Memphis' De'Anthony Melton found the painted area difficult to navigate on this move against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Melton managed only four points as the Grizzlies came up short (102-99). (Photo: Terry Davis)
Terry Davis

Two losses in a row at home with the next game on the road against the Golden State Warriors, the team with essentially the best record in the NBA going into play on Tuesday night.

That is the immediate future for the Memphis Grizzlies (19-13), holders of the fourth spot in the Western Conference and the team smarting from a 102-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedExForum the last time it took the court for prime time.

With the OKC defense swarming, Ja Morant finds a passing lane. (Photo: Terry Davis)

Ja Morant, Memphis’ floor general and budding superstar, was back for the first time in what seemed like ages, even though the Grizzlies went on an extended win streak with him sidelined with a sprained knee and later ineligible because of COVID-19 protocols.

The Oklahoma City Thunder team that lost to the Grizzlies by an NBA record 73 points (152-79) the last time out had two key elements – starters Josh Giddy and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – not present in that earlier game. And what a difference that made. Gilgeous-Alexander had a team-high 23 points, with Giddy coming up big with 19 points and 11 assists.

Morant was not available for the Grizzlies blowout of the Thunder. In his first game back after his extended illness, he had 16 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, two steals, a block and four turnovers in 28 minutes. Afterward, there was talk of frustration.

“It’s frustrating for me watching this team while I was out and the type of basketball they were playing. We beat this team by 73 and to come back … and lose, it’s frustrating,” said Morant.

Ja Morant works out during pre-game. (Photo: Terry Davis)

“I was already in my head coming back out trusting my knee and missing 12 games. Basketball is really my escape; I feel at my best when I play. It was just frustrating, even during the game I heard some of our fans courtside tell me I need to sit back out. I just don’t know what they wanted me to get out of that. I feel like that just makes it worse.”

Head coach Taylor Jenkins “thought Ja was good. His conditioning looked good. Obviously, we played him in short spurts to let him go out there and play super aggressive. I thought he looked good.

“He’s just trying to get back and read his teammates and all that stuff,” said Jenkins. “It’s been a minute since he’s played five-on-five basketball, but I really liked what he did. I thought his defensive effort was pretty solid throughout the night as well.”

Morant said he put in the work while out, adding that the knee he injured actually is stronger than before.

“Tonight, I was just trying to find ways to be Ja during the game. I didn’t want to come back and mess up the rhythm of the team, so I told them to stay aggressive. …

“I’m excited to be back and I’m thankful for my teammates for keeping my spirits up and telling me I’m good and not to worry about what people say. But it’s hard not to see that stuff. It’s easier to not see it but if I’m running down the court and I hear it mid-game from people who were just chanting MVP a while ago, it’s frustrating.”

The Grizzlies were big favorites going up against a Thunder team that turned in a loss for the history books the last time out. Before the game, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said the team had not talked about the 73-point beatdown.

“Every game has an emotion associated with it because of how competitive the games are and how much everybody cares,” said Daigneault. “So after that game, obviously, we were really disappointed. The other night, we won at the buzzer and we were really happy. When midnight hits and you go to bed, hopefully everyone is going to bed at midnight, you detach from the emotion, wake up the next day and learn your lessons.”

Memphis started out on fire. Six minutes into the game the Thunder was down by 14 points (16-2), ending the first quarter down 28-16. The Grizzlies pushed their lead to as many as 16 points in the second quarter but could not sustain the momentum. They led 50-47 going into halftime.

For the second straight night, the Grizzlies could not find their offensive rhythm. The Thunder grabbed their first lead (54-52) with 9:01 left in the third quarter and were up by 10 points (72-62) with 3:09 left in the quarter. Memphis fought back with a 10-2 run and entered the fourth quarter only down by two points (74-72).

The Thunder refused to buckle, matching the runs the Grizzlies made down the stretch of the final quarter. When they needed to most, Memphis could not put the ball in the basket.

“We had 17 more shots than them, 17 offensive rebounds, shot 38 percent,” said Jenkins.

“They played with some physicality, but we had tons of great looks. We had layups at the rim. We had wide-open threes. You know, it’s going to happen sometimes, two games in a row. Reset takes the next two days and head back out west.”

Desmond Bane tied a career-high with five made 3-pointers, finishing with 25 points. He is the sixth player in NBA history to make 200-plus three-pointers and shoot 40 percent-plus from three-point range in his first 100 career games. He joins Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Duncan Robinson, Voshon Lenard and Landry Shamet.

Desmond Bane is shooting himself into the NBA record book. (Photo: Terry Davis)

The Grizzlies take on Golden State (25-6) at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Thursday. Memphis, with Morant, defeated the Warriors earlier in the year at the Chase Center, pinning them with their first loss of the season.