Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Ja Morant goes right at James Harden, wins the night. For much of Tuesday night, Ja Morant was treating James Harden like the Beard has treated so many helpless big men over the past few years: When Harden got switched onto Morant the rookie would step back, call for a clear out, then embarrass the defender who could not keep up with him.
It was like that all night, and Morant was not afraid to call out Harden more than once for his defense.
“The doubters said I couldn’t shoot, I’m proving them wrong,” Morant said in his walk-off interview after his 26-point, eight assist night that sparked Memphis to a 121-110 win over the Rockets.
If Harden was one of those doubters, he is no longer.
Morant is running away with the Rookie of the Year award that his former AAU teammate in South Carolina Zion Williamson was expected to run away with. Morant is out of Zion’s shadow and has become must-watch television in his own right every time he steps on the court with his amazing passing and fluid athleticism.
“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said recently of his young star. 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.”
Harden still had 41 on the night but on 13-of-37 shooting. Russell Westbrook sat out for rest (he has done that on half of back-to-backs all season, and the Rockets host Portland tonight).
2) The Utah Jazz winning streak reaches 10 with a win in Brooklyn. Last summer, the Jazz made adding offense the priority — no more “great defense and hope Donovan Mitchell is enough” in the playoffs, the Jazz wanted more guys who could go get buckets.
Utah is on a 10-game winning streak — after knocking off the Nets in Brooklyn Tuesday night 118-107 — and it’s the offense that is driving the streak. In its last 10 games, the Jazz have an offensive rating of 122, best in the NBA over that stretch. The defense has been just average over that same stretch (and fallen to eighth in the league for the season), but it hasn’t mattered because the Jazz offense is on a roll. Utah has won 15-of-16 because of that improved offense.
Joe Ingles has thrived once forced back into a starter’s role (because Mike Conley is out with a hamstring issue), and he led the Jazz with 27 points on Tuesday. Bojan Bogdanovic has been impressive of late, having found a comfort level within the offense. Mitchell remains Utah’s go-to scorer and has averaged 21.4 points per game over the last 10.
Before anyone wants to argue “Utah can hang with the Lakers/Clippers,” there are caveats. Only one of those last 10 wins came against a team with a winning record (the Clippers). Utah’s defense needs to get back to locking teams down again. Finally, Mike Conley is going to return, and the Jazz need to find a way to integrate him into the offense. Come the playoffs — and especially the second round and beyond — teams are going to take away the pet plays and easy buckets the Jazz get from their system and it’s going to come down to individual shot creators. Mitchell can do that, but he needs help (as last year’s playoffs showed). Bogdanovic can pitch in, but that will be why Utah needs Conley and his pick-and-roll skills.
For now though, the Jazz have won 10 in a row and look like a potential threat in the West. Which is what the Utah front office wanted when it made all those summer moves.
3) Kawhi Leonard dominates, scores 43 points in fewer than 30 minutes on the court. When this Kawhi Leonard shows up, there’s nothing anyone can do — especially anyone on this Cavaliers roster.
Leonard got inside and shot 5-of-7 in the paint, hit 6-of-10 from three, dominated on defense, and put up 43 points in 28:44 of court time. Check out his shot chart.
Or, just watch the ridiculous highlights.
Consider this just a mid-season reminder that Leonard can take over a game as well as anyone in the league right now. When this Leonard shows up in the playoffs — with Paul George next to him — the Clippers become a very difficult team to beat.
BONUS THING TO KNOW: Trae Young can hit from anywhere (and wants your All-Star vote).