WHERE: FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee
WHEN: 8:00 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: Fox Sports Southeast/NBA League Pass/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Jaren Jackson Jr. (Out, knee), Justise Winslow (Out, hip), Grayson Allen (Out, Health and Safety Protocols), Jonas Valanciunas (Out, Health and Safety Protocols), Killian Tillie (Out, foot)
HOUSTON: Victor Oladipo (Out, load management), Dante Exum (Out, calf), David Nwaba (Out, ankle)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
HOUSTON: John Wall, Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate, P.J. Tucker, Christian Wood
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman Sr.
Tonight’s showdown in Memphis is between two teams that are currently not where they are supposed to be.
The young Grizzlies are once again defying the odds and what others believe them to be as a basketball team. Year two of their “rebuild” has featured a recent seven-game winning streak, and their most recent result (a blowout loss to the streaking themselves Indiana Pacers) aside they’re playing some of their best basketball of the last three years. They’ve won games without Ja Morant both literally due to injury as well as figuratively in terms of him not being at the height of his point scoring power. They’ve won despite not having key contributors and starters for large stretches of time, if all all. They’ve endured admirably.
The same can be said of the Houston Rockets. In the wake of the insanity that was the Russell Westbrook and James Harden implosions, no one expected much from a team whose biggest stars were either considered washed up (Wall and Cousins) or disinterested soon-to-be free agents (Oladipo). But a funny thing has happened - those three have shown some admirable moments of team play. Players like Christian Wood have made themselves out to be possible All-Star selections. Names like Jae’Sean Tate have carved out roles on a team where such a thing would have been impossible roughly two months ago. They’ve won despite the the hurricane they found themselves in the eye of. They too have endured admirably.
Even with Oladipo out for tonight’s showdown, it makes for interesting basketball as two overachievers compete to avoid some of their recent successful play being negated by consecutive losses.
Here’s what to watch for as Houston plays in Memphis tonight.
John Wall and Eric Gordon’s Renaissance
Two players who both seem to have two of the absolute worst contracts in the entire NBA appear, for now, to be doing their part to battle that stigma. No, the current levels of production for Eric Gordon and John Wall won’t make NBA fans forget the fact between the two of them they will make almost $200 million combined between now and the end of the 2023 season. But they do help the Houston Rockets a good bit, and probably more than most thought they would.
Gordon, for one, is currently shooting the ball overall from the floor as well as he has over his entire NBA career. As of the start of Wednesday’s game against the Thunder (where he led the Rockets with 22 points in a loss) Eric was posting near career best numbers in win shares per 48 minutes, PER, and offensive rating according to basketball-reference.com. He is getting to the free throw line better than he has in years (his .311 free throw rate is his best since the 2012-2013 season), and is also facilitating offense at a great clip (a 12.6% assist rate is his best in five seasons) while not being a negative defensive force. His offense is actively helping Houston win more than it has in some time.
Meanwhile, John Wall per 36 minutes in 2021 looks a lot like John Wall per 36 minutes in 2019. He is shooting threes more often and better (33.1% three point rate is the highest of his career, as is his current 37.3% conversion rate) than he did before all the injury issues, but he also is not getting to the charity stripe the way he once did (a career low 23.6% free throw rate). He has adapted his game to age and his injury history to an extent, but he is still capable of playing well in transition and finishing strong at the rim.
Wall and Gordon (with Oladipo out especially) stir the Houston backcourt drink in terms of scoring. To beat the Rockets, you must slow down their contributions offensively.
Getting Wood off his game
Christian Wood has been a revelation for the Rockets, posting legitimately impressive numbers as he makes his case for an All-Star appearance. He is averaging over 23 points per game while making 39.1% of his threes and grabs almost 11 rebounds a game. He blocks nearly 2 shots per game and with James Harden out of the picture has come in to focus as a player Houston can quite clearly build around moving forward. But he is capable of duds, like everyone is. Last night against OKC he only logged 22 minutes and played pretty poorly in those minutes compared to his season averages - only 8 points and 6 rebounds. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he struggled with bigs like Al Horford and Darius Bazley. Whatever the reason, when Wood plays that poorly the Rockets are likely to lose.
After being drastically outplayed by the Pacers frontcourt, the likes of Tillman, Clarke, and Dieng are surely looking forward to getting back out on the floor and having the chance to play better against a talented big man. Wood can do similar things to them that Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner did. They can take the lessons learned in their loss Tuesday and apply them 48 hours later.
Memphis is a two point favorite in this game as of this writing, and that feels about right. The Grizzlies are the team enjoying the night at home in their own beds without a game this time around as the Rockets arrive in the Bluff City late for a tip-off with Ja Morant and company. Even without the likes of Valanciunas and Allen, Memphis should benefit from a tired Houston team, but not too much - only Victor Oladipo played over 30 minutes against the Thunder last night, and he is out for this one anyway.
Still, a rested Morant in the fourth quarter should be enough for the Grizzlies to get over the hump.
Memphis 114, Houston 110