SALT LAKE CITY — Ja Morant’s dad, Tee, entered Vivint Arena at 6:15 p.m. and took his courtside seat to watch his son warm up in the pregame shootaround.
Morant, who averaged 30 points per game in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, strolled over to greet his dad and five close friends following his pregame warm-up. Fans had yet to enter the arena, but every Utah Jazz fan seated near the Morant family was vetted by the Jazz staff to avoid any conflict.
Both Ja and Tee were at ease as they chatted an hour before tip-off. At one point, Tee and Ja pointed up to the stands where the unfortunate altercation took place during Game 2. Morant’s parents were targeted with sexually charged and racist heckling, and the Jazz quickly banned three fans indefinitely after the incident. Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith offered a premium package for Ja’s family and friends for Game 5, but Morant’s mother elected to stay home for the remainder of the series with Tee stating, “her anxiety couldn't take it.”
Before the game even started, the Jazz showed a video on the Jumbotron promoting good sportsmanship.
“When we come into this arena, we represent the Jazz. We represent Utah. We can be the loudest as well as the most respectful arena in the league. Let’s protect our house and the people in it,” it stated.
Ja Morant was met with cheers from 14,250 fans when his name was announced in the starting lineup. Tee Morant and friends were seated on the baseline with five security personnel planted near the tunnel.
“Me and my family appreciate the Utah fans tonight and the organization. The players, coaches, owners, everyone for taking care of us on this trip here,” Morant said. “For them to show the love they did on this trip sits in a special place in me and my family’s hearts.”
Morant’s family and friends chatted comfortably with other fans sitting nearby and had an unforgettable experience, despite the Grizzlies' 126-110 loss.
“Every single fan we interacted with greeted us with open arms tonight,” Morant’s family friend, Trey Draper, told Yahoo Sports. “It just goes to show you that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the tree. I give the night a 10 out of 10.”
Jazz's hot start sends Grizzlies packing
Wednesday was not the Grizzlies' night. It was a must-win game to extend the series, and there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to keep up with the No. 1 team in the NBA. The Jazz started hot, hitting nine 3-pointers and scoring 47 points in the first quarter. It was too much for the young Grizzlies squad to handle as they attempted to come back from a 20-point deficit that lingered the entire first half.
Donovan Mitchell hit a last-second 3-pointer heading into halftime as the Jazz extended the lead to 24 points. Mitchell had 26 points in the first half and a series-high 30 points and 10 assists for the game.
“Even though we had a big lead, we’ve been here before,” Mitchell said. “We were up 13 on Denver going into halftime last season, and we ended up losing that game so we came out with a sense of urgency.”
Morant and Dillon Brooks combined for 54 points in the loss, with Morant adding 11 assists. Morant received a standing ovation from Jazz fans when he walked off the court and told his teammates, “we will be back,” heading into the locker room.
“This was a great season for the Memphis Grizzlies,” head coach Taylor Jenkins said. “There was so much team growth to get to this point. Our team has stuck together and put us in this great position to play meaningful basketball at the end of the season. We pushed through and got a chance to go up against the best team in the NBA, and we did some great things and things that will motivate us moving forward.”
The Jazz are the first team to advance to the Western Conference semifinals, closing out the series against the Grizzlies 4-1. Utah will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or Dallas Mavericks in the next round.
“We’ve been here before, and we just have to have the same execution and energy moving forward,” Mitchell said. “We took care of business, and we’re just going to go out and continue to do the same thing next round.”
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