After making the playoffs last season, the Memphis Grizzlies got off to a somewhat disappointing 9-10 start. And when star point guard Ja Morant went down with a knee sprain in late November, it seemed things were going to get even worse. Instead, the Grizzlies leaned on their defense and went 10-2 without Morant to surge into fourth place in the Western Conference.
Morant made his return to the lineup on Monday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but couldn’t keep the good times rolling. Though he finished with 16 points, six rebounds and eight assists, the Grizzlies lost 102-99 at home to a Thunder team they had beaten by an NBA-record 73 points without Morant a few weeks ago.
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The disappointing loss to one of the worst teams in the league had some fans turning on Morant. During his post-game press conference, Morant admitted he was “hurt” by the comments he was hearing.
“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,” Morant said. “So, I just don’t understand what they wanted to get out of that. I feel like that just makes it worse.
“I’m just frustrated. Normally, y’all have seen it, when anybody says something negative about me, it fuels me,” Morant continued. “But, tonight, the remarks from the fans actually hurt. I’m going to do what I normally do and bounce back and I’m very excited for this next game.”
Late on Monday night, Morant announced on Twitter that he was taking a break from social media “for a while” — presumably to get away from the negativity.
Grizzlies fans yelling at Morant are obviously misguided. While the team did go on a big run without him, their schedule had a lot to do with that. They beat the Thunder, Kings (twice), Rockets, Mavericks without Luka Doncic and 76ers without Joel Embiid. Only three of their 10 wins without Morant came against teams above .500.
Morant, meanwhile, is putting up 23.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from 3-point land. And it was only a few months ago that he dragged them through the play-in tournament almost singlehandedly. In their first-round loss to the Jazz, he averaged over 30 points per game. You need top-end talent to succeed in the playoffs, and Morant has already proven he has what it takes on the big stage.
But as foolish as it is to suggest the Grizzlies would be better off without Morant, you cannot deny some of the eye-popping defensive numbers. For the season, the Grizzlies’ defensive rating with Morant on the floor is 115.9. Without him it’s 102.4. In other words, they’ve been the worst defense in the league with Morant — and the second-best without him.
Even if you concede that those numbers are juiced a little bit by the massive win over the Thunder and some of the recent competition, it’s clear that when Morant went down they were able to lock in on defense in a way they cannot when he plays. As Morant works his way back, the Grizzlies will need to figure out how to embrace his offensive brilliance without sacrificing too much on the defensive end.