As one of only two NBA teams that have never won a division title, the Memphis Grizzlies are in prime position to cut that number in half this season.

Since joining the NBA as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96, Memphis have finished second five times but have never captured a division crown. The Charlotte Hornets are the only other franchise never to win a division title, though they did finish in a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast in 2015-16 but lost the title to the Miami Heat on a tie-breaker.

Roughly two months into this season and Memphis sit atop a weak Southwest Division with the franchise's first division title a distinct possibility.

No division has a worse composite record than the Southwest with Memphis (17-11), the Dallas Mavericks (14-13), San Antonio Spurs (10-16), Houston Rockets (9-18) and New Orleans Pelicans (8-21) combining for a 58-79 record (42.3). Weaker division opponents certainly will not hurt the Grizzlies' cause, but they appear more than capable of beating just about any team, evidenced by their 13-6 record against the Western Conference.

While Ja Morant has established himself as one of the game's young superstars in his third season, what is most impressive about the Grizzlies is how they have performed without him.

Morant has not played since November 26 due to a sprained left knee and he then entered the NBA's health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 on December 8.

Somehow, Memphis have been even better with their leading scorer on the shelf, going an inspired 8-1. Prior to this stretch, Memphis were 6-9 in Morant's career when he missed a game.

It has been a dominant run for the Grizzlies, who have outscored opponents by 176 points in those nine games. Since November 28 in their first game without Morant, the Grizzlies rank fifth in the NBA in points per game (113.7), ninth in three-pointers made (112) and lead the league in total rebounds (449) and total steals (108).

Clearly, Memphis are much more than just Morant.

During a five-game winning streak – all without Morant – the Grizzlies led every game from wire-to-wire before the run ended with a 104-96 loss to visiting Dallas on December 8. Included in that five-game surge was a stunning 152-79 thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the largest margin of victory in league history.

Memphis only rank 20th this season in opponent points per game (109.2) but something has clicked with the defence allowing a league-best 94.1 points during this 8-1 stretch. In the first 19 games this season, Memphis held foes to 101 points or fewer just twice but have done that seven times in the past nine contests.

Memphis are 13-1 (92.9) this season when holding opponents under 110 points. Only the Phoenix Suns (18-0), Charlotte (7-0) and Brooklyn Nets (15-1) have a better winning percentage in such games.

Maybe it was Morant's absence that forced the rest of the team to turn up the defensive pressure, but whatever the reason Taylor Jenkins' team now know they can win either with offense as they rank sixth in the league in scoring (111.0) as well as at the opposite end of the court.

Perhaps no victory was more indicative of what the Grizzlies can do than last Thursday's 108-95 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite missing Morant and starting guard Dillon Brooks (health and safety protocols), Memphis set a franchise record with nine steals in the second quarter en route to a season-high 18 and became just the second team in the past 13 games to hold star-laden Los Angeles under 100 points.

Several players have stepped up to fill the void left by Morant and none bigger than second-year guard Desmond Bane. A serious contender for the Most Improved Player award, Bane has taken a huge step forward in his sophomore season to become much more than a shooter with his usage rate going from 16.1 to 22.3 per cent.

In the nine games without Morant, Bane has averaged 17.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 44.8 per cent from three-point range (26 for 58). He averaged 15.5 points and 3.8 rebounds while connecting on 37.4 per cent (46 for 123) from deep in the season's first 19 games. His points per game average has risen from 9.2 in 2020-21 to 16.0 this season – his plus-6.8 improvement only bettered by Reggie Jackson (+6.9), Miles Bridges (+7.1) and Tyrese Maxey (+8.7) among players to have played in 70 per cent of team games in both campaigns.

When a team's leading scorer misses time, the second-leading scorer is asked to pick up most of the slack and Jaren Jackson Jr. has answered that call.

During the 8-1 stretch, Jackson is scoring 21.1 per game on 50.4 per cent shooting, including 38.5 per cent (20 for 52) from beyond the arc. In 19 games played with Morant this term, Jackson averaged 14.8 points on 39.7 per cent from the field and 33.7 per cent from long range.

Jackson has scored 25 points or more in four of his last seven games after having only one such game through his first 20 this season.

With 25 points and five blocks in a win over the Toronto Raptors late last month, Jackson became just the third Grizzlies player to reach both those totals in a game since the team moved to Memphis. Pau Gasol (six games) and Marc Gasol (four games) are the only others.

Memphis' defensive improvement is clearly a team-wide concept, but Dillon Brooks may be the player most responsible. Brooks did not make his season debut until November 10 due to a broken left hand and the team clearly missed his intensity and leadership.

In 14 games this season with Brooks in the line-up, Memphis have surrendered 103.6 points per game and held opponents to 44.0 per cent shooting. In the 14 games he has missed, the Grizzlies have given up 114.9 points with opponents making 48.3 per cent of their shots.

Taking over at the point in Morant's place has been Tyus Jones, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league each of the last three seasons and is on his way to doing it again with 119 assists to 21 turnovers (5.67).

The biggest improvement in Jones' game has been his three-point shooting, making 40 percent of his first 65 attempts after he hit on just 32.1 per cent last season.

One area where Memphis have excelled all season is on the boards.

The Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in total rebounds (1,323) and tied for second in offensive rebounding (358). Steven Adams leads the way with 8.6 per game but gets plenty of help as Memphis are tied for second in the league with seven players averaging at least four boards per contest.

Those rebounds play a role in helping Memphis top the NBA in both second-chance points (479) and points in the paint (1,504).

With Phoenix and the Golden State Warriors looking like world beaters right now and the Utah Jazz not far behind, Memphis have been able to fly under the radar in the Western Conference.

While there is no telling how Morant's return will affect the Grizzlies, the team have done all the little things in his absence and that can only help them in their quest to finally hang a division championship banner at FedEx Forum.

De'Anthony Melton and the Memphis Grizzlies could not hide their delight after embarrassing the Oklahoma City Thunder by 73 points to set an NBA record.

The merciless Grizzlies broke the record for the largest margin of victory in league history thanks to Thursday's devastating 152-79 triumph.

Oklahoma City were without star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Year contender Josh Giddey away to the Grizzlies in Memphis.

The Grizzlies, who were without a star of their own in Ja Morant, took full advantage as they eclipsed the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers (68 points) for the largest winning margin.

"Man, it feels great. It feels great to be in the history books, especially in front of our home crowd,'' said Melton, who put up 19 points for the Grizzlies.

"And we did it one through 15. Everybody contributed, everybody played hard and we all got to get in the game. So, it's always a blessing.

"We knew with [Morant] going down what we had to do. We had to step up.''

 

According to Stats Perform, 152 is the most points in NBA history by a team missing a player who was leading the team in total points and assists entering the game following Morant's absence.

Jaren Jackson Jr. picked up the slack with Morant sidelined, pouring in 27 points for the Grizzlies – who shot 62.5 per cent from the field.

Melton, Santi Aldama (18), John Konchar (17), Dillon Brooks (11), Jarrett Culver (11), Xavier Tillman (11), Brandon Clarke (11) and Tyus Jones (10) all had double-digit points for the Grizzlies.

Memphis, who have beaten the Thunder in four straight games for their best winning streak against the franchise since 2013-16, were also 52.8 per cent from three-point range as Jackson made six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc.

"Franchise records are obviously great. Obviously proud of our guys that they don't think about that,'' Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins said.

"We're just motivated by what are our standards every single night. Tonight was on pretty full display both offensively and defensively.''

Lu Dort was the pick of the Thunder players with 15 points on three-of-eight shooting in 25 minutes – Oklahoma City are now amid an eight-game losing streak.

The Thunder (6-16) – in the process of a rebuild – were just 32.9 per cent from the floor in a forgettable display.

"Tonight is not necessarily who we are,'' Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. "I think we've definitely shown that from a competitive standpoint. This isn't indicative of who our team is.''

"Obviously, it was a combination of things,'' Daigneault said. "They played with great force and pace. They made some shots. We didn't shoot it well early and just really couldn't get a grip on the game. Any part of the game.''

Daigneault added: "When you compete, you have exposure to the highs and lows of competition. And competition comes with great joy, and it also comes with grief and frustration and anger. And when you step in that ring, that's what you expose yourself to is all of those things.

"It's why the joy feels so good, because when you get punched and you taste your own blood, it doesn't feel right.''

The Memphis Grizzlies broke the record for the largest victory in NBA history after humiliating the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder 152-79.

Oklahoma City – in the process of a rebuild – were without star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Year contender Josh Giddey away to the Grizzlies in Memphis on Thursday.

The Grizzlies, who were without a star of their own in Ja Morant, showed no mercy as they eclipsed the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers (68 points) for the largest margin of victory in the league.

Cleveland trounced the Miami Heat 148-80 – the Cavaliers went on to reach the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to Michael Jordan and eventual champions the Chicago Bulls.

 

The Grizzlies, who shot 62.5 per cent from the field while the Thunder managed just 32.9 per cent, were led by Jaren Jackson Jr. and his game-high 27 points.

De'anthony Melton (19), Santi Aldama (18), John Konchar (17), Dillon Brooks (11), Jarrett Culver (11), Xavier Tillman (11), Brandon Clarke (11) and Tyus Jones (10) all had double-digit points for the Grizzlies.

Memphis, who have beaten the Thunder in four straight games for their best winning streak against the franchise since 2013-16, were also 52.8 per cent from three-point range as Jackson made six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc.

Lu Dort was the pick of the Thunder players with 15 points on three-of-eight shooting in 25 minutes – Oklahoma City are now amid an eight-game losing streak.

The Memphis Grizzlies scored the final seven points of the game for a stunning 119-118 road defeat of the Utah Jazz on Monday.

After Bojan Bogdanovic made a pair of three-pointers to give Utah a 108-112 lead with 1:28 to play, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. combined to make four free throws and Jackson hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 5.7 seconds to play as Memphis (9-8) pulled out the win.

Utah (11-6) missed their final four shots of the game and also turned the ball over twice in the final 20 seconds. 

Morant had 32 points to lead all scorers and added seven assists, while Desmond Bane scored 28 and Jackson finished with 26. 

Bogdanovic led the Jazz with 24 points and Rudy Gobert contributed 23 on nine-of-10 shooting while grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds and blocking five shots. 

 

Durant, Nets hold off Cavaliers

Kevin Durant had 27 points and nine rebounds while James Harden chipped in 14 points and 14 assists for the Brooklyn Nets in a 117-112 road victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. LaMarcus Aldridge added 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting off the bench for Brooklyn (13-5) as Darius Garland led Cleveland (9-9) with 24 points and 11 assists as he made only nine of 27 shots from the field. 

Tyrese Maxey scored 24 and Andre Drummond collected 23 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers (10-8) pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 102-94 defeat of the Sacramento Kings (6-12) despite playing without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Seth Curry. De'Aaron Fox led the Kings with 23 in Alvin Gentry's first game as interim head coach. 

Jaylen Brown scored 19 points in 23 minutes as he returned to the Boston Celtics lineup after missing the previous eight games with a right hamstring strain. Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 30 as the Celtics (10-8) defeated Houston 108-90, sending the Rockets (1-16) to their 15th consecutive loss as they fell to 0-11 on the road. 

The Phoenix Suns held off a late charge by the San Antonio Spurs to prevail 115-111 for their 13th consecutive win. Devin Booker had 23 points to lead the Suns (14-3) while Deandre Ayton added 21 points and 14 rebounds. 

 

Bulls draw blanks from field

The Chicago Bulls entered Monday level with the Nets for the best record in the Eastern Conference but could not find their shooting touch in an ugly 109-77 home defeat against the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls (12-6) made 31 of 85 shots from the field (36.5 per cent), including just six of 28 (21.4 per cent) from three-point range. They scored 30 points in the second quarter but just 47 in the other three combined as Indiana (8-11) built an earl lead, then ran away with it in the second half. 

Phoenix Suns star and former number one draft pick Deandre Ayton was among a number of players who did not sign rookie contract extensions before the deadline.

Monday was the deadline for the 2018 draft class to pen new deals with their respective teams in the NBA.

Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers (two-year, $45million), Memphis Grizzlies star Jaren Jackson Jr. (four year, $105m), Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks (four-year, $65m), Suns guard Landry Shamet (four-year, $43m) and the Milwaukee Bucks' Grayson Allen (two-year, $20m) all extended their contracts.

However, there were some notable names missing, including Ayton – who can enter restricted free agency next year, according to ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ayton played a key role in Phoenix's run to the NBA Finals last season, however, the Suns did not come to the table as the 23-year-old center eyed a five-year max contract.

In 2020-21, Ayton averaged 14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, while he boasted a career-best 62.6 field-goal percentage and career-high 76.9 percentage from the free-throw line.

Ayton's numbers elevated in his first playoff campaign – 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, though his future in Phoenix is now uncertain.

Cleveland Cavaliers star Collin Sexton also failed to reach a contract extension agreement with the Eastern Conference strugglers.

Sexton did not land a new deal, despite career highs in points (24.3), assists (4.4), rebounds (3.1) and field-goal percentage (47.5).

The other players without contract extensions are Miles Brides of the Charlotte Hornets, the Orlando Magic's Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley III of the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox.

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