Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers

Ja Morant and Damian Lillard played a crazy game of poker

Damian Lillard and Ja Morant raised each other over and over again as their teams battled for a crucial win and playoff position.

With the Grizzlies and Trail Blazers engaged in a battle for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, Wednesday night’s game held all sort of significance. What normally might have been a mailed-in regular season hand-wave on the last night before the All-Star break turned out to be a hard-fought battle featuring two of the most interesting point guards around.

Ja Morant has been making waves since opening night, leading the upstart Grizzlies into the playoff race and taking a stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year race. Everyone knew about his explosive athleticism before the season began but he’s been shockingly good as a shooter and game-manager. Lillard, meanwhile, has been better than ever, even as the Trail Blazers are crumbling around him.

The Grizzlies came away with a seven-point win, extending their lead in the standings and neither player shone, exactly. Lillard finished with 20 points and 10 assists but also 4 turnovers and 7-of-19 shooting. Morant had 20 and 9 but was 9-of-23 from the floor and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. They weren’t matched up exclusively throughout the game but there was still plenty of fun back-and-forth one-upmanship. Here’s how it played out.

“I say of”

The threat of Lillard’s shooting is so powerful, a defender has to be ready to chase aggressively over the top of every screen and far out beyond the 3-point line. Lillard’s been leveraging that as effectively as ever this season, averaging more drives per 36 minutes than last season, finishing at a much higher rate and turning slightly more of those drives into assists as well.

In the third quarter, with the Blazers trailing by double-digits Lillard used Morant’s quick-twitch against him, carrying him out above the screen and slicing past him to drop the pocket-pass to Hassan Whiteside for the dunk.

Lillard is not afraid of throwing a gauntlet or two and he makes a point of staring down Morant as he heads back up the floor.

“You say a”

Morant may not create as much space beyond the arc with shooting gravity but his long strides and incredible first step mean he doesn’t often need as much to create something special. Just a few minutes after Lillard gave him the business at the other end, Morant hits him with the hesitation, blows by, freezes Whiteside with a slight head feint and then drops in a Lillard-esque teardrop.

Morant doesn’t stare down Lillard but he at least takes time to spot him and see if there is any eye contact to be had.

“I say revolution”

Lillard drilled one signature deep 3-pointer in the first quarter but made just one of his next four outside shots as the game moved deeper into the third quarter. Instead, Lillard shows Morant that his offensive revolution will be fought on any many fronts, taking him inside the arc and hitting him with the step back jumper.

The fact that he didn’t actually lose Morant at all speaks both to Morant’s athleticism and intensity in this matchup and Lillard’s incredible shot-making ability. No staredown from Lillard this time but he took the time to give it the fan standing on the sideline, popping his mouth off.

“and you say Jah.”

In the fourth quarter, with that double-digit margin holding, Morant separated himself from again. It wasn’t individual brilliance as much as making the simple plays, leaning on the incredible young supporting cast that is coming up around him — a group that already appears to have more potential than anything that has coalesced around Lillard.

Carmelo Anthony (who was 1-of-15 in the game) is presented with the decision to switch and step out on Morant or retreat to make space for CJ McCollum and cut off the paint from Brandon Clarke. I think we’re all familiar with Anthony’s defensive decision tree at this point — it’s a flow chart with all arrows pointing to “just kind of stand there.” Clarke comes free and Morant hits him with the easy lob.

Game, set, match… point… Morant… game over… end of game.

In the end, this was Morant’s game. At the risk of going all-in and losing it all on the insights from a single game, it may also turn out to be his final playoff spot in the West and his future pedestal as the Western Conference’s premier point guard.

Next: Who is the best NBA Slam Dunk Contest performer ever?

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