ATLANTA – In a game that was single-digit close much of the way, the Memphis Grizzlies bent but did not break as they beat back the Atlanta Hawks 123-119 on Sunday evening.
For the Grizzlies (47-27), it was the sixth straight win and the ninth in the last 10 games.
Notably, it was Ja Morant’s return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench in the first two games following his NBA suspension for conduct deemed detrimental to the league. Morant, who led the Grizzlies in scoring with 27 points, also had 6 assists.
While it was a road game for the Grizzlies, there were cheers aplenty for Morant.
“This is home. I was born in Georgia,” said Morant, particularly acknowledging the young admirers.
“It means a lot,” said Morant, declaring that “I have got to set better examples. Having them behind me brings me joy and it is only right I go out there and perform at a high level for them.”
By his assessment, Morant is not yet back to pre-suspension form.
“It is getting there. I am getting a lot more comfortable out there,” he said. “I am getting my legs under me. My staff is preparing me each and every game. I have got to continue to trust them.”
In the first quarter, neither team had more than a three-point lead until Tyus Jones connected on a three-pointer putting Memphis up 29-23 with 1:25 left. Memphis led 34-27 heading into the second quarter.
Desmond Bane, who has averaged 22-plus points over the last six games, had six points in the opening quarter. He finished with 25 points, connecting on 3 of 6 from three-point range.
“I think he just goes about his business … with the ball and without it,” said Taylor Jenkins, Memphis’ head coach. “It (scoring) may be in a flurry or it may be here or there. He comes in and stabilizes us.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. – 15 points, 5 blocked shots and 8 rebounds – continued his dominance.
“It is hard to offensively game plan against what he does,” said Jenkins. “He sometimes comes out of nowhere. … He finds a way to get his hands on shots. He is doing a great of altering shots on the perimeter and at the rim. It is special to watch.”
With 6 seconds left in the first half, Jackson flew in to block the shot of John Collins at the rim. A foul was called, followed by technical fouls on Jackson and Jenkins. Memphis was leading (60-54) before the play.
The call was overturned, but the Hawks made the two free throws on the technicals. At the half, Memphis led 61-56.
Memphis bumped the lead to seven points to start the third quarter before the Hawks wiped away the lead in less than a minute and tied the score at 63. Atlanta All-Star Trae Young scored 13 of his 28 points in the quarter.
Still, the Hawks (37-38) lost ground and trailed 96-89 heading into the fourth quarter. scored 33 points in the quarter, but they lost ground to the Grizzlies. Morant had 11 points in the quarter. Xavier Tillman Sr., who only scored one point in the first quarter, added eight of his 14-second half points.
“He did a great job of playing off his teammates,” said Jenkins.
Dillon Brooks, who routinely is booed by opposing fans on the road, got a fresh sample of the arch-villain treatment. From the opening tip to the final whistle, a section of State Farm Arena alternately booed or chanted “We hate Dillion.”
“It is cool. I love the boos,” said Brooks (six points, five assists, 2 rebounds), who was saddled with foul trouble.
“It gives me attention. Even when I am not the focal point of everything. It is a way to get under a team’s skin.”
Memphis will play its next three games at home, beginning with the Orlando Magic on Tuesday (March 28). The Grizzlies host the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday and Friday. All games are set to tip off at 7 p.m. CDT.