A rested and rehabbed Ja Morant is all set for the NBA playoffs, and the All-Star guard has the talented Memphis Grizzlies believing they’re ready to make a deep postseason run.
Morant sat out the regular-season finale on Sunday, but returned the night before after missing nine games with a sore right knee.
”I felt like I needed a game or two to get my legs back under me, to get the game-type feel,” Morant said.
It appears he has his legs back under him.
Morant scored 21 points in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans that tied Memphis’ franchise record for victories in a season at 56. Then, along with the other Grizzlies starters, he sat out the regular-season finale.
It has been a steady ascension for Morant, who boosts the Grizzlies with each step he takes.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft and 2020 rookie of the year, Morant helped end Memphis’ playoff drought in 2021 when the Grizzlies played their way to the No. 8 seed.
Now with a resume worthy of MVP consideration, he has led Memphis to its highest seed ever at No. 2 in the West with the NBA’s second-best record of 56-26. The Grizzlies believe they are ready to take the next step; reaching the playoffs is no longer good enough for this team.
Memphis starts its quest Saturday when it hosts Minnesota, a 109-104 winner over the Los Angeles Clippers. Not that the opponent matters to Morant.
”I’m focused on us,” the third-year guard out of Murray State said. ”Getting better during that week stretch and just being ready to go out there and play the first two games here at home. No matter who it is, we go into the game’s the same way. It’s going to be different coverages, depending on the team, but our play style 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 stats.
Head cheerleader when on the bench, he brings everyone to their feet by dunking over 7-footers, throwing down lobs or dishing the ball off to a teammate for an easy basket.
Even his high-flying blocks on defense are must-see TV.
His own coach wants to see what Morant does next to attack with his ”elite level” ballhandling skills.
”That’s what you need at this level,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. ”I’m trying to follow him at times to see what’s coming next but when he does something I’m like, `Here we go!’ This is what he does. I know he has more in store moving forward that’s going to definitely surprise me.”
And likely opponents as well.
Morant boosted his scoring average by 8.3 points a 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 get so enamored watching Morant’s nightly highlight-reel plays that they forget his high basketball IQ.
”His ability to understand where the reads are on the floor, teams are still going under him and he’s still able to get to the paint at such a high clip,” Mosley said. ”He’s just playing at a tremendous pace, and he has the ability to get to the paint continuously without teams being able to stop him.”
Morant’s speed and fearlessness 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, most by a guard over the last 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV said he could learn from Morant on how to go attack the big men inside.
”He does a fantastic job going to his left,” Walker said. ”It’s either, if he’s on the right side, he’s going to snake it or if he’s on the left side, he’s going downhill and doing what he does.”
With this ability to get to the basket, when he’s making 3s, San Antonio forward Doug McDermott said Morant is almost un-guardable.
”He’s so quick,” McDermott said. ”He can split ball screens and he gets everyone else involved. He’s a great player, and we’ll be seeing a lot of him in the coming 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 motor for our team,” forward Brandon Clarke said. ”Obviously we’re 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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