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Ja Morant has spent much of these playoffs bottled up and out of sync, appearing frustrated that he hasn’t been able to create separation between his Memphis Grizzlies and the plucky Minnesota Timberwolves.

After sitting out for nearly a month before the postseason to nurse a knee injury, Morant, who this week was named the NBA’s most improved player, has faced regular double teams and struggled to finish around the basket. With their leader playing below his standard, the Grizzlies entered Tuesday’s Game 5 with their first-round series tied at two games apiece, and the Timberwolves built a double-digit lead late in the third quarter. If Minnesota held on, Memphis would be on the brink of elimination, facing the prospect of becoming the first No. 2 seed to be eliminated by a No. 7 seed since the San Antonio Spurs fell to the Dallas Mavericks in 2010.

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But the 22-year-old Morant changed the terms of the game and the series with an emphatic dunk that sparked a frantic fourth-quarter comeback, which culminated in a 111-109 victory that the all-star guard sealed with a game-winning layup in the final second. While Morant’s effort represented his best basketball of the series — he scored 18 of his game-high 30 points in the final period — it was his poster dunk at the end of the third quarter that got Memphis back on track.

“It definitely ignited the crowed and gave us energy,” Morant said, after moving within one win of advancing in the playoffs for the first time in his three-year career. “From then on, pretty much being aggressive.”

Morant’s highflying heroics were a staple of Memphis’s 56-win season, none more so than his iconic block against the Los Angeles Lakers in January, which saw the lithe 6-foot-3 point guard rise high above the rim to snatch the shot out of midair with two hands, tap the ball off the backboard and then deftly control the carom, all in a smooth, split-second motion.

To this point, though, Morant’s fiercest dunk attempts have often resulted in near-misses. In December 2019, as a rookie, Morant nearly leaped over Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love en route to the rim, but his stretching attempt caught the back of the rim and bounced out near midcourt. That audacious attempt went viral on social media despite the miss, and a picture of Morant trying to climb over Love later appeared on one of his basketball cards.

Morant’s dunk in Game 5 was as clean as a poster gets and it’s a worthy candidate for the NBA’s “Dunk of the Year.” With less than 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter and the Timberwolves leading 85-72, Morant milked the clock at the top of the key before attacking the paint by driving to his right. As he approached the free throw line, all five Timberwolves defenders briefly converged in his direction in hopes of complicating his decision process or coaxing him into a pass.

Undeterred, Morant saw Timberwolves guard Malik Beasley protecting the rim and decided to gather off both feet. Rotating his body to the right to shield the ball from the defense, Morant cocked back with his right hand as he soared over the 6-foot-4 Beasley, looking a bit like a fighter jet as his upper body got out in front of his lower body. Once he contacted Beasley, Morant boosted slightly higher in the air and whipped the ball toward the rim in windmill fashion, thumping home the finish before somehow landing on his feet.

“Oh! A Ja-breaker,” play-by-play commentator Ian Eagle shouted on the TNT broadcast.

The FedEx Forum crowd instantly came to its feet, but Morant flexed only for a moment before heading back down the court.

“[Morant] just kept staying the course,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said. “He wasn’t having the best start but he was doing everything possible offensively and defensively. This is the fun part about playoff basketball. You don’t know you’re going to win. He had a brilliant fourth quarter. That dunk was definitely a momentum booster. It got Ja going.”

Morant did celebrate at night’s end, once Memphis erased an eight-point deficit with six minutes remaining to claim a 3-2 series lead before Game 6 in Minnesota on Friday.

To seal the comeback win, Morant scored the Grizzlies’ final 13 points, drilling a clutch three-pointer with a little over a minute remaining and a pair of free throws with eight seconds left before flipping in the game-winning layup. That strong closing effort was aided by forward Brandon Clarke, who finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds and hustled his way to seven offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter.

On the final play, Morant again charged into the paint, taking advantage of a miscue by Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards, who tried in vain to steal the inbounds pass. With only Jarred Vanderbilt between him and the hoop, Morant contorted his way to the rim and finished with a hanging left-handed layup with one second left.

Morant’s small stature, combined with his fearlessness and midair improvisational instincts, have won him many admirers. As LeBron James, Jayson Tatum and Patrick Mahomes led the cheers on social media Tuesday, an unimpressed Morant rendered a strict verdict on his game-changing slam, deducting points for its degree of difficulty.

“I really wasn’t excited about the dunk,” he said. “It was over a guard. That’s pretty easy.”

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