Ja Morant has produced a spectacular second half in his highly anticipated NBA season debut, sinking a buzzer-beater to steer Memphis to a much-needed road win over New Orleans.
Morant returned on Wednesday (AEDT), having served a 25-game ban for holding a gun during a livestream video last year after the NBA ruled that his actions were detrimental to the league.
It looked like there would be no fairytale comeback as the Pelicans blew out to a 24-point lead late in the second quarter and held a 19-point advantage at halftime.
But Morant took control after the main break, scoring 27 of his equal game-high 34 points in the second half as the Grizzlies prevailed in a 115-113 thriller.
Morant scored Memphis’ final six points, driving hard on the final play to finish from close range as the buzzer sounded.
His points tally was the highest on return by any player in league history that had missed at least 25 straight games, and helped snap the Grizzlies’ (7-19) five-game losing streak.
“I’ve been putting work in, man. I ain’t played a game in eight months,” Morant told TNT Sports.
“I’ve had a lot of time to learn myself and a lot of hard days where I went through it.
“But basketball is my life, what I love, therapeutic for me and I’m just excited to be back.”
Scores were tied with 10 seconds left when Morant grabbed a defensive rebound and Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins called a time-out.
The in-bounds pass went to Morant, who remained calm but later admitted he didn’t want the game stopped for the final play.
“I really didn’t want coach to call the timeout … but they believe in me so I had to deliver,” Morant said.
Jaren Jackson Jr scored 14 of his 24 points in the final quarter for the Grizzlies, while Desmond Bane scored 21.
Morant also had eight assists and six rebounds in an influential return.
New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram matched Morant’s tally of 34 points, with Jonas Valanciunas (22 points, 14 rebounds) and CJ McCollum (18 points) also in the action.
Australian guard Dyson Daniels had three points and two assists in 13 minutes for the Pelicans (16-12).
Elsewhere, Damian Lillard scored a season-high 40 points to push his career total beyond 20,000 as the Milwaukee Bucks beat San Antonio 132-119.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had a triple-double – the 37th of his career and second this season – with a career-high 16 assists, 14 rebounds and a season-low 11 points.
The Spurs were without No.1 draft pick Victor Wembanyama, who was sidelined with a sore right ankle.