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Morant has quickly gotten Grizzlies rolling and oozing optimism

Ja Morant Grizzlies Ja Morant - The Canadian Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ja Morant's return to NBA play has the Memphis Grizzlies facing a new set of questions.

Namely, could they have reasonably expected their All-Star guard to be so productive, so soon?

Or, did they suspect that having Morant back in the lineup would make winning — and contending — look so achievable for a club that managed just six victories in its first 25 games?

“You have a player like that, he makes everybody better, from our top guys to our role-playing guys," Grizzlies shooting guard Desmond Bane said. “So you can’t overestimate how good he is and how much impact he has.”

Morant has averaged 28.8 points through his first four games since returning from an NBA suspension that stemmed from his antics with guns on social media. Memphis has won all four of those games to improve to 10-19, leaving them just 4 1/2 games out of a Western Conference play-in spot with 53 games to play.

“I don’t really look at where we’re at in the standings right now with all these games left," Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. "I’m just focused on all the momentum that we’ve built up over the last week or so.”

There's no denying that momentum, or who's primarily responsible for it.

Hours before his 31-point performance in a 116-115 overtime victory in New Orleans on Tuesday night, Morant had been named Western Conference Player of the Week — for his first week back on the court.

“It’s awesome that he got recognized for his stellar play, for the team’s stellar play over the past week," Jenkins said. "But he didn’t come back focused on trying to win Player of the Week. He just wanted to be back out there with his teammates and compete in the game that he loves.

“Obviously I think he’s been having tons of fun throughout this process, as difficult as it was when he was sidelined for 25 games,” Jenkins added. “But then you saw the joy that he was playing with that first game back ... and we expect nothing less.”

However, given the reason for his suspension Morant's choice of celebratory dance moves after an alley-oop dunk in overtime in New Orleans has led to some criticism of him on social media. While facing his father, who was sitting courtside, a smiling Morant executed a move which vaguely resembled firing guns and holding a bazooka over his shoulder.

A performing artist from New Orleans who goes by the stage name Subtweet Shawn has posted on social media that the dance is his creation and has nothing to do with guns.

Morant has not commented on the significance of the dance move after the dunk, and the Grizzlies did not appear bothered by it, posting clips of the play and celebration on social media.

In his first game back on Dec. 19, also played in New Orleans, Morant scored 34 points, capped by a game-winning basket as time expired. He scored 20 in a home victory over Indiana and then had 30 points and 11 assists in a victory at Atlanta.

“The biggest thing is that he brings a level of confidence to their team that they were waiting for and a swagger to the team," said Pelicans coach Willie Green, whose club won in Memphis back in October, when Morant's suspension was just beginning.

“That’s what makes them dangerous, is now that they have their leader, best player, on the floor, they're playing much more confident,” Green continued. "They're a better defensive team. They’re getting in the paint and they’re attacking. He allows everybody to kind of get to their rightful spots on the floor, so that makes them better."

Jenkins sought to ease Morant's return by telling him to focus on enjoying the game and not letting wins or losses define the success of his return to the club from the outset.

“He and I talked about, you know, there should be no undue burden about you going out there to have to do this or that or the other to get us some wins," Jenkins recalled.

Jenkins advised his best player to, "Just go out there, play you’re brand of basketball, be Ja, and the rest will follow — and that’s what’s happened.”

If any aspect of Morant's game has looked rusty, it's been his outside shot. He's hit just 3 of 18 3-point attempts and joked Tuesday night that his points per game average might be close to 40 if he could hit from deep. In the meantime, he's been effective driving into the paint and using his trademark, lateral jump-step to get off a floater in a crowd of defenders. He's also finished explosive drives to the rim with contested layups and a few dunks.

“I'm just really going out there and just trying to be Ja as much as possible, doing whatever I can,” Morant said. "Sometimes it's scoring, sometimes it's facilitating.

“I pretty much just take what the defense gives me but stay aggressive at the same time,” he added. “If it's 30, it's 30, but if I have 8 and we win, I'm cool with that, too.”