Zion Williamson was triple-defended by Dillon Brooks (left), Steven Adams (center) and Jaren Jackson Jr. on this move to the basket. He scored 20 points, below his average, as Memphis made it tough on him in a 116-103 win over New Orleans at FedExForum on New Year's Eve night. (Photo: Terry Davis)
Terry Davis

On the wrong end of four of their last six games, the Grizzlies lacked consistency on defense, according to head coach Taylor Jenkins. He saw an improvement as Memphis beat Toronto on Thursday and another sign New Year’s Eve night as the Grizzlies pulled away from the New Orleans Pelicans, who entered the FedExForum tied for first in the Western Conference.

Aware of the defensive consistency issue, All-Star guard Ja Morant spoke to it after Memphis’ 116-103 win.

“We have to come out and throw the first punch,” said Morant, who paced the Grizzlies (22-13) with 32 points, and 8 assists. “We have to be the ones to initiate physicality and energy into the game. We can’t wait and let a team punch us in the mouth and then try to play from behind.”

C.J. McCollum had 42 points and shot 68.8 percent from three-point range in the Pelicans’ win over Philadelphia on Friday night. Saturday against the Grizzlies he faced defense such as this applied by Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, scoring 10 points and shooting 14.3 percent. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Memphis started fast against New Orleans, running out to a 6-0 lead that held for most of the first quarter. The Grizzlies pushed the first-quarter advantage to 12 points (24-12) with 1:42 left. The Pelicans kept pecking and when Jaxson Haynes hit a three-pointer at the buzzer, New Orleans was within seven points (31-24).

The second quarter was marked by an 11-minute delay forced by a clock malfunction that stopped play with 6:54 left and the Grizzlies ahead 42-35.

Taylor Jenkins shouts instructions. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender)

“It definitely threw us off a little,” Jenkins said. “Our guys were mentally locked in. We were able to survive and take a lead into halftime. You just have to overcome it and find a way to win.”

Powered by a 10-0 run, the Pelicans took their first lead of the game (50-49) with 51.7 seconds left in the first half. The Grizzlies pushed back with the last four points to lead 53-50 at the break.

Ja Morant on the attack off the dribble. (Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

The second half got off to a bruising start. Former Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas and Memphis’ tough-defense specialist Dillon Brooks each picked up a fifth foul. A couple of minutes later, Morant left the game for treatment in the locker room after a hard fall to the floor going to the basket. The Grizzlies forged on until he returned later in the quarter.

Ja Morant gets himself together after being hammered going to the basket. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Memphis led by as many as eight points in the quarter. The Pelicans closed to within a point but every time the Pelicans would get close the Grizzlies would push the lead to at least three points. The quarter, which saw Morant score 14 points, ended with Memphis up by four points (83-79).

Valanciunas fouled out with 9:28 left. Three minutes later, Memphis had its largest lead (102-83), rolling on a 19-4 run that made it too stiff of a climb for the Pelicans to catch up.

Steven Adams of the Grizzlies outplayed the Pelicans’ Jonas Valančiūnas, scoring 10 points and grabbing 21 rebounds. Valančiūnas fouled out with six points and six rebounds. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender).

“It was better rebounding,” said Jenkins, referencing defensive stops in the fourth quarter that led to control of the game. “We had some missed opportunities in the first three quarters. We strung some cycles together – score-stop, score-stop. We forced some tough shots and sieged the opportunity.”

New Orleans (23-13) was led by Zion Williamson with 20 points and 9 rebounds. Trey Murphy III had 15 points and Hayes had 13 points off the bench.

On a double-double night, Steven Adams had 21 rebounds and 10 points for the Grizzlies. Jaren Jackson Jr. got going in the second half and finished with 17 points, seven blocks and six rebounds. Brandon Clarke had 12 points off the bench. Desmond Bane, who is finding his rhythm after returning from an extended injury scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Brandon Clarke finishes off an alley-oop pass from Ja Morant. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Clarke took his turn in a collective effort that kept Williamson below his shooting percentage.

“I think it was a really good team effort. They have a lot of guys that are good in iso (isolation) ball.”

Asked about the Grizzlies getting better consistency on defense, Clarke said, “We have to catch rhythm and figure it out. It is really tough to be great and perfect every night. We have that trust in the other guy. We have depth in guys that can guard.”

Dillon Brooks guards Zion Williamson. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Brooks, who spent a long stint on the bench saddled with foul difficulty, had this take on guarding Williamson:

“I got in foul trouble, but my teammates picked me up. We keep playing physical with him. When he went to the rim, we put two bodies on him. It was a tough night for him. When he tried to pass the ball he couldn’t.”

Desmond Bane, who scored 17 points, gets a shot off over Zion Williamson. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Next up for the Grizzlies is the second game of a back-to-back, a New Year’s Night game against the Sacramento Kings. The Kings are one of three teams to defeat the Grizzlies at FedExForum.

Getting ready: Ja Morant laces up his signature show during pregame, with his daughter Karri enjoying the best spot in FedExForum. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)


Photos: Karanja A. Ajanaku/The New Tri-State Defender