AP Photo/ Gerald Herbert
Coming into the 2023-24 NBA season, one of the top storylines was how the Memphis Grizzlies would fear the first 25 games without their electrifying franchise superstar Ja Morant being suspended the first quarter of the season due to repeated off-the-court antics from last season.
Well… Let’s just say that the narrative from a few seasons ago about how the Grizzlies played well without Morant in the lineup didn’t carry over into this season as they started (6-19).
Albeit the team is vastly different from the last two seasons with the departures of former backup guard Tyus Jones now on the Washington Wizards, Dillion Brooks (Houston Rockets), as well as injuries to Steven Adams (right knee), and Brandon Clarke (Achilles) have all played a crucial part as to why they aren’t as formidable without Morant in the lineup.
This team started off the season losing their first six games out of the gate and were on a five-game losing streak before Morant’s season debut on December 19th against the New Orleans Pelicans.
The world was watching that Tuesday on national television on TNT, ready to watch Morant and how he’ll respond after being gone for a quarter of the season… He was more than ready.
It looked like he hadn’t missed a beat, having been practicing with the team and staying in shape doing five-on-fives to keep himself in shape before his season debut. Morant scored 34 points on 12-of-24 from the field (50%) with six rebounds, eight assists, two steals, and a block.
It’s not just the stats, it’s the way he scores and how loud he does it with twisting acrobatic finishes at the rim with either hand, which makes him so tough to guard with his blinding speed.
He’s a turbo rocket coming right at you and he’s relentless when attacking the basket. Morant missed all five three-point attempts in his season debut, something he has struggled to find a rhythm in since his return shooting just 3-of-18 (17%) through his first four games.
Despite struggling from downtown in his debut, Morant was able to finish the game loud like his play style warrants with a fantastic tear drop floater off an aggressive drive to the left twirling to the right like a tornado that bounced softly off the rim and dropped in to give the Grizzlies the 115-113 victory in New Orleans.
Just the possession before that he gave the Grizzlies a 113-111 lead over the Pelicans with a beautiful off-balanced left-handed finish on the right side with Zion Williamson coming over to try to deter him and Herb Jones (one of the best perimeter defenders in the league) on his hip as you see here at the 3:07 mark.
He did say “I kept receipts” due to ESPN ranking him 35th in their annual top 100 players rankings before the season, as he headed to the locker room after scoring the Grizzlies' final six points that gave them the victory and ended their five-game skid.
Since then they have won four straight games where they have defeated the Pelicans twice, the Indiana Pacers led by their superstar Tyrese Haliburton, and the Atlanta Hawks with Trae Young.
Morant's stats since his return read as follows:
Many have counted the Grizzlies out of having any chance to make the postseason as they currently sit with a (10-19) record, good for 13th in the Western Conference and the odds seem insurmountable.
The Grizzlies' goal should be to try to aim for a top-10 seed to make the play in the tournament which is attainable with the three teams ahead of them all struggling themselves such as the Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Golden State Warriors.
All are either below .500 (Jazz and Suns) or just hovering around there in the Warriors case.
The Grizzlies' next three games will be tough as they play the defending champion Denver Nuggets tomorrow, the Los Angeles Clippers, who seem to have found their mojo, and the enthralling Sacramento Kings who all currently sit top six in the West.
These three games will help better crystalize if the Grizzlies can do the unthinkable and establish themselves as a team to beat in the West.
Morant’s comeback has injected a resurgence of energy for the franchise that was desperately needed as they looked on the verge of being one of the worst teams this season.
He was just recently named the Western Conference Player of the Week after leading the Grizzlies to a 3-0 record last week.
Let’s hope Morant (perhaps the most marketable star in the NBA) can stay away from all the off-court antics that plagued him and were self-inflicted upon himself, as this looks to be a beautiful redemption story.