, just enjoying the moment,” Curry said after the Warriors took Game 1 on Sunday 117-116. “Understanding the big play. He had it going you know, he was going to try to get pressure on the rim, and it’s trying to do my part obviously.”
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There is no question two-time NBA MVP Curry and the league’s Most Improved Player in Morant did their parts.
Morant was nearly unstoppable. After scoring with Jonathan Kuminga defending him, Morant emphatically proclaimed: “He. Can’t. Guard. Me.” For stretches, it appeared no one was to be able to defend Morant, who came close to a triple-double with 34 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.
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But down the stretch Curry – who had 24 points and was 5 of 12 outside the arc – and the Warriors found a way.
The Golden State Warriors held on to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in an enthralling Game 1 contest in their Western Conference semi-final series
Known more for his offense as a two-time scoring champ, Curry had a huge block as he swatted away a layup attempt by Morant with 20 seconds left. Teammate Klay Thompson had the big defensive play, forcing Morant to miss the would-be game-winning layup as time expired.
“Every game it’s going to be kind of a one-on-one type of situation,” Curry said. “Taking on all those challenges, you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some. Now obviously you just be ready for when your moment happens on the defensive end.”
Morant said he simply missed the layup at the buzzer, but he had it going from 3-point range, hitting as many (four) as he did in all of the first round against Minnesota. If that continues, he will be even tougher to contain.
Image: Ja Morant moves towards the basket as Stephen Curry stays in close attention behind him
Thompson said Morant making threes forces opponents to pick their poison with his speed to the basket. Morant led the NBA in scoring in the paint, averaging 16.6 points a game during the regular season.
“When he gets in the lane and gets other guys involved, that’s when they’re really dangerous,” Thompson said. “We just tried to limit his impact around the rim because obviously he’s one of the best NBA when it comes to finishing down there and kicking out the 3-point shooters.”
Golden State coach Steve Kerr agrees. The Warriors spent the past few days figuring out how to best defend Morant, and that’s why Gary Payton II started the first game of this series, to help defend the Grizzlies guard.
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“He’s a great, great player for a reason,” Kerr said. “No matter what you throw at him, he’s going to get his numbers. I think what you have to do is try to decide, like I said, what’s the best strategy with our personnel and what’s the best way to try and win the game. Do you limit him? Do you limit other guys?”
Morant scored 14 in the first quarter as Payton picked up two quick fouls before going to the bench. Payton called the challenge of defending Morant fun, though it’s probably not how everyone would like to spend an afternoon.
As for the missed layup, Morant’s teammates couldn’t believe it didn’t go in.
Ja Morant throws it down hard for a huge alley-oop slam in Game 1 between the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors
“It’s a shot he can make in his sleep,” Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. said. “He had a running start and his body was really going forward, so this is just a little hard but he knows. I’m with that shot every day of the week.”
Basketball fans might want to stay with this series the next few games.
The rush of live NBA Playoffs games continues on Sky Sports this week – see the list of games here and subscribe to watch the live action.