When Ja Morant sprained his left ankle against the Brooklyn Nets back on Dec. 28, he nearly willed himself back onto the court -- despite suffering a grade 2 sprain that caused him to be ruled out for the next 3-to-5 weeks.
So it came as little surprise to Morant, or anyone else in Memphis, that the emerging star guard was able to come back Saturday night in less than that initial three-week timeline, as he scored 17 points and dished out six assists to lead the Grizzlies to a 106-104 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
"It was huge, in the fact that he wanted to come back so fast," said rookie forward Xavier Tillman, who had 15 points and 4 rebounds in 28 minutes. "For a guy who .. is a franchise kind-of-guy, they're usually able to take their time and make sure they are 110 percent before they come back. I'm not saying he wasn't 110 percent, but he was dying and itching to come back and help us win games.
"To see that from your head guy motivates everybody else, including me, being one of the rookies on the team. It's like, 'Hey man, forget nicks and bruises. The dude looked like he broke his ankle and he's itching to get back. If I have nicks and bruises, I can play, and I can give my heart.'"
That the Grizzlies came into Saturday night's game in Memphis with a three-game winning streak without their two best players -- Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., who has missed the entire season so far while recovering from meniscus surgery -- was a credit to the team's mentality without him. But it was Morant, one of the league's most electrifying players already, who helped power Memphis to a win thanks to helping the Grizzlies get out and run repeatedly, leading to 20 fast break points.
It didn't look like Morant would be leading the break anytime soon when he suffered a nasty-looking sprain back in that Nets game. But, even on a night when he was ruled out for several weeks, Morant said he nearly was able to force his way back onto the court.
"I had to go through these tests, and I got to the last two, which was hopping just on that foot sideways, forward," Morant said. "And I couldn't. After that, I was frustrated, but you know, these are my guys, I'm very confident in them, and anything I can do to help, I'll do for them."
He got plenty of help from those same teammates who have lifted Memphis up without him; seven players finished in double figures.
And, while he was watching them play over the past several weeks, Morant said he learned how mentally strong he was.
"I feel like that was big [for me]," Morant said. He then said there was a quote that helped him get through the tough times, but that he didn't want to say it because "I might get emotional."
He did, however, wind up tweeting it out after his postgame interview was over.
The Sixers, meanwhile, fell to 0-3 when Joel Embiid doesn't play -- compared to 9-2 when he does.
Before the game, Rivers said that Embiid's absence for the two-game road trip was precautionary, but that the team is going to make sure it is cautious with its superstar center if anything crops up early in what already is a compacted regular-season schedule.
Rivers wouldn't let his absence be an excuse, however, saying that mentality is "unacceptable" for this team.