Grizzlies

Ja Morant: Season Saver?

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The first half of Ja Morant’s return game vs. the New Orleans Pelicans was a familiar story for the Memphis Grizzlies – offensive ineptitude leading to a massive 60-41 halftime deficit. But the second half was something entirely new – a season-high 74 points, a furious comeback, and a dazzling game-winner all fueled by one of the greatest in-season acquisitions in NBA history. 

Morant looked explosive and engaged from the start. Yet his first half statline of seven points and three assists reflected his inability to fully take over the game. He deferred to Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., who combined to shoot 6-17 from the field with five turnovers. Morant was off the floor for much of the Pelicans’ 28-2 run that seemingly buried the Grizzlies before the first half buzzer. 

But in the second half, Morant delivered one of the most electrifying performances of his oft-electrifying career. It was Ja in rare form – relentlessly attacking the basket against one of the better defenses in the league and consistently scoring, finding open teammates or heading to the free-throw line. 

The Grizzlies’ 115-113 victory brought them to a paltry 7-19 on the season, still 6.5 games back of the play-in. But Morant’s performance brought new life to a season left for dead. His 34 points and eight assists don’t capture the spiritual lift he so clearly brought to his teammates, most of whom were the best version of themselves in the second half. 

Morant is the Elvis to the Grizzlies’ Graceland and the rib to their Rendezvous – he’s at the center of everything. Here’s what we saw in his first game back.

Morant generated easy baskets

Everything was hard for the Grizzlies’ offense in the first 25 games. The Grizzlies ranked 28th in paint points per game before Morant’s return after dominating the statistic for years. They were second-to-last in free throws attempted per game. Even the bread-and-butter sources of offense in head coach Taylor Jenkins’ tenure – fast break and second-chance points – have failed Memphis so far, as they rank in the bottom 10 in both categories. 

Adding one of the best paint scorers in the league made everything easier. Morant scored 24 points in the paint by himself, including 10 in the fourth quarter. Memphis had its second-most paint points  (62), almost 17 points above their average. The Grizzlies also had their fifth-most free throw attempts in a game. It all culminated in the third-highest offensive rating of the season, despite a putrid first half. 

Memphis – dead last in offensive rating before Morant’s return – might not climb back to a Top 10 offense this season. But Morant alone should make the Grizzlies competent on that end.

Bane and Jackson Jr. keep big roles 

Bane (24.4 PTS/game) and Jackson Jr. (21.5 PTS/game) are both having career seasons offensively. Both have seen their offensive responsibilities skyrocket, to the tune of career-high usages on par with LeBron James and Jayson Tatum

Morant’s presence necessarily relegates them to secondary status. But they maintained major roles (24 points for Jackson Jr., 21 points for Bane) in the win over New Orleans, foreshadowing an unprecedented offensive ceiling for the Grizzlies. Memphis has never had three teammates average 20 or more points in a season. After a game where they combined for 79 points, that rare feat is very much on the table. 

Defenses have hounded Bane and Jackson Jr. throughout the season. It’s a credit to their offensive growth that they have still found ways to score efficiently. 

They got much easier looks with Morant at the helm. 

It led to incredible production in the second half, in perhaps the most complementary performance the Grizzlies’ big three has ever produced. 

Surprising boost to Grizzlies’ rebounding 

Oddly, Morant’s return also produced the second-highest rebounding percentage of the season for the Grizzlies. Memphis put up 17 second-chance points and limited New Orleans to eight. Morant grabbed six boards, but his impact on rebounding extends beyond his own production. 

Morant routinely draws three defenders on drives. Even if he misses, his teammates can easily benefit from “Kobe assists.” 

But more importantly, Morant’s singlehanded scoring ability allows the Grizzlies to play lineups with strong rebounders who aren’t offensive creators. Vince Williams Jr., John Konchar, Bismack Biyombo and Xavier Tillman Sr. are the type of hustle guys who struggle without a playmaker on the floor. Put them alongside Morant, however, and their skillset infuses Memphis with the toughness that elevated it to top of the West the last two seasons. 

Morant’s aura endows his teammates with confidence and swagger they sorely missed in his absence. Even down 19, this moment showed the Grizzlies were still going to fight. 

GM Zach Kleiman built this roster to complement Morant – his presence allows everyone to slide into their ideal role. With Morant back – and Marcus Smart and Luke Kennard set to join him soon – the Grizzlies should finally look like themselves. It may be too little too late for the Playoffs, but like his gravity-defying dunks, Morant makes the impossible possible. 

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