LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After capping his rookie campaign with a season-best 35 points in a 126-122 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA’s first-ever play-in tournament, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant revealed he was playing hurt.
“For the past four games, since the [Toronto] Raptors game, I was out there playing with a fractured thumb,” Morant said Saturday.
The Grizzlies’ lightning-quick young star — the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year — wore a black brace over his right thumb, protecting the injury to his shooting hand. He shot 13-for-28 from the field — accounting for the most attempts he has had in the league since Memphis selected him with the No. 2 pick out of Murray State — with 4 rebounds, 8 assists and 8 turnovers. The turnovers were also a season high.
A win would have earned the No. 9-seeded Grizzlies another game with the Blazers on Sunday, with a chance to beat them again in order to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the postseason.
Instead, the loss — bringing their record in the bubble to just 2-7 — ended their season just short of the playoffs. Memphis had a 3½-game lead over Portland for the No. 8 spot when the season went on hiatus on March 11.
“I can say I’m disappointed, definitely, with losing,” Morant said. “Nobody likes to lose. But I mean, the positive side, we know we were right there. Just were two games away [from the playoffs]. So, we know we just go back to work and just get ready for next season.”
Coming into the season, BetOnline set the Grizzlies’ over-under win total at 26½ in 82 games. Memphis finished with 34 wins in 73 games, with the scheduled shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Second-year power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. played in three seeding games and averaged 25.3 points before a meniscus tear in his left knee shut him down for the season.
“I’m proud of everybody — our whole staff, our players. I mean, we played through a lot of adversities,” Morant said. “We faced injuries early in the season — starting with me and then Brandon [Clark] and then Jaren. Coming here, we still faced some injuries to some key guys on the team. But we never gave up. I’m proud of our fight.”
Memphis first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins, a Coach of the Year candidate for his role in the Grizzlies’ surprising season, echoed that pride.
“The buy-in from the guys from day one, the focus on getting better every single day and being unselfish, that drives us, that’s gotten us to this point,” Jenkins said. “What a great experience over the course of this season. But we recognize we laid a great foundation, but we’ve got more work today.
“I wish we were playing tomorrow.”