WHEN: 7:00 PM CT
WHERE: FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: ESPN/Fox Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Grayson Allen (Ankle, out)
UTAH: Dante Exum (Knee, probable)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
UTAH: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert
The moment is near. Finally, Memphis gets to welcome home one of its favorite sons.
Jeff Green, welcome back to FedExForum!
No? It’s not Jeff? Are you sure?
All jokes aside, tonight is not just another regular season game. To say it is would be disregarding a lot of history - essentially the entire Grit and Grind Era. And while Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have already come back after leaving, this feels different. Zach left for far greener pastures in terms of cash that the Sacramento Kings were willing to pay, and while fans didn’t think less of Z-Bo for that decision he did choose to leave. Same for Tony Allen, although his departure likely had more to do with the franchise (and coach at the time David Fizdale) wanting to move on from TA.
Mike Conley did not want to leave Memphis. And in a way, the Grizzlies were clearly hesitant to part with Mike...at least until they got a deal worthy of arguably the best Memphis Grizzly over the last several years.
Enter - the Utah Jazz.
Utah paid a pretty penny to acquire Conley - two first round picks, a young talent (Grayson Allen), a grizzled veteran (Jae Crowder), and perhaps most importantly the opportunity cost that came with the Jazz taking on Mike’s max contract. But this deal is almost certainly a win-win for all involved - Memphis got cap and pick flexibility, making it possible to acquire the likes of Brandon Clarke, Andre Iguodala (and a future 1st from the Warriors), and other assets. Utah got the star point guard they have been lacking, that almost certainly would not have come to the Jazz in free agency. And Conley gets the chance to compete for a title, like his best friend Marc Gasol did, on a team where he does not have to be “the man”.
See, everyone wins.
But tonight, after all the tributes and the calls to welcome Mike Conley home, there will be a game to be played. Here’s what to watch for.
Ja the Spoiler
Once upon a time, Mike Conley was a 20 year old rookie trying to find his way in the NBA. Now, 12 years later, history is repeating itself...but in a fairly entertaining fashion.
Ja Morant is a very different player from Conley. He’s already an elite passer (which has never been a strength of Mike’s game), and even more noticeable is the difference in burst and athleticism. Conley has always been a “quick” player, not a “fast” one. Ja is not just fast, he is explosive. And he isn’t just explosive, he is violent.
Conley has far more tools in his offensive repertoire at this stage than Ja, and there will almost certainly be times where Mike makes Morant look the part of the young rookie. But even with all the love and respect that all involved will almost certainly show tonight - and rightfully so - don’t think for a second that the young lion that is Ja Morant doesn’t want to show out against his predecessor.
I am hoping - HOPING - for Ja vs. Mike with the game on the line. That’d be worth the price of admission in and of itself...and if Morant has the ball in his hands last, that may make Mike’s homecoming bittersweet for Captain Clutch.
The Jazz and Grizzlies have differently constructed big rotations. For Utah, it starts and ends with Gobert, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is a force inside. Beyond him, the Jazz deploy lots of “stretch four” types - Bogdanovic, O’Neal, Green, Joe Ingles...all of these bigger wings can play the four and create possible issues for Memphis on the perimeter.
Now Jonas Valanciunas has the size to contend with Gobert, and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke have the lateral foot speed and length/athleticism to hang with the talented Utah “bigs” beyond the arc. But when Valaciunas is out, and Gobert is in, the Jazz will likely have a decisive advantage. Jaren should be able to take him off the dribble some, and Rudy probably can’t move off the Clarke pick and roll consistently. But on the glass especially, the Jazz will have their way with a Jonas-less Grizzlies squad.
Those Valanciunas off, Gobert on minutes will be crucial for Memphis to win if they hope to get out of FedExForum with a victory.
There will be a lot of tears, and a lot of hugs and feelings as Mike comes back to Memphis for the first time. As for the game itself, the young Grizzlies are due for a drop off after two terrific road wins. It’ll be close for a while, but Donovan Mitchell will show why he’s the best player on the floor and the Jazz will pull away.
Utah 114, Memphis 105