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Herb Jones’ defense on Ja Morant could determine outcome between Pelicans and Grizzlies

New Orleans hasn’t lost consecutive games to Memphis since 2017-18 season

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

The New Orleans Pelicans have seemingly solidified a spot in the Play-In Tournament.

Although 18 contests remain on the schedule and there’s only a gap of two games from the 11th-seeded Trail Blazers, every team sitting below the Pelicans in the standings have failed to make any noise for months.

Since the turn of the new year, the Trail Blazers, Spurs and Kings have all posted records well below .500. Playing mediocre ball here on out should guarantee New Orleans sees action beyond the regular season.

To be fair though, the Pelicans have a right to be hungrier for more.

New Orleans Pelicans v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Since Feb. 1, New Orleans has won 9 of 14 games and they’ve been lights out since the All-Star break, with CJ McCollum and Tony Snell incorporated into the rotations. Catching the Timberwolves or Clippers is highly improbable, but the Lakers are reeling. Hosting a Play-In game is very much within grasp.

That’s what makes Tuesday’s matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies so alluring to a number of fans. This game will be broadcast on national television (TNT), featuring Ja Morant versus the new-look, CJ McCollum-led Pelicans. Los Angeles’ faithful will no doubt be praying from the sidelines. They have legitimate fears of soon falling into 10th or worse.

Per oddsmakers, New Orleans isn’t favored to beat Memphis, but can the algorithms be relied upon? The Pelicans have been waxing opponents of late and they were a possession or two of remaining unbeaten in the second half of the schedule. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have lost four of seven since their last matchup with New Orleans.

Moreover, the Grizzlies have been strong at home overall (22-10), but they need to get off to good starts. They’re only 3-5 on the season in Memphis when trailing after the first quarter. The Pelicans have enjoyed leads after the first frame in seven of their last 10 away games. In two other contests, they only trailed by two points.

The key, of course, will be containing Morant. The NBA’s Kia MVP Ladder lists the dynamic point guard as the fifth-favorite to walk away with this season’s prestigious award. The Grizzlies are in the midst of a dogfight for the second seed in the West, and Ja is the biggest reason for his team’s success.

Morant is averaging 30.3 points since the calendar flipped to 2022. He’s also put up averages of 5.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists. His plus-minus over this stretch is on par with Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic.

In the Pelicans’ 112-101 victory on Nov. 13, Morant scored 22 points but required 17 shots to reach that total. Herb Jones defended him nearly half the time, holding Ja to 2 of 6 shooting. In a Feb. 15 loss, Morant didn’t play.

This will undoubtedly be the individual matchup to watch.

From a team perspective, the Pelicans will need to do a better job on the glass than in the last matchup three weeks ago. Memphis grabbed 18 offensive rebounds to New Orleans’ 11, propelling the Grizzlies to a 27-18 second-chance-points advantage.

Typically, the Grizzlies are also fantastic in turning opponent’s mistakes into points and scoring in transition. In other words, New Orleans needs to limit Memphis from doing what the Pelicans prefer to accomplish. Since the All-Star break, New Orleans is tops in the league in points off turnovers and fast break points.

Honestly, tonight’s matchup feels like a pick em. If the Pelicans punch first, one has to like their odds of getting back into the win column. If not, the Grizzlies will likely emerge victorious.

According to recent history, a Memphis win would set a new precedent. The Grizzlies haven’t beaten New Orleans in consecutive matchups since the 2017-18 campaign. No one likes change, right?

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Who: New Orleans Pelicans (27-37) at Memphis Grizzlies (44-22)

When: March 8, 2022, 6:30 p.m.

Where to watch: TNT, NBA League Pass

Where to listen: ESPN 100.3 FM

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.