MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — The cheers from the Memphis crowd eased Ja Morant's emotions on his return to the court.
In the postgame after the Grizzlies' 130-125 win over the Houston Rockets, he couldn't really explain the feeling.
"I can't really put it into words. I'm kind of numb right now," Morant said. "Thankful to everybody."
The two-time All-Star guard was welcomed back with a standing ovation and cheers throughout the arena in his first action after missing nine games — eight because of an NBA suspension.
The return was a celebration for Memphis fans, who were anxious to see what the layoff had meant for the team's leading scorer and sparkplug.
Morant ended up playing 24 minutes and finished with 17 points on six-for-13 shooting overall and five for six from the line as the Grizzlies clinched first in the Southwest Division for the second straight season. Morant added five assists and four rebounds.
"Obviously, I'm thankful and grateful for everybody who has been supporting me during this time," Morant said of the reception. "It definitely helped me a lot. Definitely made me feel a little better. Eased everything that's been going on. Felt good to be back. Super excited and glad we were able to get the win."
Morant, who was not in the starting line-up, entered the game after a timeout with 3:05 left in the first quarter, replacing starter Tyus Jones. The cheers began to build as Morant rose from the bench and made his way to the scorer's table, adjusting the specially fit mask from a previous nasal fracture.
The standing ovation and the cheers reached their peak even before Morant was announced as entering the game.
The first cheers came when Morant emerged from the locker room for pregame warmups.
Forward Jaren Jackson Jr who scored a game-high 37 points, knew the ovation would be loud, yet even he was surprised.
"I knew how loud they were going to cheer. I really tracked every time they cheered," Jackson said. "They cheered when he came out. The people in the top didn't see him, but then they showed him on the (Jumbotron). ...Then he came in and they cheered."
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said the decision for Morant to come off the bench was a collaborative one after discussions with Morant and the team's medical personnel. The Grizzlies are making sure Morant is building up to game shape. Memphis also went 6-3 during Morant's absence, contributing to the decision.
"This was something he brought to the table, as well as it's been on my mind," Jenkins said before the game. "So, we collectively thought this was the best strategy at least for the first one or two games. Then we will kind of reevaluate after that."
Morant added in the postgame press conference: "I suggested it because of how well they've been playing while I was away," the guard said of coming off the bench. "I didn't want to come right back and mess any of that chemistry up."
This is Morant's first action since the Grizzlies lost March 3 at Denver. Hours after the game, Morant live-streamed himself at a Denver-area strip club showing himself briefly brandishing a gun.
That earned Morant a sit-down with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and $669,000 in pay for the suspension in which the league ruled his conduct was "detrimental to the league."
Morant's suspension ended with Saturday's game against Golden State. He did not play in Monday's game against Dallas, as the team allowed him to work on conditioning before returning to action.
"We want to be really smart, not just over the first couple of game, but the first week to two." Jenkins said. "We want to be smart with that layoff that we're not doing anything to jeopardise his health as well."
In his first comments since his suspension, Morant said Tuesday that he went to counselling at a Florida facility during his suspension to deal with the stress of becoming one of the NBA's most popular players.
His enthusiastic play, with high-scoring and jaw-dropping dunks, have led to endorsements and rising uniform sales. Asked about whether the short period in counselling was enough to resolve his issues, Morant said it's an ongoing process.
Jenkins emphasised that Morant being used in a reserve role is simply a focus on transition.
"Eventually, Ja will be our starter," Jenkins said, drawing a laugh from reporters.