By TERESA M. WALKER – AP Sports Writer
A rested and rehabilitated Ja Morant will return to Memphis’ roster for the NBA playoffs, and the All-Star guard is making the young and talented Grizzlies believe they’re ready for a deep playoff run.
Morant missed Sunday’s regular season finale but returned the day before after missing nine games with right knee pain.
“I felt like I needed a game or two to get my legs back under me, to get the feel of the game,” Morant said.
It looks like he has his legs under him.
Morant scored 21 points in a victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that tied Memphis’ franchise record for single-season wins at 56. Then, along with the other Grizzlies starters, he missed the final of the regular season.
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It’s been a steady climb for Morant, who elevates the Grizzlies with every step he takes.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and 2020 Rookie of the Year, Morant helped end Memphis’ 2021 playoff drought as the Grizzlies fought their way to the top seed No. 8.
Now with an MVP-worthy resume, he led Memphis to its highest seed 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, making the playoffs is no longer enough for this team.
Memphis begins its quest Saturday by hosting Minnesota or the Los Angeles Clippers, not that the opponent matters to Morant.
“I’m focused on us,” the Murray State third-year guard said. “To improve during this week and be ready to play the first two games here at home. It doesn’t matter who it is, we approach the game the same way. There will be different covers, depending on the team, but our style of play never changes.
This franchise was swept in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, which was the only time they made it past the second round.
Morant’s value to the Grizzlies goes beyond just stats.
Chief cheerleader when he’s on the bench, he puts everyone on their feet soak more than 7 feetthrow lobs or send the ball to a teammate for an easy field goal.
Even his high flight blocks on defense are television staples.
His own coach wants to see what Morant does next to attack with his ‘elite level’ ball handling skills.
“That’s what you need at this level,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “I sometimes try to follow him to see what’s next, but when he does something, I’m like, ‘Here we go!’ That’s what he’s doing. I know he has more in store going forward, which will definitely surprise me.
And probably opponents too.
Morant has increased his average by 8.3 points per game and improved in all statistical categories this season. He averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 57 games.
Orlando coach Jamahl Mosley said people were so enamored with Morant’s night games that they forgot about his high basketball IQ.
“His ability to understand where the readings are on the floor, teams always pass under him and he’s always able to reach the paint at such a high level,” Mosley said. “He just plays at a blistering pace and he has the ability to reach the paint continuously without the 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’s played 22 games this season, scoring at least 20 points in the paint, most by a guard in the last 25 seasons according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Spurs goalkeeper Lonnie Walker IV said he could learn from Morant how to 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’ll meander it or if he’s on the left side, he goes down and does what he does.”
With that ability to reach the basket, when he makes 3s, San Antonio forward Doug McDermott said Morant was nearly impossible to watch.
“He’s so fast,” McDermott said. “He can split ball screens and he involves everyone. He’s a great player, and we’ll see him a lot in the years to come.”
Having Morant healthy for the playoffs is a confidence boost for the Grizzlies, even though they went 20-5 without him this season.
“He’s the engine of our team…” said forward Brandon Clarke. “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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