Morant scores 34 in return from ban

RETURN. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) celebrates after scoring the game-winning basket at the buzzer in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. The Grizzlies won 115-113.
RETURN. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) celebrates after scoring the game-winning basket at the buzzer in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in New Orleans, Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. The Grizzlies won 115-113. AP

JA MORANT ended his regrettable absence from professional basketball with a comeback for the ages.

Morant capped a stirring, 34-point season debut with a spinning dribble in the lane to set up a game-winning floater as time expired in the Memphis Grizzlies’ 115-113 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning, Dec. 20, 2023 PH time).

The Grizzlies, who entered on a five-game skid and were 6-19 during Morant’s 25-game suspension for his social media antics with guns, trailed by 24 in the first half but took a 113-111 lead on Morant’s inside basket with 1:22 to go.

The Pelicans tied it and the teams exchanged missed 3-pointers before Morant finished it off at the horn, leaving much of the crowd stunned as he and his teammates celebrated under the basket.

“I’ve been putting work in, man,” Morant said. “I haven’t played a game in eight months. Had a lot of time to learn by myself. A lot of hard days where I went through it. But you know, basketball is my life — what I love, therapeutic for me. And I’m just excited to be back.”

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins designed the winning play for Morant and called the two-time All-Star’s execution of it, “a special play by a special player.”

Morant’s point total was the most in NBA history by a player coming back from an absence of at least 25 games.

“He was able to do whatever he wanted,” Pelicans forward Zion Williamson said. “Ja was able to get downhill a lot. Him doing that opened up the game for the rest of them.”

Jaren Jackson Jr. scored 24 points and Desmond Bane had 21 for Memphis, which also snapped the Pelicans’ four-game winning streak.

Brandon Ingram scored 34 points for New Orleans, but Williamson’s time on the court was limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble and he finished with just 13 points.

“BI was great. He made plays for himself, for his teammates, made big basket after big basket,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t do enough.”

Morant was booed heartily by partisan Pelicans fans during pregame introductions and also when he handled the ball on the opening possession.

Those boos died down as the game wore on, and a section of visiting fans near the Memphis bench made themselves heard as Morant explosively scored eight points — twice hitting difficult driving shots as he was fouled — in a span of 1:20 early in the

third quarter.

“My one expectation was for him to have fun,” Jenkins said. “That’s how you want Ja to play, is to play fast and free with the dynamic abilities.”

Spectators on hand for Morant’s comeback included LSU Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels, who sat next to Tigers star receiver Malik Nabers in the front row near New Orleans’ bench.

Although Morant looked winded at times and didn’t hit many jumpers, his ability to drive into the paint — and finish — looked undiminished. His repertoire included crossover dribbles to set up high floaters in the lane, finger rolls, and double-pump bank shots while hanging in the air.

Memphis got back into the game with an 11-0 run that began late in the first half and continued into the third quarter to make it 60-47.

Soon after, Morant made a floater off the glass while being fouled by Herb Jones, and followed that up by converting a spinning dribble in the lane into a layup as he was fouled, cutting it to 69-62.

The game was competitive from there on, with Morant continuing to find ways to prevent New Orleans from relaxing.

Morant got his last rest early in the fourth quarter, and was told when he checked back in with about eight minutes left that he’d be on the court the rest of the game.

“I’ve been working hard, but there’s nothing like NBA basketball,” Morant said. “I just had to lock in and push through — pretty much my life, you know, just continuing to push, no matter what.”

Jonas Valanciunas had 22 points and 14 rebounds for New Orleans. CJ McCollum added 18 points on six 3s.

New Orleans went on a 28-2 run during which McCollum made four 3s and Ingram drove the lane for a soaring right-handed dunk.

Ingram closed out the spurt with two free throws that made it 53-31.

New Orleans led 60-41 at halftime after Memphis’ Vince Williams beat the horn with a corner 3.

Although they play in the same division, it was just the seventh time Morant and Williamson — the top two NBA draft choices in 2019 — had appeared in the same game, mostly because of Williamson’s health issues.

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