After serving an eight game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league, Memphis Grizzlies star guard Ja Morant returned to game action against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night.
Morant came off the bench for the first time in his career, and he received a loud ovation from his home crowd when he checked in for the first time late in the first quarter. Sporting a black mask to protect a nasal injury, Morant played a total of 24 minutes and he tallied 17 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals in Memphis' 130-125 victory.
Jaren Jackson Jr. led the way for the Memphis with 37 points and 10 rebounds and Desmond Bane added 20 points and seven assists for the Grizzlies, who improved to 45-27 and now lead third-place Sacramento by two games with 10 remaining in the season.
After the game, Morant expressed gratitude for the support he has received during a difficult time.
"It meant a lot. I'm thankful and grateful for everybody that's been supporting me during this time," Morant said after the game. "It definitely helped me a lot. It definitely made me feel a little better with everything going on. It felt good to be back. I'm super exited. Glad we were able to get the win."
Though Morant admitted that his journey to self-improvement is an ongoing process, his return was a major step in the right direction for both he and the Grizzlies. They can now begin to put some of the recent negativity surrounding the star guard behind them, and turn their full focus forward with just a few weeks remaining in the regular season.
Coming off of the bench was Morant's idea, and one that the coaching staff agreed with as the star guard ramps back up after a relatively long layoff. As such, he'll like remain in that role for at least another game or two.
"This was something he brought to the table as well as had been on my mind," Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of Morant coming off of the bench. "So we collectively thought this was the best strategy, at least for the first one or two games. And then we'll kind of reevaluate after that ... Obviously, we don't have a long runway until the end of the regular season, but we want to be smart with that layoff that we're not doing anything to jeopardize his health."
The good news for the Grizzlies is that Morant has a couple of weeks to find his flow before postseason play gets underway. If he's at his best then, Memphis will have a chance to make a real run in the Western Conference.