WHEN: 8:00 PM CT
WHERE: Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: FOX Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS- Mike Conley (Out, Achilles), Wayne Selden Jr. (Out, Quad), Ivan Rabb (Out, Concussion), Brandan Wright (Out, Groin)
DENVER- Paul Millsap (Out, Wrist)
MEMPHIS- Mario Chalmers, Dillon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
DENVER- Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Nikola Jokic
They say that misery loves company. It tonight’s case, it holds true for these two Western Conference playoff hopefuls...just not equally.
For the Memphis Grizzlies, their desperate times run deep, even with the season only being 17 games old-
Injury concerns with multiple players, including your star point guard? Check.
Losing 9 of your last 11 games? Check.
6 losses in a row, with the most recent defeat coming at the hands of arguably the worst team in the NBA with an improbable buzzer beater? Check.
All that happening after regaining the lead with a thunderous dunk with .5 seconds remaining, after having lost your 18-point advantage in the first place, feeling that maybe the nightmare was finally about to end but only to see it continue and worsen? A pretty miserable check.
The Grizzlies check all the NBA dumpster fire boxes at this point.
Meanwhile, there is Denver, sitting at 10-8 and the current six seed in the Western Conference. That, comparatively speaking, is nowhere near that miserable. But they are pretty disappointed after the news broke that their big offseason signing, Paul Millsap, will be out for months with an injured wrist. Millsap isn’t the Nuggets best player, that is Nikola Jokic (more on him later), but he was the 2nd for Denver in scoring at 15.3 points per game and appeared to be getting comfortable in the schemes and alongside the personnel of the Nuggets.
That is now out the window, and Denver must figure out who they are without a star player.
Here’s how the Grizzlies can end their own misery and get one in the win column.
Gasol Must Wendigo Jokic
It is kind of like one of those Spiderman memes. where the two similarly dressed web slingers point at one another. When Marc Gasol looks at Nikola Jokic, he surely sees a little bit of himself in his game...and perhaps sees someone who can do it better. While Jokic is not as seasoned as Gasol (Marc is 33, Nikola is 22) and isn’t as lauded for being an ace defender (they share a defensive rating of 103 so far this season), the rest of the advantages in Gasol vs. Jokic may now reside with the young Serbian. He has a better net rating (-3 for Gasol, +19 for Jokic), a better win shares per 48 minutes (.225 for Jokic, which is quite good, .090 for Gasol, which is below average), has a better PER (24.6 for Jokic, 18.5 for Gasol), true shooting percentage (.534 for Marc, .604 for Jokic)...
Advanced, traditional, per 100 possessions, per 36 minutes...the numbers all say that Nikola Jokic is better than Marc Gasol. The eye test agrees so far this season. But the last two times these two have met and these two bigs shared the floor, Marc has outperformed Nikola. Marc had 23 points on 9-17 shooting (3-6 from three), 6 assists, and 5 rebounds on February 28th, the last time Denver and Memphis met, to Jokic’s 10 points on 5-11 shooting (0-2 from three), 11 rebounds, and 6 assists.
The time before that? November 9th, 2016 (Jokic did not play in the Feburary 1st game against Memphis last season, a win for the Grizzlies) and Gasol scored 19 points on 9-14 shooting and 6 assists, including this game winner that you may or may not remember...
Maybe what Marc needs to step up his game a bit is to play against a younger, better version of himself. Gasol has said in the past he respects Jokic- who better to show you’re still one of the best in the NBA than Marc Gasol 2.0? He has to at least play him to a draw for Memphis to have a chance. Aggressive Marc must be on full display, while also attacking Jokic in the paint to try to get him in to foul trouble to make him more apprehensive as a rim protector.
A tall task. But one that Wendigo would be able to accomplish.
Get Denver Off the Glass
Denver is a top-10 rebounding team in the NBA, grabbing 45.2 boards per game on average. They are especially strong offensive rebounders, getting their offense second and even third chances with 12.1 boards per contest. Jokic leads this charge unsurprisingly (11.1 total rebounds per game, currently 8th in the entire NBA) with 2.7 of them being offensive, but he has plenty of help in the form of Mason Plumlee (4.5 total rebounds, 1.6 offensive, 9.6 total rebounds per 36 minutes) and the duo of Kenneth Faried and Trey Lyles, who post 9.9 and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes numbers, respectfully, all players who figure to see more time with Millsap on the shelf.
JaMychal Green, Deyonta Davis, and Jarell Martin must make rebounding a priority. Same thing with Chandler Parsons and even Tyreke Evans- Marc cannot do it alone. It must be a team effort.
Pressure and Physicality
The Nuggets are a pretty solid team, especially offensively (8th in the NBA in offensive rating). Two things they struggle with? Turnovers (16.4 a game, 23rd in the NBA) and free throw percentage (72.9%, 26th in the NBA). Memphis must force mistakes defensively against a talented but young Denver squad, playing over screens and hedging/trapping off of pick and rolls to make ball handlers make decisions before they want to. They also can afford to be physical with Denver, especially players like Plumlee (43.4% from the line), Gary Harris (69.2%) and Will Barton (68.5%). If those players have a lane to the rim, make them earn the points from the charity stripe.
While the star power of this game comes down to Gasol vs. Jokic, overall the contest’s outcome will be determined by how the perimeter players of the Grizzlies keep up with the youth and athleticism of the Nuggets. Offensively, Memphis has to attack the rim, not just because their lazy three-point launching is one of the reasons they lost against the Mavericks Wednesday but because it is the strength of this offense. When dribble penetration is achieved, it allows for players like James Ennis III, Chandler Parsons, and others to be open for catch and shoot threes. Those are the looks the Grizzlies should be trying to get, not forcing shots off the dribble.
Denver is a below average defensive squad (23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency) and they just lost one of their better defenders in Millsap, so the Grizzlies can have their way with the Nuggets if they get in to their sets and play their game. But they have to invest energy and time in to the defensive end of the floor. Deflections and help with Jokic/on those pick and rolls will force turnovers, leading to easy Grizzlies offense and a game that Memphis can be in entering the fourth quarter.
From there? It comes down to your best players making plays in the clutch...and Marc has risen to the challenge the past two times out against Jokic. Here’s to hoping he has one more elite performance over the heir apparent in him. The Grizzlies have won the last three over the Nuggets, including the last two in Denver. So...let’s be optimistic. Memphis in a nail biter.
Memphis 106, Denver 105