WHEN: 4:00 PM CT
WHERE: FedexForum in Memphis, Tennessee
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: TNT/ Fox Sports Southeast/NBA League Pass/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Jonas Valanciunas (Out, health and safety protocol), Jaren Jackson Jr. (Out, knee), Jontay Porter (Out, knee), Justise Winslow (Out, hip)
PHOENIX: Dario Saric (health and safety), Damian Jones (health and safety), Cameron Payne (right ankle sprain), Jalen Smith (health and safety)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman Sr.
PHOENIX: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton
I don’t really know what’s going on in the NBA anymore.
In the week after I wrote my piece on the NBA’s struggles with COVID, I have witnessed something that makes no sense at all. Immediately after the Memphis Grizzlies played the Minnesota Timberwolves back last Thursday, the Wolves proceeded to lose half their team to health and safety protocol, including Karl-Anthony Towns who actually tested positive. Yet somehow, the Grizzlies were fine to play against the 76ers on Saturday night. And now, the 76ers don’t even have enough players to suit up due to contact tracing connected to their game with...the Grizzlies, per Adrian Wojnarowski. But in spite of it all, the Grizzlies are still, as of this writing, scheduled to play the Phoenix Suns later today for the annual MLK Day celebration.
So either the Grizzlies are in cahoots with the league to wage biological warfare on the rest of the NBA, or else I am definitely missing something. Regardless, it appears to be a very strange situation that the Grizzlies are able to play this game at all, especially against a Suns team that has had its last three games postponed.
If the game is to go on, there are two key areas that the Grizzlies can focus on in order to win.
Attacking the Paint
The Suns have been relatively capable at defending the paint so far this season, ranking 12th in opponent paint points per game. But if you glance at the injury report, you may notice that Covid has introduced an intriguing wrinkle for the Grizzlies in their offensive gameplay. They may be missing Jonas Valanciunas, but the Suns will only have two bigs available in Deandre Ayton and Frank Kaminsky, neither of which are particularly defensive stalwarts.
The Grizzlies should live inside the painted area against the Suns. They are the second best paint scoring team in the NBA, and while they will miss Jonas against Ayton, they will be coming off the the high of reinserting possibly the best paint-scoring guard in the NBA in Ja Morant into the starting lineup. If the Grizzlies attack the paint consistently, they should find their usual success while also wearing down a thin Phoenix front court.
An Unstoppable Force Against...
The Grizzlies have been the most defensively disruptive team in the NBA this year, averaging 10.2 steals per game. To put that absurd stat in greater context, no team has averaged that many steals in over a decade. Through a combination of impressive discipline and active hands, they have wreaked havoc on opposing offenses.
The Suns, on the other hand, have been one of the stingiest teams in the NBA when it comes to taking care of the basketball, which is no surprise with the addition of Chris Paul. While not necessarily elite, their offense has been a well-oiled machine, ranking 9th in assists (25.9) and 3rd in fewest turnovers per game (11.7).
In the absence of Ja Morant, it was the Grizzlies’ tenacious defense that kept the team afloat and allowed them to win games that they probably shouldn’t. With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow still out of the lineup, today’s game probably is one of those games. They will have to make the Suns abnormally uncomfortable in order to come away with the win.
There are two reasons why I think the Grizzlies will lose this game. Firstly, over the course of franchise history, they have generally treated losing on MLK Day as much of an annual tradition as losing on opening night. Secondly, the Grizzlies have won 4 in a row while being significantly short-handed, and they’re due to come back down to earth.
The Grizzlies will take a halftime lead, but the Suns’ superior talent will allow them to edge them out in a back-and-forth affair in the second half.