In the matchup of two South Carolina boys linked by basketball and now men in the NBA, the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant now has a win over the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson.
Memphis – paced by star point guard Morant’s 23 points, 11 assists and 4 rebounds – dominated New Orleans, which got 14 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists from Williams in a game that the Grizzlies led from start to finish at FedExForum on Friday night.
Among the surface details of the Morant-Williamson connection are that they played on the same AAU team and that Williamson went number one in the 2019 NBA draft, with Morant second in that same class.
By their teams’ schedules, the two could have faced each other 16 times as professionals but injuries and DNP decisions whittled that to four, with Williamson riding a 4-0 record going into the post-Thanksgiving match-up, the last win coming Feb. 16, 2021.
“It’s exciting man, two guys from South Carolina, where most don’t make it out and live out their dream, playing basketball at the highest level,” said Morant. He was fielding a post-game question about being on the floor with the player and man with whom he has such a history and bond.
“We’re able to provide, not only for ourselves but for our families. It’s big time. I know we both enjoy it and being out there on the court together is even better. He’s a special talent, obviously.
“We’re not used to playing against each other. It’s still good … always room for praying he has a very healthy career, being able to showcase his talent at the highest level, being 100 percent.”
For the Grizzlies, handling the physical force that Williamson represented was a team effort that largely fell to a key physical force, Dillon Brooks, who finished as Memphis’ leading scorer with 25 points (two rebounds, four assists).
On guarding the bigger Williamson, Brooks said, “That plays more into my defense and physicality … trying to meet him before the rim. He finds ways to jump over you, get by you. And I just try to keep him to his right hand mostly … make him finish with his right hand. That’s the matchup.”
The handy dispatching of the Pelicans ended the Grizzlies’ two-game losing streak to the pleasure of a sold-out crowd (17,794).
Memphis came out humming, pushing the lead to 20 at one point en route to a 44-25 first-quarter lead. Brooks was on fire, making three shots from deep and scoring 11 points. Morant dished four assists and scored 11 points.
With 2:44 left in the first half, the Pelicans got within 13 points (59-36) and that would be the closest they would get in a while to Memphis, which led 68-48 at halftime.
In the third quarter, the Grizzlies led by as many as 36 points (98-62), ending the quarter ahead 106-77. That is when head coach Taylor Jenkins emptied the Memphis bench.
The fourth quarter was pretty much drama free. Notably, the crowd erupted when Memphis’ NBA G-League star Kenny Lofton Jr. got into the game, taking that reaction up another level when he scored his first basket.
“Well, give them the credit. They came in right away from the start of the game and just played with more force,” said Willie Green, the Pelicans’ second-year head coach, who gained respect for guiding New Orleans to last season’s playoffs, where they were a tough out for the Phoenix Suns.
“They knocked down a lot of shots. They basically got whatever they wanted. Threes, points in the paint, they got to the free throw line … wasn’t our night.”
The Pelicans were led by Trey Murphy III, with 21 points off the bench. Guard C.J. McCollum, who has been tough for the Grizzlies to handle, did not play for health reasons.
Memphis’ hot start on the offensive end was welcomed after several games of subpar shooting.
“Seeing the ball go through the net tonight was great from the three-point line (and) a little bit better job from the free throw line,” said Jenkins. “We’re just trying to get to that rim as much as we can. I thought our guys did a really good job of that. Steven (Adams) especially was getting to the rim pretty frequently in that first half. That’s definitely the balance we need.”
Adams (15 points, 10 rebounds) played big for the Grizzlies inside against former Grizzlies’ center Jonas Valanciunas.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who was limited to 22 minutes by foul trouble, scored an impressive 20 points while on the court. Brandon Clarke contributed a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench.
In the competitive Western Conference, the top 10 teams are only separated by two games. The Grizzlies entered the game with the ninth-best record; they were in the top three after the win.
With the Grizzlies’ record at 11-8, Brooks was asked when the team would be looking at the standings.