Morant says winner in Grizz return ‘perfect ending’

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NEW ORLEANS — With 9.6 seconds remaining in his delayed season debut, Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant fought fatigue after carrying his team back from a 24-point deficit to tie the score against the New Orleans Pelicans. As he used a massage gun on his calves, which he said he felt starting to cramp during the timeout, Morant suggested a playcall: a post-up for power forward Jaren Jackson Jr.

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.”

Morant delivered in dramatic fashion, finishing his 34-point, six-rebound, eight-assist performance with the first game-winning buzzer-beater of his career. He beat Pelicans defensive stopper Herbert Jones with a spin move in the lane before laying the ball in as time expired at the Smoothie King Center.

Morant silenced the New Orleans fans who booed him early in his return from a 25-game suspension for brandishing a firearm on an Instagram Live video in May, his second such incident in a span of two months. His teammates erupted in celebration, as did the hundreds of Grizzlies fans in the arena, including Morant’s father, Tee, and best friend, Davonte Pack, who sat in courtside seats on the baseline steps away from the Memphis bench.

“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, a feat last accomplished by Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic in 2019.

Morant had 27 of his 34 points in the second half despite struggling with his wind after an eight-month layoff from game competition, having last played in Game 6 of the first round of the playoffs in April, when the No. 2 seed Grizzlies were eliminated by a 40-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Morant used an inhaler to get an oxygen boost midway through the third quarter and again during the break before the fourth quarter.

He 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’ final 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.

It was a desperately needed emotional lift for the Grizzlies, who went 6-19 during Morant’s suspension, entering the night tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

The 24-point comeback is the largest by a team that entered the game with a .250 or worse winning percentage in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“It felt different out there, having our guy back, our leader,” said Bane, who had 21 points. “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.”

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