Analysis | For Ja Morant, an all-time poster dunk to go with his all-time block



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As Ja Morant spent his first four seasons racking up individual honors and transforming the Memphis Grizzlies into one of the NBA’s most entertaining shows, he nevertheless found himself chasing a white whale.

The highflying guard earned rookie of the year, most improved player, all-star and all-NBA honors, but a clean poster slam that encapsulated all of his dunking attributes — bounce, hang time, fearlessness, spontaneity and ferocious finishing ability — had eluded him. Before this weekend, Morant’s best effort came in the 2022 playoffs against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when he scaled Malik Beasley for a slam that was famously dubbed the “Ja-Breaker” by TNT announcer Ian Eagle.

Otherwise, many of Morant’s most adventurous attempts, such as a near miss over Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love in 2019, were close calls that he couldn’t quite complete. League Pass die-hards have long chuckled over Morant’s unmatched ability to go viral on social media even if his attempt clangs off the back rim or the ball slips from his fingertips.

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After years of titillating tremors, Morant erupted volcanically Saturday with a soaring, cocked-back poster slam that he said was “easily” the best dunk of his career. The 23-year-old star credited his new Nike signature sneakers for providing the extra boost he had long needed.

“It’s what everyone has been waiting for,” Morant said. “I finally made it.”

This was a dunk for the ages, a perfect partner for Morant’s block of Avery Bradley last year, a two-handed chase-down on the Los Angeles Lakers guard that conjured memories of Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

With a little more than four minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Grizzlies’ 130-112 thrashing of the Pacers, Morant set up a high pick and roll with forward Santi Aldama on the right side of the court. The Pacers switched the screen, allowing Morant to size up forward Oshae Brissett near the three-point line. Morant feinted right, causing Brissett to slide toward the sideline. Seizing the opportunity with his defender out of position, Morant used a quick right-to-left crossover dribble and headed straight for the open paint. Here, Morant merged Chris Paul’s ability to string out a defender with a young Derrick Rose’s lateral quickness and acceleration into open space.

“[The Pacers] had been blitzing him,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said. “They had been up. He was navigating little cracks and seams to get downhill.”

As Morant entered the paint, he gathered himself with full momentum off two feet as Jalen Smith rotated over from the weak side. The 6-foot-9 Smith, a 2020 lottery pick out of Maryland, has averaged almost a block per game since arriving in Indiana last season, and he was well-positioned to contest Morant’s drive. Smith jumped off both feet from just inside the circle and maintained verticality with both of his arms. To get to the rim, Morant would have to go over or through him.

Angling his body slightly to shield the defender as he rose from the hardwood, Morant cuffed the ball in his right hand and stretched his arm back as far as he could, almost parallel to the court, as he flew toward the hoop. Smith attempted a block with his right hand, but Morant hovered past him as his leftward momentum carried him to the front of the rim. The ball was now directly above his head.

“Jump with me if you want to go viral,” Morant wrote on Twitter after the game.

Once he had evaded Smith, Morant uncorked a pile-driver finish, bringing the ball down through the rim with his right hand with such force that the recoil sent him stumbling. Thankfully, Grizzlies center Steven Adams was nearby to help Morant steady himself upon landing.

Morant then stared at Memphis’s bench as his teammates hugged one another and the crowd roared. One fan in the baseline seats celebrated by tapping his head — the signal for a posterization — even though he was wearing a Pacers jersey. Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. tap-danced with joy.

“That’s probably going to go down as the dunk of the year,” Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane said.

The seven-inch height difference between Morant and Smith, coupled with Smith’s positioning and block attempt, recalled Baron Davis dunking over Andrei Kirilenko in 2007 and Jordan finishing over Patrick Ewing in 1991. The midair mano-a-mano helped this dunk surpass the “Ja-Breaker” — the 6-4 Beasley was ground-bound and merely trying to take a charge when Morant dunked over him.

“The takeoff spot to where the defender was right at the rim was really impressive,” Jenkins said. “That’s a hard finish. Obviously, that was an emphatic play for us. That’s his God-given ability, great execution and picking your spots to be aggressive.”

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Memphis has won nine straight games, and it enters Monday’s action with the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed and dreams of reaching the conference finals for just the second time in franchise history. Morant is a shoo-in for his second all-star selection, and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell encouraged him to participate in the dunk contest at next month’s showcase in Salt Lake City.

Morant has pooh-poohed that idea in the past, but his participation would add a level of buzz not seen since Zach LaVine. Then again, so much of Morant’s brilliance lies in his improvisation, and so many of his drives to the hoop, whether he finishes with dunks, layups or floaters, rely on last-second adjustments to his flight path. Even with weeks of planning, a choreographed routine and a selection of props, he might not be able to top what he did to Smith on a random January Saturday night in Indianapolis.

“When we look back on Ja’s in-game dunk highlights when it’s all said and done, it’s gonna be up there with some of the greatest ever,” Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett said.


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