Out of his former teammate’s shadow, Ja Morant’s time is now

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Ja Morant‘s time is now.

This season was supposed to be Zion Williamson’s time, and Morant has been in that shadow before.

Morant and Williamson were teammates years ago on the South Carolina Hornets, a smallish AAU team in the home state of both stars, the kind of program that didn’t have massive shoe company money or play in those circuits. Morant was entering his sophomore high school season, Williamson was just about to be a freshman — and Williamson’s legendary athleticism was just about to explode on the scene. With Morant feeding him Zion got noticed for his dunks, and we know the story from there: Williamson became an Internet sensation, Drake was wearing his jersey, he went to Duke and became the No. 1 pick.

Morant’s fluid athleticism kicked in later, so much later that he didn’t get college offers from the major powers and ended up at mid-major Murray State. Morant was good but didn’t look like an NBA franchise-changing player. At least until his sophomore year of college, when Morant found his game, shot up draft boards, and scouts struggled to project how the skinny, athletic kid would do when it was Kevin Love sliding over in help defense and not some undersized kid from Austin Peay.

Well…

Now is Morant’s time.

With Williamson sidelined by knee surgery, it is Morant who is running away in the Rookie of the Year race. It is Morant whose exploits have become SportsCenter favorites. It’s Morant and his Grizzlies who have become League Pass darlings.

Morant, still the overlooked mid-major kid in his own mind, shrugs it all off.

“[The Rookie of the Year race] is not my focus right now at all, I’m not worried about the hype, I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Morant said recently.

It’s not an act. The years in the relative shadows of smaller AAU programs and mid-major gyms taught him to be humble, keep his head down, and work hard. Now, even when the fans are noticing him and voting him 10th among West guards for the All-Star Game, it catches him off guard.

“Speechless, honestly,” Morant said of his reaction to the fan vote. “I didn’t see it until my family sent it to me.”

Other teams are noticing him, too — Morant is now the first name on the scouting report for every team going against Memphis.

“Watching the first game when we played them, he has great control with his speed and, he kinda got everyone involved early then tried to take over late. That’s kind of rare for a rookie,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said recently of Morant.

Which gets to what has most impressed the Grizzlies about Morant — he’s a fast learner. Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins described Morant as a “super coachable kid.”

“Now you see teams are throwing a lot at him, I’m sure he’s on top of every scouting report,” Jenkins said. “He’s seeing different coverages throughout any single game, different matchups, he’s having to learn on the fly, and I think from a game-to-game standpoint he really dives into how teams are covering him and how he can be effective, not just as a scorer but more as a playmaker…

“It may be a new matchup, a new coverage, but he learns on the fly pretty fast. He and I have dialogues during games sometimes ‘Hey, they’re in center field right now,’ or ‘they adjusted the blitz,’ or ‘they’re in red.’ It may take a few possessions to figure out, but he’s in constant dialogue with myself and more importantly with his teammates about how to attack.”

Morant came into the league a guy who liked the film room.

“When we first sat down he said, ‘I love to watch film, I love to talk the game, learn the game,’” Jenkins said. “When we ask who he wants to go up against every night he says ‘whoever I can learn from.’…

“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…. the assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three ball better. As a three-point shooter he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”

Which is scary because he already looks like a franchise cornerstone. Morant already sees his game compared to that or Russell Westbrook and the other elite athletic point guards around the league. The league’s best players are taking notice.

“Most of the top guys in the league said they was in my corner if I needed anything to ask… after the game some of the guys are telling me to stay humble, keep going,” Morant said when asked what players are saying to him after games.

“I just go out there and try and be me, obviously, to stay with what I do and continue to be Ja. Try to control the pace and be in control. I’m an unselfish guy so I’m looking for my teammates.”

Morant is averaging 17.8 points and 6.9 assists a game — counting stats that could be higher if Jenkins and the Grizzlies didn’t intentionally keep his minutes around 30 a night. Morant is seventh in total minutes played among rookies. Ask the Grizzlies about it and the talk is about the long-term, that Morant is a guy who needs to get stronger to avoid injury, how the team is teaching him to use some finesse around the basket, and how Memphis is not looking to run its young star into the ground to chase an eight seed.

The Grizzlies are thinking long term.

“I think he’s just scratching the surface…” Jenkins said of Morant’s potential. “When we studied him coming out of college this was going to be a guy who came in super hungry, competitive, he’s all about the team and how he can impact winning.”

The Grizzlies are challenging him to improve his body, become a better defender, and become more consistent from three. They like how he’s responded to the challenge.

“When you see that athleticism and combine it with that vision — what he can see late, early — it’s impressive. You tack on the skill of three-point shooting and the competitiveness and the unselfishness, we’ve got an impressive young man there.”

They do.

And his time is now.

LeBron James passes Magic Johnson for sixth all-time in assists

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Magic Johnson is one of the greatest, most creative passers the game has ever seen.

Friday night, LeBron James passed Magic for sixth all-time in assists in the NBA. For LeBron, doing that in a Lakers’ jersey like Magic wore was special.

It happened with 8:41 remaining left in the game, LeBron found Anthony Davis for a 3-pointer on the right wing.

LeBron finished the night with 11 assists and 28 points, which along with a monster 44-point night from Anthony Davis led the Lakers to an impressive win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 

 

 

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.