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With small-ball lineups stifling Morant, McCollum’s offense leads Pelicans to 113-102 victory over Grizzlies

New Orleans found a winning combination without Zion Williamson

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Although Zion Williamson was sidelined with a right foot contusion, the New Orleans Pelicans snapped a three-game losing streak to the Memphis Grizzlies, posting a statement-like 113-102 victory against one of the best in the West.

CJ McCollum led the way in breaking out of a miserable four-game slump, scoring an efficient 30 points, dishing out nine assists and drilling seven 3-pointers. His turnaround was a timely one, so much so that the rest of the team told him, “welcome back,” in the locker room following the splendid performance.

“Yeah, I’ve been playing like shit lately,” McCollum said. “I’ve been feeling like shit and shooting the ball really poorly, which is uncharacteristic. I’m normally not good at the other things, but I can always shoot. So that was frustrating just not being able to help my team the way I wanted to but also just not having the energy.”

The Pelicans as a team, in fact, lived really well from behind the arc. They knocked down 18 of their 38 3-point attempts. Both figures represent new season highs, with the 18 makes also marking the most triples that the Pelicans have ever made during Willie Green’s head coaching tenure.

“I thought the important part of us as far as being able to make 3s was getting into the paint first,” Green said. “Driving the ball, getting into the paint — they do a great job of protecting the paint — and now, the dominos will fall from there. So you got kick-out 3s, you’ve got secondary driving opportunities and our guys executed that well tonight.”

One had an inkling that the outside shooting may shine when Herb Jones converted the game’s first 3 by banking in his attempt off the glass, but this game wasn’t won from that part of the floor alone. A fiery, uphill battle needed to be waged in the paint and won, with New Orleans also needing to slow down a superstar.

Ja Morant began the game on fire, scoring 16 points in the first quarter that was capped off by buzzer-beating 3-pointer from half court. However, Brandon Ingram (10 points) and Trey Murphy (seven points) offset the Memphis point guard’s impact in spectacular fashion too.

The defense, though, soon began to suffocate one of the best players in the game today.

Murphy registered a block just minutes out of halftime, Dyson Daniels got one early in the fourth quarter and then Jose Alvarado got in on the action by stripping Morant of the ball as he attempted to takeoff and score at the rim.

Not surprisingly, Morant’s effectiveness waned amid all the pressure. In the second quarter, he scored eight points. In the third, seven points. And in the deciding fourth quarter where New Orleans held Memphis to 15 points, Morant only added five on 2 of 10 shooting.

“I think we just wore him down,” McCollum said. “Jose (Alvarado) picking him up full court, us trapping him, mixing up coverages. He still shot 50% from the field, finished a lot in the paint and got to the free throw line probably too many times, but he’s a tough player hard to stop.

“When he gets down, he’s always got a great change of speed, and I think last year he led the NBA in points in the paint, probably the first time ever for a guard. So, that kind of shows how much he attacks, but credit us for making it difficult. Credit him for still figuring out a way to get thirty.”

Morant finished with a game-high 36 points, adding also eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.

In addition to the stellar defense that draped Memphis’ phenom, a number of New Orleans’ players starred in their roles.

Larry Nance Jr. tallied 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks, as he continues to be one of the sneakiest trade additions in the last 12 months. I can’t name five better small-ball centers across the league right now. Can you?

With Steven Adams mired in foul trouble, Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes were curtailed, so for matchup purposes, Nance was asked to carry the load in over 30 minutes of action. However, Green dared going even smaller when his backup center required a breather in the fourth quarter.

The move paid big dividends as a lineup of Jose Alvarado-CJ McCollum-Brandon Ingram-Herb Jones-Dyson Daniels maintained the nine-point edge until Nance returned about three and a half minutes later.

The New Orleans head coach deserves a lot of credit for taking a gamble in playing the ultra-small lineup, and based on its success tonight, he made several important discoveries.

The Pelicans can play as small as needed because they still handle their responsibilities on the glass. That aforementioned group without a center posted an 83.3 defensive rebounding percentage. And standing tallest was Daniels.

In only 17 minutes of action, the Australian rookie grabbed nine rebounds. That was the most by anyone on the team.

“I’m so glad you mentioned Dyson cause Dyson was huge today,” Nance said. “I think he out-rebounded me in 13 less minutes. Yeah, 13 less minutes. I mean nine rebounds, eight defensive — where that’s a spot we’re severely lacking.

“That’s how you find minutes in this league. When you get your chance, you have to answer the call to whatever the team needs and {Dyson} did that perfectly today. He hit the offensive glass, defensive glass, guarded his man, got a block ... he earned himself some minutes today.”

Dyson Daniels immediately showed that he was up for the challenge when witnessing him box out Brandon Clarke. He didn’t allow the Grizzly to even put a finger on the ball.

Then later, he turned one of those defensive boards into a pass reminiscent of Lonzo Ball.

“Obviously, Zo I got to see him fresh out of UCLA,” Nance said. “Getting to see {Dyson} at the same position ... that’s a good {comparison}. That’s a really good one.

“There was one play where I was boxing my man out and Dyson flew up over top. I just looked back at him to tell him, ‘let’s catch our breath for a second.’ I was tired. He had already slung it over his head to Jose down the court.

“It’s that kind of basketball knack and instinct that you can’t really teach. He’s got all that and a nose for the ball. There’s a lot of teams where he would be playing huge regular minutes for.”

For a second game in a row, Alvarado saw minutes exclusively in the second and fourth quarters, while playing every second of the final frame.

Next to Nance, Alvarado posted the best plus-minus (+15), to go along with 12 points, six assists and two 3s.

Ingram finished with 19 points, four rebounds and two 3s, Murphy scored 13 points and hit three 3s, and Jones had 10 points and two 3s.

It’s almost a shame that the Pelicans don’t get a day or two to enjoy what I consider their best victory of the season to date. The effort, execution and attention to detail were all fantastic.

Unfortunately, a matchup against the Chicago Bulls looms in less than 24 hours, but if they can come close to replicating Tuesday’s body of work, the Pelicans could soon be riding their first three-game winning streak of the season.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.