OGUN, Nigeria (VOICE OF NAIJA)- Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies battled weariness with 9.6 seconds left in his postponed season debut after rallying his club from a 24-point hole to tie the game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Using a massager on his calves, which he claimed were beginning to cramp during the break, Morant proposed a play that would see power forward Jarren Jackson Jr. post up.
Grizzlies shooting guard Desmond Bane, sensing the moment and having seen Morant take over down the stretch, immediately rejected that plan.
“He told me, ‘F— no, you get the ball,'” Morant said after the Grizzlies’ 115-113 win Tuesday night. “So at that point, I pretty much just had to lock in and go deliver. And I did.”
With a game-winning buzzer-beater to cap off a 34-point, 6-rebound, and 8-assist effort, Morant delivered a sensational performance. He used a spin move in the lane to beat Pelicans defensive stopper Herbert Jones, and as time ran out at the Smoothie King Center, he laid the ball in.
When he returned from a 25-game suspension in May, after his second incident in two months, in which he brandished a handgun on an Instagram Live video, Morant calmed the New Orleans supporters who had been jeering him.
His teammates and the hundreds of Grizzlies supporters in the arena, who were seated courtside on the baseline steps away from the Memphis bench and including Morant’s father Tee and best buddy Davonte Pack, burst into cheers. “I feel like it was the perfect ending, perfect day,” Morant said.
“That was crazy,” said Jackson, who had 24 points in the win. “I’m glad I was a part of it. I’m glad I was in the game to witness it.”
Morant had three go-ahead field goals in the final 90 seconds, all on isolation drives against Jones. That matched the most go-ahead buckets in the final 1:30 of a fourth quarter in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, a feat last accomplished by Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic in 2019.
After an eight-month break from competitive play, Morant scored 27 of his 34 points in the second half while having trouble with his wind. Morant last appeared in a playoff game in April during Game 6 of the first round, where the No. 2 seed Grizzlies lost to the Los Angeles Lakers by 40 points. Halfway through the third quarter and again during the pre-fourth quarter break, Morant used an oxygen inhaler.
Morant checked back in with 8:17 remaining, when the Grizzlies trailed by seven points, and dominated the rest of the game. He scored 14 points in the final 7:15 — five field goals in the paint off drives and four free throws — including the Grizzlies’ last six points of the game.
“Obviously I’ve been working hard, but it’s nothing like NBA basketball, so that’s pretty much just doing the inhaler to try to get more oxygen in the body to be able to go out there and deliver,” Morant said. “When I got back in at that eight-minute mark, they pretty much told me, ‘You’re not coming out.’ I just had to lock in and just push through. [That is] pretty much my life — just continuing to push no matter what.”
Morant’s winning shot occurred at 9:01 p.m., matching the Memphis area code. It was the Grizzlies’ first game-winning buzzer-beater since a Jae Crowder 3 off a Morant assist against the Brooklyn Nets on Oct. 27, 2019, which was the first victory of Morant’s career.
For the Grizzlies, who went 6-19 with Jarvis during his suspension and entered the game tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the second-worst record in the Western Conference, it was a much-needed emotional boost.
According to ESPN Stats & Information analysis, the 24-point comeback is the biggest by a club that started the game with a winning % of.250 or lower in the previous 25 years.
“It felt different out there, having our guy back, our leader,” said Bane, who had 21 points in the win. “He does so much for us on the court, of course, but the spirit and the energy and all that that he plays with is infectious. … I ain’t surprised at all. I’ve seen him do a bunch of crazy things. I’m not going to say I was expecting something like this, but I knew he was going to be himself.“
It was a vintage Morant performance, as he dominated off the dribble, consistently getting downhill and scoring in the paint. According to Second Spectrum, Morant scored 12 times on layups, dunks and floaters, which equals the most by a guard in any game this season, matching Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey during his 50-point game.
After Morant’s teammates mobbed him while he did the TNT walk-off interview, he bounced as he jogged down the hallway to the visitors locker room.
“I kept receipts, too! I kept receipts, too!” Morant shouted, an apparent reference to the criticism he received during his suspension. He played Meek Mill’s “Respect the Game” at high volume on a speaker by his locker as the media entered the Grizzlies’ joyous locker room.
Morant savored every minute, as well as the aftermath, of his spectacular, exhilarating season debut.
“I just wanted him to have fun,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It sure looked like he did.”