The Memphis Grizzlies finished the third quarter tied with the Denver Nuggets in a Friday night heavyweight battle between the two best teams in the West.
While Ja Morant had a bench break to start the fourth quarter, sitting up for nearly five minutes, the Nuggets continued their run. Morant returned to the game with 7:06 remaining, but by that point Denver’s lead had jumped to 10.
Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets continued to pour it as they pulled away and the Grizzlies fell, 113-97, on the road.
The Grizzlies (38-24) kept the Nuggets’ powerful offense in check in the first half by limiting their effectiveness on triples. As the Nuggets offense got underway, Memphis simultaneously entered an offensive drought.
Denver (45-19) now has a six-game lead over the Grizzlies in the NBA Western Conference standings and a head-to-head tiebreaker. The Grizzlies’ lead over the Sacramento Kings for the No. 2 has shrunk to one game.
Morant led the Grizzlies with 27 points and 10 assists. Jokic finished with 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists.
Here are some takeaways from the game.
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Grizzlies center Brandon Clarke needed help off the ground late in the first quarter after shooting a free throw and suffering what appeared to be a non-contact injury. Clarke limped to the floor near midcourt before falling. He needed assistance in the locker room.
The Grizzlies sidelined Clarke at halftime with a lower leg injury. Without Clarke, the Grizzlies primarily rotated Xavier Tillman Sr., Jaren Jackson Jr., and Santi Aldama between the power forward and center positions. Memphis started the fourth quarter playing Jackson in center and using a small ball lineup that included Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, John Konchar, and Dillon Brooks.
Masked Ja Morant looks great
Morant suffered a broken nose in the first half of Wednesday’s game against the Houston Rockets, then wore a clear face mask against the Nuggets. Aside from occasionally adjusting his mask early in the game, the All-Star point guard seemed comfortable with his new look. Morant aggressively attacked the rim and got teammates involved. He recorded a double-double before the end of the third quarter.
Avalanche in the fourth quarter
Brooks took charge of protecting Nuggets scorer Jamal Murray. The two traded verbal jabs throughout the match, but Murray had the final say. With Jokic on the bench early in the fourth quarter, Murray got the better of Brooks and helped Denver build a lead before the two-time MVP returned. With the return of Jokic, Denver has left Memphis behind.
The Grizzlies will stay out West and play the LA Clippers for the first time this season Sunday night (9 p.m., ESPN, Bally Sports Southeast). The Clippers were up before losing their last five games. Each of the five losses came against teams currently projected to make the playoffs.
Brooks suffered his 16th technical foul in the fourth quarter. If the foul is not overturned by the league secretary, he will be suspended for one game and ineligible against the Clippers.
This article originally appeared in Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis grizzlies, Ja Morant fall to Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets