MEMPHIS — Ja Morant pulled up for a floater in the fourth quarter, glared at the Knicks bench, tapped his wrist and repeated, “It’s about that time.”
That was earlier in the fourth quarter, and Morant’s time extended well beyond. He dominated the Knicks in the season opener Wednesday, bringing out his bag of athleticism, wizardry and showmanship to the 115-112 OT victory.
The Knicks had the deeper squad and nearly completed an impressive comeback, with back-to-back heroic moments from Cam Reddish and Jalen Brunson to end regulation. But Morant carried the night as RJ Barrett struggled.
There was Morant’s behind-the-back same-hand dribble into a no-look assist during the second quarter. Then he finished an up-and-under cradled and-1 lay-up. He flew through the air for a two-hand block off the glass in OT. Morant was a sorcerer with the ball and the Knicks were the audience to his 34 points and nine assists.
Still, the visitors put up a fight and capped regulation with dramatics. After trailing for most of the contest, Reddish, who was a surprise addition to the rotation before the game, converted a game-tying corner 3-pointer off Brunson’s dish with three seconds remaining. Morant then nearly won the game on Memphis’ next possession while soaring into the lane, but Brunson got there first and drew a clutch charge.
Overtime turned after just 24 seconds when Julius Randle was fouled out. He was strong with 24 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, but could only watch the end as teammate Evan Fournier missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Reddish was an offensive revelation for the Knicks as the replacement to the injured Quentin Grimes. He scored 22 points in just 28 minutes.
But Barrett was an inefficient mess while missing 15 of his 18 shots (including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc). Barrett had said he’s motivated by the circumstances of playing against Morant, the player picked one spot above him in 2019. If anything, Wednesday night just reiterated the draft order.
The Grizzlies entered the season shorthanded, competing Wednesday without the injured Jaren Jackson Jr., Danny Green, Dillon Brooks and Ziaire Williams. One of their better players, Desmond Bane, appeared to hurt his leg in the second half. They’re among the contenders in the Western Conference after winning 56 games last season but didn’t add much to the roster and lost Jackson Jr. for an extended time following foot surgery.
The Knicks, on the other hand, were only missing Grimes. They were also coming off an encouraging 3-1 preseason that teased the high potential of a starting lineup with Brunson running the show.
But they warned the regular season was a different animal, a different pressure and intensity. They also didn’t have to play against Morant until Wednesday. That was the biggest difference.