Morant, Brooks lead Grizzlies to 121-110 win over Rockets

MEMPHIS, Tennessee (AP) — Early this season, the young Memphis Grizzlies were still learning how to close out games — a shortfall the team has overcome during its longest winning streak in more than three years.

The Grizzlies outscored the Houston Rockets 36-27 in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night as Memphis pulled away for a 121-110 victory, stretching the Grizzlies’ winning streak to six games — their longest since December 2016.

Rookie guard Ja Morant had 26 points and eight assists, and Dillon Brooks scored 24 to lead Memphis. Jonas Valanciunas added 19 points and Jaren Jackson Jr had 15 despite going six of 16 from the floor.

Morant missed only one of his 11 shots, becoming the first rookie in NBA history to score at least 25 points while handing out eight or more assists and shooting 90 per cent or better from the field.

“Early on, we would get stagnant, and we would run the same thing over and over,” Brooks said of the team’s fourth-quarter problems earlier in the season. “Now, we’re getting more diversity with Ja getting to the middle and making great plays and great decisions.”

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is defended by Houston Rockets guard Ben McLemore. PHOTO: AP

Brooks also was responsible for guarding Rockets star James Harden, the NBA’s leading scorer. Harden perhaps had more scoring duties against Memphis as backcourt mate Russell Westbrook sat out to rest on the opening night of a back-to-back. Harden scored 41 points, his fifth straight game against the Grizzlies surpassing 40. But he shot 13 of 37, including 5 of 19 from three-point range.

That included missing all seven shots in the fourth quarter as Memphis pulled away in the final eight minutes.

“There were little things,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Most importantly, we couldn’t keep the Grizzlies in front of us. They finished very well at the rim on a lot of fast-break possessions. … We didn’t do enough to stop them.”

Eric Gordon finished with 23 points for Houston, and Clint Capela had 16 points and 16 rebounds.

Capela said in games the Rockets have lost “finishing defensively, we weren’t good enough. Our goal is always to keep the team under 100 points, which didn’t happen.”

The teams were tied at 95 with about eight minutes left when the Grizzlies went on an 11-1 run fuelled by three-pointers from Solomon Hill, Brooks and Morant. That gave Memphis a 106-96 lead with five minutes remaining.

The win left the Grizzlies clinging to eighth place in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the idle San Antonio Spurs.

“Every game is a statement game at this point,” Jackson said, “because you are playing for seeding, playing for the playoffs. Everybody is trying to work towards that, but definitely, when you’re on a winning streak, it gives you a bit more energy.”