Warriors

Will Ja, Grizzlies be Warriors' new rival in Western Conference?

Warriors
Steph Curry, Ja Morant

The message was sent loud and clear Tuesday night in Memphis as Ja Morant, and the Grizzlies beat the Warriors for the second time this season, notching a 116-108 victory over Golden State at FedEx Forum.

"I bet you we've got it now," Morant said about the respect the Grizzlies have been chasing. "I bet you we've got it now."

For the Warriors (30-10), Tuesday night's game was really the first step in a feeling-out process to discover how life with Klay Thompson back will operate. With Thompson back, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole must slide down a peg into new roles, the bench rotation needs to be juggled, and the Warriors will have to find a new identity over the next month.

But the Warriors are keenly aware of the threat Morant and the Grizzlies pose. Memphis bounced the Warriors from the play-in tournament last season and has handed the Warriors two of their 10 losses this year. Morant is an ascendant talent, and the Grizzlies have a deep roster filled with young, athletic talent that is champing at the bit to breakthrough.

"They obviously got us last year in the play-in game and got us twice this year, and we got them once, so it's a natural evolution of a team trying to take that next step," Curry said of the Grizzlies on Tuesday.

"The big part is you talk about it right now; you've got to show it in the playoffs. We want to be there to try to do that. I know they want to, too. Nobody's trying to win the verbal conversation right now of who we are in January."

 

During the Warriors' run to five straight NBA Finals, it was James Harden and the Houston Rockets who emerged as their biggest Western Conference obstacle. Daryl Morey's obsession with besting the Warriors and Harden's frustrating style of play fueled an intense rivalry that burned hot right up until Curry put the final dagger in the Rockets during the 2019 Western Conference semifinals.

The Warriors return to the NBA's main stage in a different Western Conference. As they embark on what they hope is the second part of a dynastic run, a new rival will have to emerge.

"Darkness rises and light to meet it," Snoke told Rey in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

That which applies to the Jedi and Sith also applies to the great teams of the Western Conference.

The Warriors are back, and thus a new rival will have to appear.

It was expected to be LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. That doesn't appear likely given the Lakers' issues on the defensive end and Russell Westbrook's struggles to be the running mate James needs with Anthony Davis out.

The Phoenix Suns appear a likely option. They own the West's best record and are coming off a Finals loss last season. Indeed Suns-Warriors has had a budding rivalry feel to it early this season. The Warriors are revolutionaries. The Suns have risen to the top by perfecting existing trends within the game. Both teams are stout defensively and have incredibly starting fives.

But Morant and the Grizzlies are starting to make their case that they, the hungry, up-and-coming team are more likely to be a thorn in the Warriors' side in the coming years.

Since Thanksgiving, the Grizzlies rank first in the NBA in net rating, defensive rating, rebounds, blocks, steals and win percentage. They are led by a star in Morant who, at 22, could be the one to take the best guard in the league crown from Curry when the time comes. They have a pesky, annoying defender in Dillon Brooks and an athletic, budding big man in Jaren Jackson Jr. Their key players are all 25 and under and Memphis has the build of a team who can give the Warriors fits in a series.

In short, they are damn good and have nothing to lose.

The Grizzlies have even drawn comparison to a young Warriors team, something Thompson doesn't quite agree with, although he knows the threat they could pose come playoff time.

“Umm. They’re a good team," Thompson said Tuesday. "Their record reflects that. But I don’t know, man our team is pretty unique. We've kind of -- especially in those early championship years -- kind of changed the way the game was played. Yeah, they're a good team, a tough one in the West, a possible playoff matchup down the road. We need to not take them lightly."

 
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Of course, Thompson is looking at it from the lens of revolutionizing basketball, which these Warriors did. But it's easy to see this young Grizzlies team, led by Morant, Brooks, Jackson and Desmond Bane, and see the 2013 Warriors who wanted to make noise in the playoffs and prove they have arrived.

In sports, the balancing act between experience and innocence is a tough one to traverse. But sometimes the hardest opponent to knock out is one that isn't scared and has nothing to lose.

That perfectly encapsulates a Grizzlies team brimming with youthful confidence who believes they belong with the Warriors.

As the Warriors look to return to their perch atop the Western Conference, a new challenger has risen from the ashes of the Grind House. One who Golden State could be seeing a lot of in the battles to come.