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NBA

Ja Morant Returns, Lifts Grizzlies From Muck

2:34 PM EST on December 20, 2023

Ja Morant of the Grizzlies scores the game-winning basket against the Pelicans
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

After Ja Morant hit a cyclonic buzzer-beater to complete the Grizzlies' 115-113 comeback against the Pelicans on Tuesday, TNT displayed a lightly misleading chyron. Morant's 34 points were the highest mark ever for an NBA player returning from an absence of at least 25 games. You might imagine most of the other players in contention for that obscure honor were returning from injury, not from a 25-game suspension for two instances of live-streamed gun waggling.

Morant was in the hunt for an All-NBA team last season before some odd stories surfaced and before those guns appeared on Instagram; he has been physically sound this season as his team face-planted into a 6-19 record without him; he has been busy demonstrating how to pass a basketball in a different kind of court, but he's also been keeping up with film study, as he explained in the presser four days ahead of his season debut. When the point guard hit the floor on Tuesday, he might not have been fully conditioned—he sucked on an inhaler twice in the second half and massage-gunned his calf in the timeout before the final possession—but neither was he testing the limits of a newly repaired ligament. His situation is singular, and, as this performance reminded the league, so too is the airspace he occupies in the lane, hovering solitary above all the rank-and-file hyper-athletes.

Morant started the night slow and the Pelicans led by as many as 24 points in the first half. He went on to score 27 of his 34 points in the second half, all on his characteristic rim attacks. In this game he took just six of his 24 shot attempts outside the paint, and missed all of those. Everyone knows where he's trying to go, and the only surprise is compressed into that hair-raising moment after he's gotten his feet in the paint, into the ensuing launch and contortions.

But mere knowledge of where Morant is going isn't all that prophylactic in itself. The Pelicans' Herb Jones is among the best perimeter stoppers in the league; Morant is one of the only players who can render him irrelevant. He cooked Jones for all six of the Grizzlies' last points: once in an isolation, once in the pick-and-roll, and again in isolation with 9.6 seconds on the clock and two other Pelicans offering help. I'm still hung up on that last, slaloming series of feints: Morant attacked with his left hand, spun around to his right hand, and then hurled himself left again to comfortably clear Jones's seven-foot wingspan.

The last play might've looked different had Morant not pushed through some cramping in his calf. Morant apparently suggested to his backcourt mate Desmond Bane that they feed big man Jaren Jackson, Jr. for a post-up on the ultimate possession. Morant recalled a straightforward answer from Bane: "Fuck no, you getting the ball." I can understand the urgency in Bane's voice. The Grizzlies sure as hell need the ball in Morant's hands. Their decrepit 30th-ranked offense needs that injection of superstar juice. Memphis's season might be cooked regardless, as they're still currently 6.5 games out of the play-in, but Morant couldn't have returned any louder. "I feel like it was a perfect ending, perfect day," he said.

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