NEW YORK — After Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant completed his first triple-double of the season, and the fourth of his career, Sunday evening at Madison Square Garden in a win over the Knicks, he had a problem.
Morant, who finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high-tying 14 assists in the Grizzlies’ 127-123 win over New York, had already planned on giving his jersey away to Derrick Rose, whom he’s modeled his game after. But, for the first time in his career, Morant said, his father, Tee, had asked for his jersey, too.
“It was kind of awkward,” Morant said with a smile afterward. “I had already planned to give it away to D-Rose. At first I told [my dad], ‘I’m already giving it away, man.'”
Like every other problem on this night, however, Morant had a solution for it: After changing into a new jersey during the game, he was able to give one to both his father and Rose after all.
As it usually seems to for Morant and the Grizzlies, things worked out just fine, as Morant — playing without running mate Desmond Bane, who remains out with a toe injury — dissected everything Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau and his players threw at him throughout the game, playing a large role in the Grizzlies getting to 32 assists on the night before making what became the game-winning bucket on a layup with 13.9 seconds to go.
“We were double-teaming him, we were doing a lot of stuff, and his playmaking, he didn’t fight it,” Thibodeau said after the Knicks (9-11) lost for the fourth time in five games. “He just made the right play.
“He’s a fast break unto himself, he’s an offense unto himself, and he reads the game well.”
Morant certainly did Sunday night, as he gave the Knicks — and their fans — a glimpse of what could’ve been.
Three and a half years ago, after New York had the worst record in the NBA in the 2018-19 season, it entered the NBA draft lottery hoping to get the top pick, and Zion Williamson. Instead, the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis leapt up from the middle of the pack to the first and second picks, respectively, getting Williamson and Morant, while New York fell to third, where it took RJ Barrett.
Morant admitted after Sunday’s game that it was special for him to have a triple-double at a place he watched so many games on television as a kid — which was why his father made the unusual request for his jersey.
“It’s just the bright lights, man. Having a triple-double in the Garden is crazy. Growing up actually watching teams come here and play, watching the Knicks play … everybody loves the Garden. We really called it the bright lights. Everybody is watching,” Morant said.
“So for me to be able to go out and play like I played tonight, was big time for me.”
The Grizzlies needed every bit of his brilliance, too, as New York got a balanced attack led by Jalen Brunson (30 points, nine assists) and Barrett (22 points, seven rebounds, four assists) while shooting just over 50 percent from the field.
But while Brunson got two chances to either tie or put the Knicks ahead inside the final minute, a jumper and then a floater off a drive, he missed them both, ensuring Memphis would come away with the win.
“I told him they were throwing the kitchen sink at him, and he had a big smile on his face,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Tons of credit to Ja. Triple-double in the books, 14 assists. Really proud. He was in attack mode early. Credit the Knicks, with their size and length, they put him in some tough spots, but then once the ball started moving early in possessions, coming off pick-and-rolls, he was having to do it against different coverages.
“[But] tons of credit to him for figuring out how to manipulate the offense, especially crunch-time late. We had some great execution there knowing that for 48 minutes they were throwing different looks at him but we were prepared and he was prepared and executed beautifully.”