Ja Morant comes up with a steal en route to Memphis' MLK Day victory. (Photo: Warren Roseborough)

In a time of national political unrest and the global COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday’s (Jan. 18) annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game had a different feel.

With only a few hundred people allowed into FedExForum because of COVID restrictions, the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns 108-104 in the nationally televised game.

It was the second MLK Day game for Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, who said, “to coach in this game, to coach in this city is powerful and moving.  It is inspirational for me.

“Today is the day to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr and the legacy he has led; the life he has left behind through so many people,” Jenkins said.

“We are more than just basketball players, coaches and fans. We are a people that can do more positive change in this world not just now but the future.”

Both teams got off to a poor start offensively, with the Suns riding a 6-2 run to end the first quarter with a 24-18 lead. The Grizzlies got on track in the second quarter taking their second lead of the game (44-43) on a three-pointer by Gorgui Dieng.

Memphis had 12 first-half turnovers and led 52-48 at halftime. Phoenix surged after the break and had the Grizzlies down by two heading into the final frame.

For the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, the Suns held onto the lead as the Grizzlies kept scrapping. Tyrus Jones’ floater at the 1:43 mark tied the game at 98. Grayson Allen’s three pointer with 1:06 remaining gave the Grizzlies the lead.

Memphis, which finished the game with a 16-8 run, only had three turnovers in the second half.

“Taking care of the ball is one of the things we have been talking a lot about,” Jenkins said.

“We want to be free flowing and moving the basketball. To come out with only three turnovers, that is huge for us.  We struggle when we turn over the ball and teams take advantage of it.”

Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke each scored 17 points to lead the Grizzlies, who had seven players to score at 10 or more points.

Memphis was without the services of Jonas Valančiūnas because of COVID protocols. It was the second game in the last three in which he has had to sit out because of virus contact tracing.

Xavier Tillman, who finished with 12 points and six, rebounds made his first career start in place of Valančiūnas.

“When (coach Jenkins) told me, I was kind of ready for it,” said Tillman, “hoping that it was going to happen. So, I was kind of prepared for it.”

The bench of the Grizzlies, one of the best in the NBA, had another solid game, scoring 44 points.

“Our bench has been very consistent,” said Morant, who played his second game since sitting out two-plus weeks with an injury. “They are stepping up big time for us.

“I give coach and my teammates a lot of credit for that. I give them credit for when their number is called, they can go out there and contribute.”

Jenkins said the way the Grizzlies finished the game reflected the team’s growth.

“It says a lot about our growth. There is not one way to win a game in the NBA. Our guys on the defensive end, I can’t stress that enough. That always gives us a chance to win ball games.”

NEXT:

  • The Grizzlies hit the road for the next four games, playing back-to-back games at Portland and at Sacramento before returning home to face the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 27.