How Ja Morant’s block conjured memories of LeBron, Jordan and Russell

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When Ja Morant soared to block a transition layup attempt by Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley on Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench jumped to its feet and the superlatives started flying. Lakers star LeBron James called it a “spectacular play” made possible by “rockets in his calf muscle,” and the Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. called it “probably the best block I’ve seen.” Social media was agog over various replay angles, all of which seemed more preposterous than the last.

Morant’s block was amazing on its face, and it combined the many elements of his game that have positioned the third-year guard to make his first all-star team next month: speed, timing, powerful leaping ability, body control and high basketball intelligence. But the highlight play will endure in the collective memory because it also melded aspects of other famous blocks.

This NBA season was dragging. Then came Ja Morant and the Splash Brothers.

James noted that Morant began the play by “stalking down [his] prey” in the same way that James blocked Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala during the closing minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Just as James gave chase during arguably the most revered defensive play in league history, Morant was hustling back after a turnover near midcourt.

“Bad mistake on my part,” he said. “I should have recognized they were doubling and blitzing me. I just got careless with the ball.”

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In 2016, James sprinted back to thwart a fast break after a Kyrie Irving miss left Cleveland exposed. On Sunday, Morant retreated after losing the ball under pressure from Bradley. Both James and Morant gave chase from the backcourt before picking up steam as they got closer to the hoop and then downshifting slightly to calibrate their positioning. In both cases, they benefited from the presence of another defender: J.R. Smith helped slow Iguodala, while Desmond Bane did the same to Bradley.

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In addition to the half-foot gap between their listed heights, there were two other crucial differences: The 6-foot-9 James leaped off one foot and blocked Iguodala’s shot with his right hand, while the 6-3 Morant leaped off both feet and deflected Bradley’s shot with both hands. Indeed, Morant’s block had more in common mechanically with Michael Jordan’s legendary block of Ron Mercer in 2002.

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Jordan, out of retirement for the second time and playing for the Washington Wizards at 38, missed a jumper and raced back in transition to catch up with the much younger Mercer in the final minute of a tight game against the Chicago Bulls, his former team. As Mercer attempted a layup while driving to the right side of the basket, Jordan jumped off two feet and plucked the ball out of the air with both hands, pulling it back over his head to ensure he didn’t pin it against the backboard.

At his apex, Morant also snatched the ball with both hands but smartly deflected it off the glass to avoid a goaltending violation. The sheer verticality of Morant’s effort was impressive — his hands were even with the box on the backboard, and his head was nearly at rim level.

Morant

11'4"

James

10'10"

Jordan

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6'9"

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6'3"

But the roots of Morant’s highlight trace back even further than Jordan, all the way to legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell. Though blocks weren’t an official stat when Russell played in the 1950s and 1960s, he was regarded as a defensive mastermind for his ability to protect the paint. Russell has been credited for understanding and demonstrating the importance of controlling the block’s result to prevent the offensive team from getting another scoring chance and to potentially start a transition opportunity.

Instead of spiking the ball into the stands or slamming it hard off the glass for emphasis, Morant almost delicately redirected the ball into the open court roughly 90 degrees to his right. That allowed him to land, collect himself, grab the ball and race off in the other direction, just like Russell preached.

“Most times on the break like that, if you block it, they might have a player trailing to get the ball and lay it up,” Morant explained. “I was trying to block the shot, stop them from scoring and secure the ball at the same time. It worked out perfect for me. Now I’m probably all over the Internet for it.”

Images from NBA League Pass.

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