The Whiteboard: Ja Morant did the impossible again

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images /

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The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers played on Sunday night, though I was not among those who tuned in. I was watching a movie instead. It was not until after the game had ended, the Grizzlies triumphing for their ninth consecutive win, that I saw what Ja Morant had done. It’s rare to watch a film starring Orson Welles and not have his performance be the most forceful thing you witness that day.

Midway through the first quarter, Avery Bradley was hounding Morant on the perimeter. Morant tried to pass the ball but Bradley swatted the ball away, stealing it and going the other way. He went up for a lay-up, though it did not go on. Ja Morant blocked the shot. Of course, to say that is correct, but only in the most technical and sterile sense. He jumped — and again, saying this is true in a very limited way — pinning the ball against the backboard, keeping it in bounds and corralling it before heading back the other way. Really, he leapt as if propelled by one of those pairs of rocket-powered shoes that Wile E. Coyote is able to order from ACME. The possibility of Morant blocking the shot never crossed my mind until I saw him do it. It seemed almost unnatural, its reality only confirmed by the fact that everyone I follow on Twitter was talking about the same thing.

This Ja Morant block was one of the most eye-popping highlights in NBA history

It is fitting that this play happened against the Lakers, who are led by LeBron James, the longtime king of the chasedown block. James, though, relies on a mathematician’s precision when preparing to pin a lay-up against the backboard. It has always required a certain amount of speed and leaping ability, but without his assessing the situation beforehand, such gifts would be wasted. Watching Morant, it looks like no more than a mix of instinct and audacity. Who could look at the spot he needed to reach in order to block that shot and think that they could pull that off? Who, if given a moment to reflect, could imagine such a thing as possible?

The rim is 10 feet above the ground. The rectangle above it is 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Ja Morant is 6-foot-3. I do not know how long his arms are or what his standing reach is and even if I did, I have no desire to crunch numbers and figure out how high he leapt to block Bradley’s shot. Any result would seem too low.

If you pause the video at the moment that Morant traps the ball against the backboard, it looks unreal in the most literal sense. His body is at a near-45 degree angle, like a sloppy simulacrum of a superhero blasting into the air. He is so far off the ground that one looking at the stopped image would be justified in assuming that a miniature trampoline has been digitally removed from the frame. Russell Westbrook, who was trailing behind Bradley and Morant, has his feet directly on the arc of the restricted area and appears to be on the verge of toppling over, driven backwards by the force of Morant’s leap. In reality, Westbrook was preparing for his own jump, hoping to corral a rebound, but the impression the isolated moment presents is more appropriate.

In moments like this, it appears like Morant is out of control in the best possible way, as if these moments happen outside of his will. In light of his athleticism — so pronouncd as to be an outlier even in the NBA — the potential for such moments is always latent but still, one can never expect something like that to happen. It cannot be planned, scheduled, anticipated, or accounted for. It is a gift, an irruption, something that will always be a surprise no matter how many times it happens.

What he did can be explained, parsed, broken down. There are no tricks or secrets involved. The things that seem so mysterious and wondrous can be quantified. But none of this can make it explicable, can make it make sense to me. On a fundamental level, what Morant achieved when he leapt tonight was a small bit of magic. But while a magician can reveal their secrets, transforming the trick into a mere illusion, what Morant did was even more special. No explanation, no bit of information can dull a feat like this.

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