MEMPHIS -- After the final buzzer sounded Tuesday night, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant stood at midcourt and waved his arms to further ignite the FedExForum crowd, basking in the moment after perhaps the most spectacular performance of his sensational rookie season.
Morant, 20, led the surprising, surging Grizzlies to their sixth consecutive win, a 121-110 victory over the Houston Rockets. He had 26 points on 10-of-11 shooting with eight assists and became the first rookie in NBA history with at least 25 points and eight assists in a game in which he shot better than 90% from the floor.
Morant picked the Rockets apart with flair. He had a behind-the-back dish off a drive to Jaren Jackson Jr. for an and-1 layup; another dime to Jackson for a transition dunk in which he went behind the back to buy time for the trailing big man to sprint the court; and a leaping, no-look lob to Brandon Clarke after going behind his back again to beat James Harden off the dribble.
The finishing touch on Morant's masterpiece was a dagger, step-back 3-pointer to put Memphis up by nine with 2 minutes, 17 seconds remaining. Wanting to attack Harden in isolation after a switch, Morant waved off a screen from center Jonas Valanciunas and took advantage of a big cushion provided by Harden out of respect for Morant's blazing speed. Morant punctuated the play by pounding his chest and screaming at the crowd.
"I'm having a lot of fun," said Morant, the No. 2 overall pick who has established himself as the heavy Rookie of the Year favorite. "I'm enjoying every bit of it. I'm thankful and grateful to even be here and be able to play for Memphis in front of this crowd with these guys."
This performance came during a rare national television game for the Grizzlies, who have become a wildly entertaining team with Morant pushing the pace and making plays.
"He just goes out there and plays his game," first-year Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. "That's been our mentality. Let him go unleash his talents, his competitiveness, his unselfishness. He gets to have fun. You see how he engages the crowd and his teammates engage the crowd. It's fun to watch from the sidelines, to see what this team is doing for the city and for this fan base. I think they feel that as well, so why not have some fun while we're playing this style?"
Harden, the 2018-19 MVP who is leading the league in scoring for the third straight season, finished with 41 points but was overshadowed by the Grizzlies' prized rookie, particularly down the stretch. Harden was 13-of-37 from the floor, including 0-for-7 in the fourth quarter, when three free throws accounted for his only points.
Morant took over the game in the fourth, when he scored 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting, grabbed three rebounds and dished out two assists. He played the entire quarter, as Jenkins made an exception to his normal substitution pattern.
"Ja is the ultimate competitor," Jenkins said. "He made some high-level decisions late in the game with a lot of different coverages, a lot of different matchups thrown at him. Credit to him. Obviously, in a big game like this, we have the confidence that he's going to come through in the clutch. He's a confident guy, and he loves the game of basketball. He loves to go out there and compete."
A Memphis team rebuilding around a young core headlined by Morant and Jackson is much more competitive than anticipated this season. The Grizzlies (19-22) are in eighth place in the Western Conference standings at the midpoint of the season. They've gone 13-6 since Morant returned from a back injury in early December. The Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz are the only NBA teams with more wins during that span.
"He has superstar ability. He's special," Rockets guard Austin Rivers said of Morant. "Memphis got one, man. They got a good one. He's got a team that's playing well. They beat us, they're in the playoffs right now. It's unbelievable. He's the biggest reason."
Morant isn't the only young player thriving in Memphis. Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, is blossoming into a star, averaging an efficient 19.9 points and 1.8 blocks during the 13-6 stretch. Shooting guard Dillon Brooks, 23, had 24 points against the Rockets and is averaging a team-high 20.3 points during the six-game winning streak. Clarke, a rookie forward who had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds Tuesday, appears to be the steal of the draft with the 21st overall pick. Second-year guard De'Anthony Melton has become a critical, versatile part of the Grizzlies' second unit and owns the team's best plus-minus this season (plus-129).
But Morant is the one who has suddenly changed the franchise's course and the player who is the primary focal point of every opponent's scouting report.
"He's going to be a great player," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Well, he already is."