In his book Gutless, author Carl Deuker has a memorable quote that explores the inevitable consequences of an even more memorable one: “If winning cures everything, then losing poisons everything.”
On Friday night, the Memphis Grizzlies earned their first trip to the playoffs since 2017 in an instant classic of a win on the road against the Golden State Warriors—and they should be relieved that they did. Because the discourse if they had lost under the circumstances of what occurred in that game could have been poisonous if they had not.
Of course, that’s not because the Grizzlies were supposed to beat Stephen Curry and the Warriors in an elimination game. But to say that the decisions made by the Grizzlies coaching staff would have caused the season end on a bitter note if they had lost would be an understatement to say the least.
Because Ja Morant continued his ascent to superstardom with an iconic 35-6-6 performance that Memphians will remember for decades, very few will remember Taylor Jenkins’ inexplicably awful decision to not challenge a Desmond Bane three-shot foul on Jordan Poole that cost the Grizzlies three points with less than two minutes remaining.
And perhaps most conspicuously, it was because Xavier Tillman was impactful on both ends off the court that no one will shred Jenkins for playing him over Jaren Jackson Jr., the supposed second face of the franchise, down the stretch in a win-or-go-home situation.
Winning very well may may cure everything. But if the Grizzlies are to win against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, Jaren Jackson Jr. will have to be as impactful as he's ever been, if not more so. Something will have gone critically wrong if he’s on the bench in clutch-time situations during this series.
To be sure, the Utah Jazz are soundly better than the Memphis Grizzlies. They had the best record in the NBA for a reason, and their excellence demonstrated itself in some absurd ways.
Their offense, which was ranked third in efficiency this year, would have been the best in NBA history before this season, and they were such a prolific three-point shooting team that they are the only team in league history to make 10 or more threes in every game they played. Add in the fact that the Jazz have the fourth-ranked defense that’s anchored by one of the best rim protectors ever in Rudy Gobert, and it’s not hard to figure out why the Grizzlies lost all three of their games against the Jazz this year.
However, context is important. The Grizzlies did not have Jaren Jackson Jr. in those three games. And while Jaren has often struggled in his return to play and his presence would’ve likely not been a magic wand, the combination of his size and skillset makes him an incredibly difficult, if not nightmare, matchup for the Jazz.
In Jaren’s normal role at the four in the Grizzlies starting lineup, the Jazz simply do not have anyone with enough size and athleticism to contend with him down low. If the Jazz try to slap Joe Ingles or Bogan Bogdanovic on him, the Grizzlies should force-feed him on the low block every time down until they start sending help. The Jazz could attempt to counter this by starting Derrick Favors next to Rudy Gobert or playing them together for extended minutes, but this is highly unlikely considering that the Jazz have almost used Favors exclusively as a center, and the Favors/Gobert front-court has played only 16 minutes together this year, per cleaning the glass.
Jaren Jackson’s skillset becomes all the more intriguing when considering the possibilities of him playing extended minutes at center.
Jenkins obviously demonstrated a reluctance to play him there in the play-in games, which is unsurprising because of how much the team has struggled with him at center. The Grizzlies have generally been obliterated when Jaren Jackson Jr. plays the five to say the least; their most frequently-used lineup with him at center has a net-rating of -10.6.
It’s a bit concerning, since the Grizzlies usually employed him at center to close games last year, and those lineups did have a positive net-rating. But there's probably not much to take from this apparent regression outside of the fact that he’s still re-acclimating to NBA basketball.
Despite his struggles, using Jaren Jackson Jr. at center could be significant in mitigating one of the Jazz’s significant advantages, which is Rudy Gobert’s defense. Gobert is a historically great defensive big especially in the realm of rim protection, but versatility is not his strength. He will struggle if he’s consistently forced to defend a capable ball-handler and three-point shooter on the perimeter, and Jaren definitely fits those characteristics. Drawing Gobert away from the paint will not only give Jaren the advantage as a shot-creator, but it will also help the Grizzlies in opening up driving lanes to attack the rim, which Ja Morant in particular will undoubtedly appreciate.
Despite the disparity between these two teams, the Grizzlies will have plenty of weapons to wield in this matchup. Even with Rudy Gobert defensively dominating the paint, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas have managed to both have individually superb games against the Jazz. They can compete, and yes, there is a scenario where they can win this series.
But if the Memphis Grizzlies are to shock the world for the second time in a decade in defeating the top seed in the Western Conference, they will need Jaren Jackson Jr. to to be the best version of himself—a a versatile two-way big man whose combination of skill and size will bend the Utah Jazz to their breaking point
This is Jaren Jackson Jr.’s moment. And it’s now up to him to rise to the occasion.