After missing 12 straight games due to injury and the league's COVID protocols, Ja Morant returned to action Monday night. However, his comeback didn't go as planned.
Grizzlies fall to the Thunder
Following Sunday's loss to the Trail Blazers that snapped their five-game win streak, the Grizzlies dropped a second-straight home game, this time to the Thunder. One of the worst teams in the league beat Memphis 102-99, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists) and Josh Giddey (19 points, 5 rebounds, 11 assists), spoiling Morant's return to FedEx Forum.
The 22-year-old point guard put up 16 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists in 28 minutes of action and was visibly annoyed with the outcome of his comeback game. “It’s frustrating for me, watching this team while I was out and the type of basketball they were playing,” he said. “We beat this team by 73, and then we lose the day I come back against this team. It’s frustrating. I was already in my head coming back out and trusting my knee after missing 12 games."
The Grizzlies were 10-2 without Morant in the lineup, jumping to 19-12 and the fourth seed in the West despite the mediocre start to the season -- they were 9-10 before Ja's injury. One of those wins was against Oklahoma, with the largest margin of victory in NBA history.
Guys like Tyus Jones, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane have all blossomed in Morant's absence, putting up career numbers across the board. The Grizzlies imposed themselves as one of the best defensive groups over the stretch, with head coach Tyler Jenkins maximizing each of his guys' utilities on the offensive end. But does that mean they are a better team without their best player? Some fans at FedEx Forum yesterday sure think so.
Even during the game, I was running down the court and I heard some of my fans courtside tell me I need to sit back out. So, I just don’t understand what they wanted to get out of that. I feel like that just makes it worse.
Ja Morant, Basketball News
Morant's teammate comes to his defense
Star players usually don't receive the welcome Morant received on his first night back. But teams usually don't thrive while their best player is sidelined with an injury. Still, the small winning pattern, no matter how impressive, shouldn't overshadow Morant's three-year run with the organization.
“It’s a lot, man," Morant said. "I’m excited to be back and I’m thankful for my teammates because they have tried to keep my spirits up and tell me not to worry about what people say. But, it’s hard not to see that stuff. I mean, it’s easy when I see it, but when I’m running down the court midgame and hear it from the people that were chanting M-V-P a while ago, it’s frustrating.”
Desmond Bane, who put up a team-high 25 points in a loss to the Thunder, jumped to Morant's defense after the game, renouncing the narrative about the Grizzlies being better without their star point guard in the lineup.
“We happened to win some games, and guys were out on the teams that we were playing," Bane said. "So, yeah, he’s an easy target. But that’s nonsense. There was something that popped up on my phone talking about, ‘trade Ja Morant.’ He will be in Memphis as long as he wants to be in Memphis. He is our franchise.”
According to Bane, Morant's 16-point effort against the Thunder was far from a bad showing. It certainly wasn't worthy of such a reaction. There's no doubt Ja has to play better. And there's no doubt he will. But more importantly, the Grizzlies' fans have to be better. This simply wasn't the way to welcome your franchise cornerstone after a month-long break.