Ja Morant, who returned from a two-week injury absence, establishes his presence in the paint with this soaring drive. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

The NBA Playoffs demand a full-throttle push by championship-hungry teams whose elements have developed chemistry capable of sustaining them through the title hunt. Insert Memphis Grizzlies into that picture and the importance of Saturday night’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans comes fuller into view.

With Memphis All-Star point guard Ja Morant back in the starting lineup for the first time in two weeks, the Grizzlies snapped a two-game slide as they ripped the New Orleans Pelicans 141-114 at FedExForum. They largely were powered by their most successful lineup this season – a Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams and Desmond Bane – and one they’ve not been able to get on the court in quite some time.

Morant and Brooks have only played 12 games together this season. And while the Grizzlies have played well (20-4) without Morant this season, the energy he brings to the team – and the arena itself – is indispensable to championship aspirations.

Going into the game, Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins had a measuring stick for Morant’s return, namely, “…we wanted Ja to be full throttle. I thought he was doing that. Just didn’t get the ball to bounce his way, or just a couple of moves here or there, but then just started spreading the ball around. Great job moving at nine assists.

Morant complimented his assist total with 21 points, confident shooting from three-point range, and multiple trips to the free-throw line.

“And then obviously he capped it off with that huge block at the end,” said Jenkins. “I thought his defensive intensity was really good too.”

Dillon Brooks (24) eyes the tipoff pitting Steven Adams of the Grizzlies and former Grizzlies center Jonas Valančiūnas. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

The win was franchise-tying No. 56 for the Grizzlies (56-25), who finish the regular season against the Boston Celtics at FedExForum on Sunday (April 10), with tipoff set for 6 p.m. Memphis, the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, will host a first-round series against the winner of the play-in game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I am just preparing for this stretch,” Morant said, referencing the playoffs on the horizon. “(I) felt like I needed a game or two to get my legs back under me. Nothing compares to a game. … I wanted to be ready to go.

“My teammates were playing a lot of basketball without me. I just wanted to go out there and adapt; to make sure everybody out there had a feel of playing with one another.”

Saying he was excited to be on the court, Morant added that he “had a lot of fun.”

Ja Morant’s attacking energy was a welcomed return for the Grizzlies. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Memphis opened up with a 30-18 first-quarter burst, pushing the lead to 64-47 by halftime. The Grizzlies were ahead by 39 (119-80) at the end of a third-quarter in which they scored a franchise-record 55 points – the fourth-largest total in NBA history.

The Grizzlies had three, 20-point scorers – Brooks (22), Morant (21) and Brandon Clarke (20). Rookie Ziaire Williams, who had four three-pointers in the first half, finished with 19 points.

Memphis, which has earned homecourt advantage in each playoff series up to the finals, has won nine straight home games.

Memphis’ Dillon Brooks floats in the paint and scores over Herbert Jones of the Pelicans. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

Brooks, who missed a significant segment of the season with injuries, took note of Morant’s return.

“It went great. You got to see everything you need to see,” said Brooks. “Double teams in the screen-and-roll, getting downhill and making his play. And finally, I get to see a wide-open, spot-up shot, which I’ve been missing. I feel like it was great.”

With the playoffs looming, Brooks, whose night also included five points and three rebounds, was asked his assessment of where the team is relative to its mid-season form.

“All we need to do is pay attention to the details, know player personnel and give effort,” said Brooks. There’s been three years (in Coach Jenkins’ system), so we’ve had the defense drilled into our heads. It’s just effort, attention to detail, knowing player personnel and you’ll see nights like this every night.”

NOTES:

  • The Pelicans (36-45) were led by C.J. McCollum with 16 points. They will host the San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of the NBA Play-In tournament, with the winner playing the winner of the Clippers-Timberwolves game.
  • Jenkins on the importance of getting 56 wins: “It is special. A number of records have been set organizationally and individually. I am so proud of all the guys that have broken records. It is a team accomplishment. I told the guys we have done a lot of special things so far, one more game and hopefully a long run after this. … Everyone in the organization has done a helluva job and hopefully they get rewarded for it.”
  • Pelicans head coach Willie Green: “Anytime … he (Morant) is on the floor with his teammates, it brings some juice for their group. … This is not typically us, but tonight, we just had a letdown. … They’re a good team and the categories that we talked about – rebounding, transition baskets, keeping them out of the paint – they beat us in those categories. When you are playing against a really good team and you allow them to do what they do, and they don’t feel (you) as physically, then you’re in for a long night and that’s what happened.”

GALLERY: (Photos by Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)