Ja Rules!

This old man (at least, by some folks’ standards of what “old” is) has been developing a nasty habit of drifting off in early evenings, particularly if the game I’m watching, sometimes with attention, sometimes for white noise, isn’t compelling.   On an otherwise lean night, TNT was covering a small-market matchup between Memphis and New Orleans, and the Pelicans, fresh off a surprising run to the semifinals of the IST, were off to a big lead, one that hit 24 points at one point, over an underwhelming and, to date, uninteresting 6-19 opponent.

But, of course, the reason they were there in the first place had nothing to do with what the Grizzlies’ first 25 games of this season had been like, for this was the much-anticipated return of Temetrius Jamel Morant, who most NBA fans know as “Ja”, and those in Memphis had begun to see in much the same light as another savior whose name begins with a J.   With Elvis and now Lisa Marie gone, basketball is arguably in a tie with blues music for a close second to religion in popularity in Memphis, and the breakout of Morant during his first three seasons is a significant contributor to that argument.  The Grizzlies returned to the post-season in 2020-21 for the first time in four seasons and in 2021-22 made a spirited effort against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors, and Morant became one of the game’s most popular young rising stars.  Which is why his fall from grace in 2022-23 was all the more discouraging.  And as Wikipedia recounted, Morant’s apparent indifference to the dangers of showing his massive Instagram following his careless regard for keeping a gun out of sight, and the recurrence of such tone-deafness, cost him the first 25 games of this season.

Well, for those of you whose body clocks were more on par with actual time of day than was mine, you saw first hand the epitome of a comeback and perhaps the beginnings of a lost young man’s soul being rehabiliated.  Let CBS Sports’ James Herbert update you as he did me in case you missed it:

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant made his 2023-24 season debut on Tuesday, and it was a remarkable one. In his first appearance in an NBA game in 235 days, Morant scored 34 points on 12-for-24 shooting, with eight assists, two steals, a block and the game-winner.  With 9.1 seconds left and the score tied, the Grizzlies put the ball in Morant’s hands. He proceeded to take Herb Jones off the dribble and deliver them a 115-113 come-from-behind victory.

And NBA.com’s Michael C. Wright added how the reaction to what transpired should give the entire league and its fan base some renewed hope as the season heads into its proverbial dog days:

While fans reeled from what they’d just witnessed, Ja Morant trotted towards the locker room, chest out and proud.  “I kept receipts, too,” Morant said, turning left down a hallway.  Why wouldn’t he after buying Memphis a sliver of hope Tuesday night with a spinning game-winner that lifted the team to a 115-113 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans?“

“It felt different out there, having our guy back, our leader,” guard Desmond Bane said.

And it looked different, too.  The Grizzlies were crisp, executing plays with the precision and the upside that was last seen during their post-season run in ’22.  No, New Orleans isn’t best-in-class, but a road win against a team off to this good a start in front of a national TV audience can’t be easily dismissed, either.  And for the league and its business partners, that’s great news.

Morant’s jersey is one of the top five best-selling names out there, per SPORTSNAUT.COM.  If you don’t think more than a few were ordered as last-minute holiday gifts last night, or perhaps today, you don’t know the power of impulse buying.  Especially to a fan base that lives largely on Instagram.

Wright cautions that the road to redemption is still paved with potential potholes, and is daunting, for both the team and its star:

(W)ith Morant back, the Grizzlies need to start stacking wins to get back into the race for a shot at the Play-In Tournament. Memphis is 13th in the Western Conference (7-19), 6 1/2 games behind Phoenix for 10th and the last Play-In berth.

With 56 games remaining, the Grizzlies could make a legit run at making their fourth consecutive postseason appearance. But it’s worth noting that, of the 152 previous teams in NBA history that won six or fewer of their first 25 games, just two (the 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets and the 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers) made the playoffs.  To equal last season’s 51-31 record, Memphis needs to finish 44-12. That might be too lofty, given such a slim margin for error even with Morant back.  This won’t be easy.

No, but it’s gonna be fun to watch.  A lot more fun, say, than watching a team like, say, the Bulls fight for 10th place in their conference.

And I promise you, if you’re so interested, you’re far more likely to see something here about the Grizzlies’ chase for relevance than, say, the Bulls.

I’ve woken up, and so have the Grizzlies.  Ja is a lot more compelling a reason to watch than, say, nein.

Courage…

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