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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Grizzlies plus ‘12’ equals a ‘perfect ending’ to a ‘perfect day’

With the scored tied and less than 10 seconds on the game clock, the Memphis Grizzlies called on “12” to settle things in their favor. That put two-time All-Star Ja Morant, who bears that number, in a spot familiar to him – centerstage.

Memphis’ star point guard described his game-winning shot at the end of a 34-point performance against the New Orleans Pelicans as “the perfect ending” to a “perfect day.”

His 25-game suspension stemming from his social media antics with handguns ended Tuesday, and a new chapter of his already spectacular basketball career began in historic fashion.

Never in NBA history had a player returned from an absence as long as 25 games and scored as many points.

Never mind the fact that Morant led Memphis back from a 24-point deficit to a 115-113 victory on the road against a New Orleans Pelicans squad that had won its four previous games and had the likes of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson on the court.

Fans in New Orleans didn’t offer Morant the friendliest welcome back, booing him during pre-game introductions and again as he dribbled the ball on the game’s opening possession.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t like me; you see where that got ‘em,” Morant said with a slight grin. “I don’t know what I did to the Pelicans or their fans, but hey, they got to root for their team. So, it’s all good.”

Many of those fans would leave the arena in stunned silence while Morant celebrated his winning basket with teammates, who looked infused with confidence and belief as Morant took over.

“It felt different out there, having our guy back, our leader,” Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane said. “He does so much for us on the court, of course, and the spirit and the energy he plays with is infectious.”

The Grizzlies went 6-19 in the games Morant missed. They’ll need to make up ground quickly to get back into the NBA’s postseason picture. Time will tell if Morant’s return marked the start of such a run, but it looks more promising now.

“We’ve been down all season in games like that; we’ll make a run and then a team will throw another punch and it’s tough to overcome and come back,” Bane said. “Our resiliency was on display tonight.”

Morant said he still has work to do to get into game shape, noting that he felt like his calves starting to cramp in the final minutes.

He even had his calves treated with a hand-held massage machine during the game’s final timeout while coach Taylor Jenkins drew up the winning play for Morant. And he asked if Jaren Jackson Jr. should get the last shot of regulation — an idea that was summarily rejected by his teammates and coaches, who insisted that Morant get the ball.

“So, at that point, I pretty much had to lock in and go deliver,” Morant said.

Jenkins inserted Morant back in the starting lineup and said he would try to be mindful of how many minutes he plays in his first few games back. But with a chance to win, he left Morant in for 35 minutes.

“My one expectation was for him to have fun, honestly,” Jenkins said. “I know the work that he’s been putting in. His teammates know the work he’s been putting in.

“I thought he did a phenomenal job,” Jenkins added. “Just with the pace and the ball movement and obviously the high level-plays, finishes.”

Congratulations after the game came in person from Heisman Trophy winning LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, who had courtside seats, and on social media from Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, among others.

Under the terms of his suspension, Morant could practice and travel with the Grizzlies, but was not permitted to be in an arena with his team during games.

Jenkins said Morant increasingly has been involved in practices during the past couple weeks and has been video-chatting with teammates during games.

“I’ve been really proud of his commitment every single day with the amount of work that he’s been putting in because it’s been a unique two-and-a-half months where he got to really dive into his overall just well-being on and off the floor.”

Morant said he felt compelled to set an example for loved ones and teammates alike in how he responded to his suspension.

“I feel like in this world, a lot of us make mistakes. And I felt like the message they got from mine, regardless if you make a mistake, you have another chance to fix it and reinvent yourself,” Morant said. “I felt like that’s the good that happened during this process. I obviously don’t wish it happened, but it definitely took me, my family, my team, to the next level.”

The No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft, 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year and 2022 Most Improved Player has been suspended for a combined 33 games since he first was caught flashing a gun on a social media livestream on March 4.

Morant first told reporters after the Los Angeles Lakers ousted Memphis from the playoffs in April that he had to make better decisions, knowing off-the-court issues affected the Grizzlies’ season. A team that earned a second straight No. 2 seed in the Western Conference lasted just six games in the postseason.

Only two weeks later, Morant was singing with friends when caught holding up a handgun during a livestream video. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver weighed the situation and announced the second suspension along with other steps for Morant to take.

That included talking weekly with the NBA office and the National Basketball Players Association.

(This AP story was reported by Brett Martel.)


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