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Spurs have no answers for Ja Morant in loss to the Grizzlies

The young star had a career night and led his team to a win despite the Spurs’ best efforts to stop him.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs closed the Rodeo Road Trip with a loss on their visit to Memphis. Despite doing a good enough job of staying close in the scoreboard for most of the game, they simply couldn’t contain Ja Morant at any point, as the Grizzlies’ star guard logged a career-high 52 points to lead his team to victory. The Silver and Black completed their eight-game road trip with a 4-4 record.

All eyes were on the Ja Morant vs. Dejounte Murray matchup to start the game, and early on it seemed like Murray was ready to make it interesting. He stole the ball from Morant in the first play of the game and made the runaway layup. From then on, unfortunately, Morant would absolutely dominate the duel. The Spurs simply had no answers for the superstar point guard, as he pushed the pace and attacked the basket to punish a San Antonio defense that was always a step too slow. The Silver and Black managed to stay close thanks to some timely threes and by being careful with the ball, but were exposed defensively. They allowed 40 points in the first period and were only in it because the Grizzlies had some struggles of their own getting stops.

With Morant and Murray resting, it was up to the second units to keep the offenses going, and at times they struggled. The Spurs’ did a good job of running when they could, which helped masked their lack of shooting, while Lonnie Walker IV made some shots in the halfcourt. The Grizzlies’ went into a mini slump that allowed the visitors to remain within striking distance despite De’Anthony Melton’s efforts, but did a good job on defense. The big shift in the game came when Morant once again took over. With the Spurs packing the paint and Jakob Poeltl in particular doing a good job of containing his drives in the half court, Morant started to rain threes instead. He was unstoppable for a stretch that included a thunderous dunk on the Spurs’ center on the break and a circus shot to beat the buzzer.

Despite the first half being the Ja Morant show, the Grizzlies failed to actually create meaningful separation, which came back to haunt them at the start of the third period when the Spurs played with more energy. The 10-point lead Memphis carried into the break disappeared a few minutes in, as Murray and Doug McDermott got hot and the defense prevented Morant from having as big of an impact as he had in the preceding quarters. San Antonio took advantage of a defense that was a little sloppy, likely due to the absence of the foul-ridden Jaren Jackson Jr., and got within one with three minutes to go after a couple Zach Collins free throws. Unfortunately, San Antonio wouldn’t score again in the frame while allowing an 11-point run that put Memphis back in control.

Anyone who has been watching these Spurs knows that they don’t quit, so there was a chance that they could actually make it a game while Morant was resting. They couldn’t really erase the deficit in that stretch, but they kept it manageable and got within five in the possessions following Morant’s return. Alas, the comeback was not meant to be, as the offense went through a drought just as Morant once again took over. Every time there was some space to attack, the Grizzlies’ point guard got to the paint and converted. The Spurs’ frustration was palpable, and it reached its apex when Dejounte Murray got ejected for throwing the ball at an official’s legs with 2:24 to go. The game essentially ended there, if it wasn’t over before. Memphis just managed the clock and handed the Spurs their fourth loss of the RRT.

Game notes

  • The Spurs have had issues defending the point of attack all season, so Morant going absolutely crazy shouldn’t be too surprising. The easy target to blame for his offensive explosion is Dejounte Murray, who guarded him most of the game, but one man is just not going to stop a player like Morant. Murray’s defense has been worse this season than in past years, but the 52-piece is not solely on him.
  • The bench, asides from Lonnie Walker IV, once again contributed very little. At this point it seems almost unnecessary to point it out, because it has been happening for a few games. Josh Richardson is probably not the answer here, but it wouldn’t hurt the Spurs to give him Keita Bates-Diop’s minutes and go small, like they used to when White was still around and Vassell was on the bench. Having two non-shooters in Tre Jones and KBD along with a questionably outside threat like Collins is too big of a disadvantage.
  • Speaking about the bench, there was an interesting moment involving Josh Primo. The young guard was not having a good game, but he was still getting minutes until late in the third quarter, when he allowed Kyle Anderson to get position on him near the rim and conceded and easy bucket after a high-low pass. Pop was not happy, so he subbed Richardson in for Primo, who would not check back in again.

It’s not the first time Primo has struggled with high-low passes. He simply needs to be more attentive and physical in those situations. The punishment was a little harsh, but it was a good teaching moment for the young guard.

Play of the night

We all know that Ja Morant had the play(s) of the night, but no Spurs fan wants to relive those, so let’s go with this Keldon Johnson dunk instead.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Doug McDermott | 14 points (4-for-7 from outside), five assists

The four three-pointers he had for the night are what should be expected from McDermott, since he’s a shooting specialist, but what gets him the nod over Dejounte Murray (an inefficient 21 points, eight assists) is his work on the third quarter and the fact that he dished out five dimes. If you actually look at them individually they are not impressive at all, but they show that McDermott is committed to keeping the ball moving, which is a valuable trait for someone who is viewed almost solely as a finisher.

2nd place (2 points) - Lonnie Walker IV | 22 points, three assists

Walker was not particularly efficient, since it took him 18 shots to get his team-leading 22 points and he missed five of his seven three-point attempts, but he once again did what he’s expected to: bring scoring off the bench. The rest of the second unit combined for just 12 points, so even if his game was far from perfect, Walker gets into the podium by simply doing his job decently.

1st place (3 points) - Jakob Poeltl | 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals, one block

Poeltl getting dunked into oblivion by Morant is all most people will remember about this game, but once again, the Spurs’ center did a good job overall. Battling Steven Adams all night is a tough job on its own, but Poeltl was often also tasked with keeping Morant in front of him on drives, and at times succeeded. Jak didn’t have a great game by any means — no Spur did — but he was solid on most areas, so he gets the top spot almost by default.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 93pts

2nd - Jakob Poeltl - 59pts

3rd - Derrick White- 51pts

4th - Keldon Johson - 42pts

5th - Devin Vassell- 41pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 27pts

7th - Doug McDermott - 16pts

8th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 11pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop - 6pts

11th - Jock Landale & Tre Jones - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

14th - Devontae Cacok - 1pt

Next game: Vs. Kings on Thursday

After an impressive 4-4 record on their road trip, the Spurs will return to San Antonio to host the Kings. It’s a game with serious play-in implications, so the Silver and Black will need to be focused. Hopefully the two days off they will have will help them be prepared.