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Charged-up crowd keeps Morant, Grizzlies pumped in win over Pacers

Terry Davis

“Electric,” said Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins, giving his pre-game assessment of the home crowd that already was pulsing in anticipation of Ja Morant’s first post-suspension game at FedExForum.

He was not wrong.

In what felt like a playoff-game atmosphere, Morant and the Grizzlies (8-19) beat back the challenge of the Indiana Pacers (14-13) for a 116-103 win, only Memphis’ second at home this season.

“Crazy,” said Morant about the energy in FedExForum. “It’s what we need every night. We just have to continue. We had to handle our business for them on our home floor coming and getting wins. They brought us a lot of energy even when Indiana went on that run.”

Ja Morant warming up for his first home game after his 25=game suspension. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

After Morant scored the first two points of the game, the Grizzlies dominated the first quarter and led 35-22 going into the second. With 9:49 left in the first half, Memphis led by 22 points (44-22).

The Pacers weathered the Grizzlies’ storm and only trailed by a bucket (58-56), going into the locker room.

“They (the crowd) stayed in the game with us and allowed us to feed off the energy once again, get the lead back and then push it to double digits,” said Morant. “Obviously, basketball is a game of runs, so we knew Indiana would come back fighting. But to have that crowd alongside us with the energy and how loud it was helped us get this one tonight.”

Double teamed by Myles Turner and Bruce Brown of Indiana, Ja Morant looks for a passing option. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

Indiana head coach Rick Carlisle likened playing the Grizzlies at FedExForum in Morant’s first home game following a 25-game suspension to drawing “the short straw.”

“We have to love the challenge of coming in here. I’ve said this many times recently that the opportunity to play meaningful games in high-level intensity environments is something that a young team needs,” said Carlisle before Friday night’s tipoff.

“It’s great that Morant is back. It’s great for the game. It’s great for our league. What he did (engineering a 24-point comeback and hitting the game-winner) two nights ago was legendary stuff. We’ve got our hands full with him, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane and the rest of them. They’re very well coached. So, it’s a great challenge. We look forward to the challenge, but it’ll be tough. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Desmond Bane drives and scores on Bennedict Mathurin of Indiana. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

For the second consecutive game, each member of Memphis’ big three – Desmond Bane, Jackson and Morant – 20 or more point. Bane led all scorers with 31 points, along with 7 assists. Jackson had 20 points and 7 rebounds and Morant had 20 points and 8 assists in 34 minutes.

Indiana’s Isaiah Jackson could not stop the Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. from adding to his 20-point total. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

“I thought Ja (Morant]) was great tonight,” said Jenkins. “Just in attack mode – eight assists last game, eight assists tonight. Getting into the paint, they’re going to throw a lot of attention on him. They started double teaming even before we got into actions. I thought he made some pretty good decisions there. We’ll work on cleaning that up. … Credit to (Bane) and (Jackson) – just the work they’ve been putting in the first quarter of the season.”

Santi Aldama goes to his left hand in the paint. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

Santi Aldama and Ziaire Williams benefited from Morant’s return. Aldama had 13 points and Williams had 16 points, including connecting on 3 of 4 three-pointers.

“It’s great,” said Jackson, reflecting on the production from the Grizzlies’ bench. “We worked on a lot of that in the summertime, and it keeps the defense on their heels when we can have a bunch of people who can get ball screens and a bunch of people can shoot. It spaces the floor out. Anybody can play any position.”

Ziaire Williams slams on an alley-oop from Ja Morant. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

The Pacers, who lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the championship game of the inaugural In-Season Tournament in Las Vegas, were led in scoring by Obi Toppin (22 points and 5 rebounds) this year. Tyrese Haliburton, who played alongside Jackson this summer in the FIBA World Cup, has emerged as a NBA difference-maker this season. He had 17 points and 14 assists. Buddy Hield and Myles Turner had 15 points each. Aaron Nesmith had 14 points off the bench.

The Pacers took their first lead (65-62) of the game on a three-pointer by Haliburton with 9:45 left in the quarter. Prior to Morant’s return, the Grizzlies have had trouble closing out games at home this season. A 17-2 run going into the fourth quarter gave them a little breathing room (95-79) with 10:51 left.

Ja Morant holds his daughter after the Grizzlies win. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The Tri-State Defender)

To the crowd’s delight, the Grizzlies closed out the game in winning fashion, with Morant’s back-in-action presence the thread that tied all the evening’s happenings together.

“As you play the game, it is great to have a solid point guard, said Memphis starting center Bismack Biyombo. “When I was in Phoenix, we lost Chris Paul and we struggled. During the losing streak, it was a great opportunity for everyone to find their way.”

Morant makes it easier for him to handle his responsibilities, said Biyombo.

“Absolutely, it (Morant’s presence) puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Just to be able to push the ball. It was great for us. When you lose a lot of games, you learn from it. We learned to have patience. We all continue to get better and grow.”

Patience, said Morant, “is key. Whether it’s with a team or a player. Some guys take longer than others, or teams take longer, and you see that after each season. You have a new team pop in and make a lot of noise. So, patience is definitely key.”

Whether winning or losing, Morant said his message to the team is “to have fun and be us. Even after the New Orleans game (his first back after suspension), we were down 24 at halftime, and we came back and won that game. …

“Then tonight we go up 23, and then they come back and take the lead early in the third, and we got back to us and were able to win (by) double digits. … You can’t play the game at all frustrated or in your feelings at all. You just have to enjoy it and have fun.”

(Next up for the Grizzlies is a four-game road trip starting on Saturday (December 23) in Atlanta against the Atlanta Hawks. Memphis returns to FedExForum on December 31 to face the San Antonio Spurs at 7 p.m.)

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