A rested and rehabbed Ja Morant will return to Memphis’ lineup for the NBA playoffs, and the All-Star guard has the young and talented Grizzlies believing they are ready to make a deep run in the postseason.
Morant sat out Sunday’s final regular-season game, but returned the night before after missing nine games with sore right knee.
“I felt like I needed a game or two to get my legs back, to feel the type of game,” Morant said.
It looks like he has his legs under him.
Morant scored 21 points in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans that tied the Memphis franchise record for wins in a season at 56. Then, along with the other Grizzlies starters, he sat out the final game of the regular season.
It’s been a steady climb for Morant, who cheers on the Grizzlies with every step he takes.
Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft and the 2020 Rookie of the Year, helped end Memphis’ playoff drought in 2021 as the Grizzlies worked their way to the No. 8 spot.
Now, with a résumé worthy of MVP consideration, he has led Memphis to its highest seed in history at No. 2 in the West with the second-best record in the NBA at 56-26. The Grizzlies believe they are ready to take the next step, making the playoffs is no longer good enough for this team.
Memphis begins its quest Saturday as host to either Minnesota or the Los Angeles Clippers, not that Morant cares about the opponent.
“I’m focused on us,” the third-year guard from Murray State said. “Getting better during that stretch of the week and just being ready to go out there and play the first two games here at home. No matter who it is, we enter the game the same way. There will be different coverage, depending on the team, but our style of play never changes.”
This franchise was swept in the 2013 Western Conference finals, which was the only time it got past the second round.
Morant’s value to the Grizzlies goes beyond mere statistics.
The leader of the cheerleaders when he is on the bench, he makes everyone stand up wet more than 7 feetthrow balloons or pass the ball to a teammate for an easy basket.
Even your high flying blocks in defense they are unmissable on television.
His own coach wants to see what Morant does next to attack with his “elite level” ball handling skills.
“That’s what you need at this level,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “I try to follow him sometimes to see what’s next, but when he does something, I’m like, ‘Here we go!’ This is what he does. I know he has more in store in the future that will definitely surprise me.”
And likely opponents too.
Morant increased his scoring average by 8.3 points per game and improved in every statistical category this season. He averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 57 games.
Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said people fall so in love with watching Morant’s highlights that they forget about his high basketball IQ.
“His ability to understand where the readings are on the floor, teams are still under him and he can still get to the paint at such a high rate,” Mosley said. “He’s just playing at tremendous pace and he has the ability to get in the paint continuously without teams being able to stop him.”
Morant’s speed and grit when driving to the basket helped him shoot 49.3% in the paint, where he averaged an NBA-high 16.8 points. He had 22 games this season scoring at least 20 points in the paint, the most by a guard in the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV said he could learn from Morant how to attack big men inside.
“He does a fantastic job going to his left,” Walker said. “Either if it’s on the right side it’s going to twist or if it’s on the left side it’s going to go downhill and do what it does.”
With this ability to get to the basket, when he’s hitting 3-pointers, San Antonio forward Doug McDermott said Morant can hardly defend himself.
“He’s so fast,” McDermott said. “He can split ball blocks and gets everyone else involved. He is a great player and we will see him a lot in the next few years”.
Having Morant healthy for the postseason is a confidence boost for the Grizzlies, even though they went 20-5 without him during the season.
“He’s the engine of our team…” forward Brandon Clarke said. “Obviously we are still a good, good team without him. But with Ja, we’re great.”
AP freelance writer Clay Bailey in Memphis contributed to this report.
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