Calmly, maybe unknowingly, Ja Morant uttered five words to set the stage for Friday night’s clash between Memphis and the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center (10 ET, ESPN).
During an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Wednesday, Morant was asked about the teams the Grizzlies might need to “run through” on the arduous journey to winning the franchise’s first NBA championship.
“Celtics,” he said.
Andrews then adeptly mentioned Morant referenced “no one in the West.”
“Nah,” the point guard said, shaking his head with a grin.
“I’m fine in the West.”
Surely, the Suns won’t agree with those sentiments Friday at tipoff, especially considering they finished last season with the NBA’s best record (64-18), and are just one game behind both Memphis and the Denver Nuggets for the lead in the Western Conference. This matchup featuring a pair of Kia Race to the MVP Ladder mainstays in Morant and Devin Booker loses a little shine since the latter is officially listed as out due to a groin injury.
Ranked 10th in this week’s edition of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Booker will miss his third consecutive game after scoring a season-high 58 points on 21-of-35 shooting Saturday to lead an epic Phoenix comeback victory against the New Orleans Pelicans. That performance marked the 26-year-old’s fifth 50-point outing, as he became the youngest player to tally five such games in his career since 2003 when Kobe Bryant accomplished the feat at 24.
As for Memphis, the Grizzlies enter this contest on a two-game skid after running off seven straight wins. That run included a 41-point thrashing on Dec. 15 of the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks, who are paced by former two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Morant reeled off 25 points in that game, before racking up 35 in Tuesday’s loss to reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. Sandwiched in between, the Grizzlies fell 115-109 on Saturday at Oklahoma City in a game Morant was ejected from just 43 seconds before halftime after picking up a second technical foul.
Morant finished that abbreviated appearance with six points on 3-of-10 shooting but remains in the top five of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, dropping one spot to fifth. Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant inches up to No. 4 and Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum to move up to third in the midst of Boston losing five of its last six.
Antetokounmpo and Jokic, meanwhile, occupy the top two positions in this reshuffling of the top five.
Durant and Antetokounmpo face off Friday at Barclays Center in a contest that will be televised nationally on NBATV.
And now, the Top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 31.6 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 5.1 apg
The latest NBA injury report lists Antetokounmpo as probable (left knee soreness) for Friday’s game against Durant and the Nets (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV). Antetokounmpo sat out of Saturday’s win against Utah due to left knee soreness, but he’s since put up back-to-back games with 40-plus points while shooting 65.9% from the field in addition to pulling down 10 rebounds or more. Counting the regular season and playoffs, Antetokounmpo’s latest scoring tear marks the fifth time in his career he’s scored 40-plus points in consecutive games. His current scoring average (31.6 ppg) is also a career-high by the way.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 24.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.2 apg
Seemingly every other night you hear some obscure statistic that puts Jokic’s name in with that of Wilt Chamberlain, and, at this point, you wonder whether he’ll join the latter as one of the players to win the MVP in three straight seasons. (Luckily, colleague Brian Martin already explored the possibility for our 2022-23 Kia Season Preview.) Jokic dropped a weird 13-13-13 stat line for his second straight triple-double in Tuesday’s win against Memphis. Two days prior, he became the first player — yes, since Chamberlain in 1968 — to finish a game with 40-plus points, 25-plus rebounds and 10 assists. In case you’re wondering, Larry Bird is the last player to win three consecutive MVPs.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 30.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg
Here’s the part where we tell Celtics fans not to fret because Tatum can move back into the No. 1 position just as quickly as he fell to third. Tatum missed Sunday’s loss to Orlando due to “personal reasons” and later it was reported that he skipped the game to celebrate the birthday of his son, Deuce. Kudos to Tatum, 24, for understanding what’s most important. In his first game back, Tatum dropped 41 points on 52% from the field in a Wednesday loss to the Indiana Pacers. So, Tatum certainly wasn’t rusty. But he’s got to help Boston find its way as it has gone from winning eight of nine (Nov. 23 to Dec. 7) to its current state of dropping five of its last six games (Dec. 10-21).
4. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 30.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.3 apg
Durant’s matchup with Antetokounmpo breaks the head-to-head tie between the two if we’re counting the playoffs. These two have matched up on 24 occasions total and the series is tied 12-12, with Antetokounmpo dialing up 43 points and 14 rebounds during an Oct. 26 bucks victory. That Brooklyn team was vastly different than what we’re expecting Friday at Barclays Center, as Durant has led a Nets resurgence. Understandably, the league leader in total points (934) receives plenty of accolades for his offensive acumen. But he’s been a leader on the defensive end, too, logging eight steals in his last five games for a Nets squad that is 12-3 in clutch games this season.
5. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 27.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 7.8 apg
Fingers crossed that we’ll see arguably the league’s most formidable backcourt duo together again Friday in Phoenix. The Grizzlies have listed shooting guard Desmond Bane as questionable (right big toe sprain) for the matchup against the Suns. Bane has missed 17 games with the toe injury, and make of it what you will, but Morant posted his backcourt mate’s jersey number Thursday in a cryptic tweet that may hint at the former’s looming return. It’s worth noting that although Morant and Bane made plenty of noise earlier in the season, the duo still hasn’t played a game with Jaren Jackson Jr., who sat out the first 14 games.
The Next Five:
6. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
T-7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
T-7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
9. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
10. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: not ranked)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Julius Randle, New York Knicks; Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings.
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him herefind his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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