Ja Morant has been a ghost, a pariah and a punchline for the past eight months, a mesmerizing prodigy whose propensity for flashing firearms stopped his career cold. The Memphis Grizzlies guard clammed up during his second gun-related suspension of the year, apparently realizing a third chance might be harder to come by.
But when Morant finally returned to the basketball court Tuesday — just eight days after he testified at a county courthouse in Tennessee in a lawsuit alleging he assaulted a teenager — the 24-year-old star made it clear he remains a franchise-changing, game-winning talent.
In his first action of the season following a 25-game suspension, Morant had 34 points, six rebounds and eight assists to lead the Grizzlies to a 115-113 road victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Morant capped his debut with a spinning buzzer-beater that completed a furious comeback from a 24-point first-half deficit and snapped Memphis’s five-game losing streak.
“I felt like it was the perfect ending,” Morant said. “The perfect day — being able to come back and play and also deliver a game-winner. Over this little bit of time, I’ve been putting a lot of trust in God, getting even closer with God. I know He has a plan for me. I feel like it’s already written. I’m letting Him lead me.”
The Grizzlies (7-19), adrift without Morant, plunged from the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed last year to 13th place in the standings this season. They have plenty of work to do to get back into the play-in tournament picture, let alone claim a playoff spot for a fourth straight year. Morant’s return clearly energized the group, though, and he provided repeated reminders that he is a capable savior for an offense that ranks last in the NBA.
“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, but the spirit and the energy that he plays with is infectious.”
Morant bolted out of the gates, driving the lane to earn free throws in the opening minute and scrounging up his first bucket shortly thereafter in the paint. Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins opted against drastically limiting Morant’s minutes, instead playing him in shorter bursts in the first half before turning him loose down the stretch.
There was evidence of rust early and signs of fatigue late: Morant committed five turnovers, including several wild passes out of bounds, and he used a massage gun to stave off cramps during a timeout in the game’s final minute. The Grizzlies also seemed to be adjusting on the fly to his breakneck pace, and they looked lost when he went to the bench midway through the second quarter and New Orleans ripped off a 23-0 run. Morant said he expected “jitters” and moments of miscommunication with his teammates, and he shook off boos from the Smoothie King Center crowd.
Even so, it didn’t take long for the two-time all-star to remind everyone how difficult he is to keep out of the paint. Twice Morant drove to the hoop so hard that he finished layups by crashing to the court and dismounting into a somersault. He salivated when given the opportunity to work against New Orleans big men Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas, and he got where he wanted to go even when he was shadowed by Herbert Jones, one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. At one point, Morant scored on Jose Alvarado, who is generously listed at 6-foot, and motioned that the Pelicans guard was “too small.”
As Memphis chipped away at the Grizzlies’ lead, it leaned harder and harder on Morant, who asked for a breather in the third quarter before playing the final eight-plus minutes of regulation. Morant scored 27 points in the second half, including Memphis’s final six points, to outduel Brandon Ingram, who led New Orleans (16-12) with 34. Despite missing all five of his three-point attempts, Morant shot 12 for 24 from the field — with all of his baskets coming in the paint, including the game-winner.
Jenkins set up the final play by taking a timeout with the score tied at 113 and 9.6 seconds left. Morant initially suggested he would work the ball inside to Jaren Jackson Jr., but Jenkins and Bane had other ideas and insisted that Morant get the chance to be the hero.
Memphis spaced the court to allow Morant to rev up from the top of the key: He angled left, spun back to his right at the free throw line and found a seam between Jones and Dyson Daniels to loft a double-clutch floater from just outside the restricted area. The shot rattled in as time expired, and Morant was mobbed by his teammates and cheered by his father, Tee, who had a baseline seat.
“Ja was spectacular tonight,” Jenkins said. “A special player making a special play. He relishes these moments. He was beyond excited to get out there and be with his teammates and play basketball, the game that he loves. I thought he came out and set a tone for us on both ends of the floor. … That’s how you want Ja to play: fast and free.”