After a 142-101 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks at FedExForum, coupled with an overtime loss by the New Orleans Pelicans in Utah, the now 19-9 Memphis Grizzlies sit alone atop the Western Conference standings.
Through more than a quarter-century of existence in two different cities, the franchise has rarely been there, and never this late into a season.
The previous high-water mark was in late November of 2018, when Marc Gasol made big plays in the final seconds of a road win in San Antonio to push the team to 12-5 and first place. They were knocked off the perch a few days later, and then really hit the skids, finishing 33-49.
This year’s model stands to have a lot more staying power.
And they arrived at the top in style.
Early in the second quarter on Thursday night, Dillon Brooks lost the ball against the defensive pressure of Bucks rookie MaJon Beauchamp, backtracked to retrieve it, and then drove half the court, passing the kid to score at the rim, putting the Grizzlies up by 21 points.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer called a timeout and Brooks raised both arms up, beckoning to the fans in FedExForum.
Could he get a witness?
17,794 of them, or thereabouts, who roared as the public address system blasted the title refrain of Public Enemy’s early-1990s hip-hop hit, “Shut ’Em Down.”
If that seems premature for a game’s defining moment, it wasn’t on this night.
The early second quarter?
That’s winning time in a 41-point victory where the Grizzlies never trailed and once held a 50-point lead.
Yes, Ja Morant had a 25-10-10 triple-double in only 25 minutes, his third since Thanksgiving, but c’mon.
He padded his stat line in garbage time!
Otherwise known as the third quarter.
The fans didn’t get a “DEE-FENSE” chant going the way they did with a 70-point lead against Oklahoma City last season. They switched it up instead.
And it wasn’t even a throwback night.
The Grizzlies bench even joined in on the third or fourth rotation.
And by “bench” I mean Morant, Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Steven Adams.
“I’m a big fan of the wave,” said Morant, even though I’m pretty sure that fad died out when he was still in diapers.
Was anyone annoyed by this? Maybe in Milwaukee? If so, so be it.
“It was just us having fun. I feel like we deserved it with how we played tonight. And it’s fan engagement,” said Morant, ever a source of wisdom. “A lot of credit goes to them, and I know it’s a great feeling for the players to get involved in that wave.”
It takes a village, or at least a whole arena, to celebrate something like this.
A two-score-and-one drubbing of the league’s second-best team. An absolute annihilation of what has been the NBA’s best defense all season.
Seventy paint points … no, wait, that was just through three quarters. Hang on. (Checks notes.)
Eighty-six paint points against a team with not one but two frontcourt behemoths being touted as Defensive Player of the Year timber.
And all with Zach Randolph — who knows about paint scoring — watching from a front-row baseline perch.
Maybe this was “just one of those nights” from a Milwaukee perspective.
That’s the Bucks’ business. The Grizzlies were busy taking care of theirs.
It wasn’t Morant who really did the Bucks in. It wasn’t even Brooks, though he guarded All-Star wing Khris Middleton, who shot 1-12, with Brooks ticked off about that “one.”
Instead, the guys who really put it away might have been a couple of maulers from Minnesota coming off the bench, and if that doesn’t mean much to Memphis fans, take a jolt of satisfaction knowing that it’s surely an extra irritant to the fans of Wisconsin. (Not a lot of love across that border.)
It was Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones, letting 3-pointers fly at the slightest opportunity. It was Golden Valley’s David Roddy, making a debatable nickname — Roddy the Body? — inevitable with bullish putbacks, shoulder-shiver layups and freight-train fast-break finishes. (Big Memphis? Maybe Minnesota is Big Valley.)
And that was pretty much all in the first quarter.
It was a performance worthy of a franchise breakthrough.
Now they have to hold it.
This fifth win by 20 or more points this season was also the Grizzlies’ third in their past four games. It capped an undefeated five-game homestand and extended a current NBA-high seven-game win streak.
It was also a transitional game, from an easy stretch of the schedule to what will likely be a tougher one.
The Grizzlies now hit the road for a four-game trip that includes three national television games against probable playoff teams, culminating in their Christmas Day showcase against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, even if that game lost a bit of luster on Thursday afternoon, with news that Warriors superstar Stephen Curry would likely miss it due to injury.
And this road will eventually lead back to Memphis, where the Grizzlies will close the calendar year on New Year’s Eve, in a potential conference-supremacy showdown with the Pelicans.
We’ve learned a lot about this team through the season’s first third. We’re about to learn a lot more.
“We’re flowing and playing pretty good right now,” said Morant. “We just can’t let it get away from us. We have to keep our hunger.”
Getting to the top is hard. Staying there is harder.
On Thursday night, the Grizzlies’ stars joined their fans in doing the wave, but they’ve been riding one together all season.
Winter’s coming. The Grizzlies have a chance to make it an endless summer instead.
This was originally published on “dailymemphian.com”