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Pelicans succumb to Grizzlies’ energy and paint dominance, lose 121-109

CJ McCollum shined, but several of his backcourt running mates struggled once more

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

New Orleans lost to an opponent that was simply better along the margins Tuesday evening despite missing their heart and soul.

The Pelicans fell 121-109 to the Grizzlies with Ja Morant watching from the sidelines due to left ankle soreness. Memphis didn’t require the young superstar as available players immediately set the tone with an abundance of energy.

“I think it had to do with more of, they came out and they punched us from the very start of the game,” Willie Green said. “Knocked us on our heels and then from there it was an uphill battle. Trying to get a rhythm, be physical, attack offensively, we just didn’t have it tonight.”

To be fair, we probably should have seen the 37-27 first quarter coming from a mile away considering that’s been the Grizzlies M.O. for awhile now.

Steven Adams, apparently with an axe to grind, bullied his way to an 8-point, 5-rebound, 2-assist first frame. The Grizzlies dominated the inside during the first 12 minutes (20-10 edge in points in the paint).

Losing the stat categories that scream effort quickly proved to be a theme on the night for the Pelicans. They never quit, but they failed to get over the hump for several reasons.

Memphis was quicker to 50/50 balls. They played bigger and were more effective in the lane. And they seemingly grabbed every miss from off the rim.

Although New Orleans closed the points in the paint gap to 62-60 by game’s end, the Pelicans were hampered by a 34-49 disadvantage on the glass. The Grizzlies turned 18 offensive rebounds into 27 second-chance points.

Adams, Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke combined for 28 rebounds. The trio of Jonas Valanciunas, Willie Hernangomez and Jaxson Hayes finished with exactly half that total.

Making life even more difficult, the Pelicans only scored three points in transition and missed 22 of 26 three-point shots.

“Yeah, we were a bit stagnant,” CJ McCollum said. “I think part of that is credit to them. Defensively, they’re engaged, they’re active, they kind of load up, and it makes it harder to drive when you got active hands in the passing lanes, but I think it was also hard to move the ball on offense because we weren’t getting stops. When you get stops, the game is more fun. You can get out and run and transition and that’s when you kind of play with an advantage, but I think we didn’t get a lot of advantages tonight because we weren’t getting stops.”

The reason this game remained competitive enough throughout was because of McCollum’s brilliance (30 points, six rebounds, seven assists), Jaxson Hayes (13 points) and Willie Hernangomez (12 points) not missing a single field goal attempt, and New Orleans living well in the midrange area. Brandon Ingram (18 points) knocked down five of his eight made field goals from that range and Valanciunas (19 points) added a few jumpers.

Excluding McCollum, New Orleans guards couldn’t throw it into the ocean. 13 shot attempts, one make.

On the other side of the ledger, Tyus Jones, Morant’s backup, led the Grizzlies with 27 points and nine assists. Although Desmond Bane was off (11 points on 11 shots), De’Anthony Melton chipped in 13 points.

Devonte’ Graham accounted for the lone basket from that Pelicans group, but his shot has been missing in action for quite a long time now.

Dating to the start of the new year, Graham has connected on 32.9 percent of his field goals and 30.7 percent of his 3-pointers.

Among players who have appeared in five or more games while averaging 30+ minutes, Graham’s FG% is the lowest in the league during this stretch. Among the volume perimeter shooters, that’s the fifth-worst 3-point percentage.

Graham’s primary role on the Pelicans is to space the floor. He’s been doing a very poor job of it consistently for over six weeks now.

Shockingly, Garrett Temple (32.4 FG%, 22.4 3PT%) has been even more ineffective.

A rotation shakeup or two seems necessary. At least to give a much needed breather.

It must be noted that Willie Green went to a McCollum-Ingram-Jones-Hayes-Valanciunas lineup in the later stage of the fourth quarter, and then he flipped Hayes for Snell when desired results didn’t materialize.

Look, the Grizzlies have the third best record in the entire league for very good reason: they’re a darn good basketball team, with or without Morant. Pinning some of the Pelicans’ shooting struggles on Memphis’ defense is the correct call. However, it’s hard to excuse the performances of those who are posting dismal numbers regardless of the opponent game after game.

The job of integrating CJ McCollum isn’t complete, but the rest of the rotation shouldn't be set in stone. Some have long proven they need to iron a few things out in practice before being trusted again.

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.