NBA: Ja Morant's return should help Memphis Grizzlies fill seats | Inquirer Sports

NBA: Ja Morant’s return should help Memphis Grizzlies fill seats

/ 07:24 PM December 22, 2023

Ja Morant Grizzlies NBA

Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts during the second half against the Indiana Pacers at FedExForum on December 21, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Justin Ford/Getty Images/AFP

MEMPHIS, Tennessee—Two-time All-Star Ja Morant had a chance Thursday night to try to top a “perfect ending.”

The Memphis Grizzlies’ dazzling point guard played his first game at home since the end of his 25-game suspension to start the NBA season because of his social media antics with guns.

Memphis not only needs Morant on the court, the Grizzlies hope he brings fans back to a venue that felt more like a crypt than an NBA arena without him.

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With Morant banned from watching games from the bench with his teammates, empty seats had been easier to find than fans in Memphis. The last team to win a game on its own court this season helped the Grizzlies pick up only their second victory at home with a 116-103 rout of the Pacers.

Morant made quite the splash in his return to the NBA on Tuesday night, scoring 34 points and the game-winning bucket against New Orleans. Morant called that game “ the perfect ending” to a “perfect day.”

The Grizzlies’ president reminded fans on social media after the team rallied from 24 points down that tickets were available for Thursday night’s game. By Thursday morning, only a few remained to watch a team with a 7-19 record overall and just 1-11 in Memphis.

Asked about the atmosphere, Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins quickly replied: “Electric.”

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“It’s going to be awesome,” Jenkins said in his pregame availability. “Talking to people around town, everyone has been waiting for this opportunity. I know he’s been waiting for this opportunity.”

Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said the return of Morant posed challenges that other teams hadn’t seen from the Grizzlies this season.

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“It’s great that Morant is back,” Carlisle said. “It’s great for the game. It’s great for our league. What he did (Tuesday night in New Orleans) was legendary stuff.”

It was Morant’s first game in Memphis since Game 5 of last season’s first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 26, when Morant and the Grizzlies staved off elimination.

When Morant came out for pregame warmups, the cheers from the crowd began building as soon as he appeared in the tunnel. He jogged to the opposite end of the court, sat down on the visitors’ bench and went over some scouting videos. Then he went through his shooting drills as fans captured video with their phones.

The ovation was even louder in pregame introductions. It reached a crescendo when Morant was announced last as a Memphis starter, the crowd on its feet to welcome back the Grizzlies’ leader. By the time the public address announcer said “Ja Morant,” he could barely be heard.

Morant provided a reminder of how much better the Grizzlies are with him.

Nonetheless, the franchise that earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference each of the past two seasons and won the inaugural play-in games to earn the No. 8 seed in 2021 faces a tall task to earn a fourth straight playoff berth.

The Grizzlies, who hope to get offseason addition Marcus Smart back soon, went into Thursday 13th of 15 teams in the West and 6 1/2 games back of Phoenix for the 10th spot to even earn a play-in opportunity.

Any hopes Morant might’ve had for postseason awards also are gone. The NBA tweaked some policies for this season to get players to play more games and take fewer nights off to rest. That rule requires players to play in 65 games in most cases to be award-eligible.

Even if Morant plays every game the rest of this season, he will play in 57 games.

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Seeing him in Memphis won’t be easy the rest of this month. Thursday night’s game is followed by a four-game road swing before the Grizzlies cap 2023 by hosting Sacramento on New Year’s Eve.

TAGS: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA

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