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NBA Notebook: Ja Morant's superstar rise

Profile Picture: Rory Breasail

Rory Breasail

March 4th, 2022

Kevin Durant made his long-awaited return to the hardwood, and Ja Morant is ascending to superstardom right before our eyes. We’re covering these topics and more in this week’s edition of our NBA Notebook.

JA MORANT’S SIGNATURE 52-POINT GAME

Despite not winning Western Conference Player of the Month (that honor went to Luka Doncic), Ja Morant’s career just keeps hitting new highs. 

The latest? This week's 52-point masterclass against the San Antonio Spurs. He showed every weapon in his ever-expanding arsenal: slithering finishes in the lane, deep bombs from 3, 360 layups, miracle fall-away jumpers from the corner, and one devastating poster over Jakob Poeltl.

Every time Ja touches the ball electricity seems to course through the Memphis crowd. And who can blame them? Morant has quickly become the greatest show on earth, second only perhaps to a particularly hot Steph Curry.

That he finished with 52 points on 22-30 (!) from the field almost undersells his dominance. The NBA may be witnessing the beginning of an MVP career. What a special, special player.

HARDEN AND EMBIID PUT LEAGUE ON NOTICE

If the early returns are anything to go by, the Eastern Conference has a new heavyweight contender. In three games, the new Philadelphia 76ers lineup of Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and Matisse Thybulle have a +36.2 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass.

The offense looks outstanding, and yet there’s still room to grow as this group develops their chemistry. It remains to be seen if they can sustain their defense against top competition, but the Sixers are now firmly a threat to win the East.

DRAGIC BOOED IN RAPTORS RETURN

Toronto Raptors fans reveled in their first game back in Scotiabank Arena this week, ringing in their return with a torrent of boos. The target? Newly marked public enemy No. 1 in the Six: Goran Dragic.

Dragic first earned fans' ire when traded to the Raptors in the offseason, complaining to a Slovenian media outlet that he had "higher ambitions."

Then he barely played, and soon left the team for "personal reasons" and had been sidelined until his recent acquisition by the Brooklyn Nets. It emerged recently that the Raptors had actually told Dragic they weren’t interested in playing him over their younger players, and that the parting was mutual. Toronto fans apparently didn’t get the memo though, as a raucous chorus of boos erupted every time "The Dragon" touched the ball.

A little good-natured booing is a healthy part of the catharsis in sports. For his part, Dragic didn’t seem to mind too much as he shushed the crowd following a clutch bucket late in the first half.

MOVE OVER WORDLE, INTRODUCING "POELTL"

The world was taken by storm by the simple but compelling game Wordle in October, but now a new challenger has come for the throne. For the basketball nerd in your life, allow me to introduce “Poeltl” a game that takes its cues from Wordle but instead the aim of the game is to name a randomly selected player in the NBA.  

Similar to Wordle, guesses gradually narrow the field of possibilities by giving feedback until zeroing in on the correct answer. Just don’t expect anyone online to give you any props if you turn on silhouette mode.

KEVIN DURANT RETURNS, JOE HARRIS OUT FOR THE SEASON

The Brooklyn Nets must be victims of some kind of karmic curse. Whenever something positive happens, it must be immediately balanced out by the arrival of fresh ill-fortune. So it was on Thursday when less than an hour before Kevin Durant’s long-awaited return from injury, the team announced that sharpshooter Joe Harris would have season-ending ankle surgery.

Harris had been out since late November after undergoing surgery on the same ankle, and apparently, it wasn’t a totally successful operation. The Nets acquisition of Seth Curry in the James Harden trade now becomes all the more important in retrospect. 

For Durant’s part, his 31 points on 10-21 from the field wasn’t enough to take down the Miami Heat, and Brooklyn is now 32-32 with 18 games remaining.

NBA WORLD REACTS TO WAR IN UKRAINE

The ripples of the ongoing War in Ukraine have reached every sector of society, including the NBA. Following suit with many other American and international sports organizations, the league announced this week that it will suspend all business dealings in Russia, including the airing of NBA game broadcasts.

Svi Mykhailiuk of the Toronto Raptors and Alex Len of the Sacramento Kings, the two Ukrainian nationals currently playing in the NBA, released a joint statement condemning the invasion. I join all those grieved the unimaginable suffering this war has caused, and hope for a swift negotiated peace.

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