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Steph, Morant first clash comes with playoff implications

NBC Sports

He is electrifying and relentless and provocative enough that in the first quarter of his 35th NBA game, he unleashed a profanity-laced warning upon an established MVP.

“Tell that m----------r about me,” Ja Morant barked after draining a 3-pointer against James Harden’s comically indifferent defense.

Yeah, a skinny point guard halfway through his rookie season went at Harden.

And now, 16 months later, in the final game of his second regular season, Morant will take his first shot at the king: Steph Curry, a two-time MVP on the brink of his second NBA scoring title.

When the Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies meet Sunday in the game that will decide the No. 8 seed in Western Conference play-in tournament, the spotlight will stalk Curry and Morant. As it should.

The cheekiest member of the league’s New School is knocking on the door of the man most responsible for the direction of not only the NBA, but basketball around the globe.

This is Golden State’s most consequential regular-season finale since the “We Believe” Warriors won the final game of the 2007 season to grabbed the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. The Warriors have won five in a row, 14 of their last 19.

Memphis, to the surprise of many, slipped into the play-in tournament last season but was bumped out by the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers. So, naturally, the Grizzlies recover and come back with an edge. They, too, have won their last five games.

“I have watched most of their games in recent weeks, really been dialed in,” Warriors guard Mychal Mulder said Friday night. “Most of the team would say that they do the same. At the end of the day, it is more about us.”

 

“More about us” is a code for “We’re riding with Steph.”

There is additional intrigue within the Curry-Morant matchup: They’ve never faced each other. Curry was out with a fractured hand when the teams met last season and he bruised his tailbone two days before the teams split two games March 19-20 in Memphis.

There’s an element of mystery, always good for drama.

Then there’s another twist. Curry and Morant already have, um, gotten acquainted.

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You may recall the summer of 2019, when Andre Iguodala, expecting to be traded by the Warriors, told us that he joked with his wife that “I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s--t.” He did. But he never played a game with the rebuilding Grizzlies, arranging a deal that landed him with the playoff-bound Miami Heat.

Iguodala’s comments made it back to Memphis, with Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks responding to the slight with a social-media dart. When Curry went to social media in defense of Iguodala, Morant went after Curry, tweeting a picture of Kevin Durant posing with the NBA Finals MVP trophy.

Yeah, he did that. Morant, as indicated early, shows no mercy.

Curry reached out to Morant via direct messaging, and the two had what by all accounts was a friendly back-and-forth that led to an understanding.

“I still respect Curry as a player and person,” Morant told the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal 15 months ago. “But like I said, I’m a competitor at the end of the day. Felt like everybody in this league lace their shoes up like I do, so there’s no point for me to be scared of anybody.”

Indeed, Ja last month took to Twitter to comment on Steph’s scoring rampage. When the NBA Central Twitter account posted Curry’s stats from a four-game stretch in early April, Morant responded with a one-word quote tweet – “sheesh” – next to a cold-face emoji.

The mutual respect is there. So is the fire that always seems to burn within smallish guards from mid-majors that enter the NBA to the sound of skepticism. Damian Lillard (Weber State) and CJ McCollum (Lehigh) have it, as does Fred VanVleet (Wichita State).

Curry (Davidson) and Morant (Murray State) have it in spades. It’s a crucial ingredient to Curry’s greatness and it’s driving Morant in the same direction.

They’re the most dazzling players on either team, Curry the most watchable player in the NBA and Morant already in the top five.  And they’re sharing the stage in a regular-season game that, considering the stakes, feels like much more.

Both have outstanding teammates, but this particular show will be about them. Morant, 21, wants to wield the torch carried by Curry. But Curry, at age 33, shows not the slightest sign he’s ready to pass it.

 

Clear the way for Game 72. Make room for the battle of the young prince and the enduring king. Bring plenty of popcorn.

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