Exhale! Ja Morant is back playing basketball for the Grizzlies, albeit it coming off the bench as he did Wednesday in the 130-125 win over Houston and most likely for the next as he, the coaches and the team gear up for his return to the starting lineup.
The exhale isn’t just a recognition that the Grizzlies ultimately are more formidable with Morant. It’s also part of the soundtrack that gives voice to the fanbase’s genuine concern for him.
With five minutes left in the first quarter, Morant rose from his bench seat and put on a custom-made, all-black face mask, signaling that the two-time All-Star would be checking in for his first playing time since completing an eight-game, NBA suspension for conduct detrimental to the league.
It was the first time Morant had entered a Grizzlies game as a non-starter.
According to head coach Taylor Jenkins, Morant beginning the game on the bench was a mutual decision between Morant and the coaching staff. All thought it best to limit his minutes in the first few games back.
“Phenomenal reception as he was walking toward the scorer’s table,” said Jenkins. “People are really excited for him. He was great tonight, accepting the opportunity to come off the bench. It is just a part of the process to get him back with the group. He played with a lot of great energy and pace.”
In 23 minutes, Morant, who suffered a fractured nasal passage in Memphis’ March 1 win over the Rockets in Houston, scored 17 points, with 5 assists and 4 rebounds. His five-footer with 4:02 to go put the Grizzlies up for good at 115-113 over the young, hard-playing, wouldn’t-quit Rockets.
The FedExForum home-court crowd generated a thunderous ovation as Morant entered the game for the first time since a disturbing nightclub scene – following a Memphis loss in Denver – that Morant himself posted on social media.
“I’m thankful and grateful for everybody who’s been supporting me during this time,” said Morant. “It definitely helped me a lot, definitely made me feel a lot better. It eased everything that’s going on. Felt good to be back. Super excited. Glad we were able to get the win.”
With the win, the Grizzlies (45-27) moved two full games ahead of the Sacramento Kings in a duel for second place in the Western Conference. Their 31-5 record at home is the NBA’s best, with Wednesday’s victory netting Memphis the Southwest Division championship.
While there are no guarantees in the NBA, all indicators pointed to Memphis beating the Rockets, which bear one of the league’s worst records (18-55). And although Houston fought hard, the night’s headline was Morant’s return.
“It is great to have Ja back in the lineup,” said Morant’s starting backcourt partner, Desmond Bane (20 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds). He brings a whole new dimension to our team. It is great to be back on the floor with him.”
All-Star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (37 rebounds, 10 rebounds, 2 assists) said, “I was cheesing. I couldn’t hold it in. Everyone was cheering real loud (for Morant). I knew how loud they were going to cheer. He got offensive (on) the first possession …. He was playing really good defense….”
Jackson’s game was monstrous. He made 14 of his 20 shot attempts. The Rockets had no answer for him.
“I am taking what the defense is giving me right now,” he said. “I am being assertive. I am abusing mismatches. I am holding myself to be dominant and not take a possession off. It is all about spots.”
Jenkins called Jackson’s night phenomenal, linking it to “the growth and the work he has put in since the start of the season….
“It is a product of him asserting himself more in the flow of the offense…. It is an opportunity to make more play calls for him.”
Jackson, Morant and the Grizzlies will run it back against the Rockets on Friday (March 25) with tipoff set for 7 p.m. at FedExForum.