December 18, 2023 – 11:36 PM PST
The Tuesday matchup between the visiting Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans might appear to be another normal contest on the busy NBA schedule.
For Memphis, the game is anything but ordinary. With star Ja Morant set to make his much-anticipated season debut, the Grizzlies are hoping the matchup marks the start of a concerted playoff push.
Memphis has struggled mightily without Morant, who received a 25-game suspension after he held a gun during a livestream video last year. The NBA ruled that his actions were detrimental to the league and announced the punishment.
The Grizzlies lost their fifth straight and fell to 6-19 with a 116-97 road defeat against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday. After averaging 35.7 points in his three previous games, Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr. was held to 11 in the loss.
Morant was permitted to practice with the Grizzlies during his suspension and appears ready to make an immediate impact.
“I’m proud of him, what he’s been able to do,” injured Memphis guard Derrick Rose said. “The work he’s put in and his mindset have been straight. He’s been the first one in here, he’s been staying late. He’s been helping younger guys, being a leader and a positive voice throughout this (process).”
In addition to Morant, the Grizzlies could have both Marcus Smart (sprained left foot) and Rose (left hamstring tightness) available within the next two weeks.
All eyes will be on Morant on Tuesday, but the two-time All-Star said he is just looking forward to joining teammates on the court again.
“I take it day by day,” Morant said. “Just having our focus on the now. (Desmond Bane and Jackson) are playing at an All-Star level, All-NBA level. When I come back, hopefully, it stays the same and makes their job easier.”
Morant and the Grizzlies will be tested by the resurgent Pelicans, who have won four straight since losing by 44 points to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“It’s a blessing to have a group of guys who care,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “We are going to go through highs and lows throughout the course of the season. These guys care. They care about each other. Guys have responded. We want to continue to have that resiliency throughout the course of the season.”
New Orleans set a franchise record with 22 3-pointers in a 146-110 rout of the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. CJ McCollum scored 29 points in the victory, Brandon Ingram added 26 points and Jonas Valanciunas registered 15 points and 15 rebounds.
Zion Williamson is averaging 22.5 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Pelicans, who led by as many as 40 against San Antonio.
“The guys are buying into what we are asking them to do,” Green said. “We are staying with it. We are trusting it. We are showing them the pictures when we watch film. We are getting on the floor and going over it again and again. Expressing to them how important it is to play with force, play with pace. Continue to share the ball. Just make the simple plays over and over again.”
The Grizzlies and Pelicans are meeting for the first time since New Orleans posted a 111-104 victory in the season opener at Memphis on Oct. 25. McCollum paced the Pelicans with 24 points, while Bane led the Grizzlies with 31 points. The teams will face off again on Dec. 26 in New Orleans.
–Field Level Media