The Memphis Grizzlies were picked by very few NBA prognosticators to do very much in this first round series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs with the Utah Jazz. To the outsider, the match-up was a distinct mismatch of one of the NBA’s very best regular season squads against a young up and coming team that simply should be thrilled to be in the spot they found themselves in. To an extent, they’re right - Utah beat up on Memphis often in the regular season, and make no mistake, the Grizzlies played like a team that was very happy to have the opportunity to take on the Jazz.
They just weren’t satisfied with a game on the big stage. They wanted to win it.
And they did just that.
Of course, the Donovan Mitchell saga involving the health of his ankle played a role in Memphis’ victory - that issue won’t exist on Wednesday. But still, the Jazz went 10-6 without Donovan Mitchell in the lineup and many assumed that the Jazz were perhaps thinking that getting Donovan a few more days of rehab and practice reps would be helpful over “pushing it” (although he was not on the Jazz injury report entering the contest). After all, the Jazz were a damn impressive 31-5 in the regular season at home. Utah won’t even need Mitchell against the weaker Grizzlies!
Until, of course, they did. And now, we have a series on our hands with Memphis up 1-0 entering Game 2.
The Grizzlies are officially one of the hottest teams in the NBA, and also one of the best stories in the entire playoffs. Being “ahead of schedule” is very fun - Memphis is overachieving even more than they did during the Bubble season, and it isn’t just Ja Morant lighting the Association up like Beale Street. Dillon Brooks led the Grizzlies in scoring and did it quite efficiently. Kyle Anderson posted a Grizzlies record six steals. Desmond Bane and Grayson Allen hit timely shots.
It was a total team effort. As it has been whenever Memphis has been their best this season. But the Grizzlies did a couple things in particular that got the better of the Jazz long enough to shock the NBA world...and could continue to do so.
Let’s break it down.
Few rhythm threes
The Jazz shot almost 39% from three as a team over the span of the regular season while attempting a league-leading 43 shots per contest per basketball-reference.com. No team in the NBA lived, or died, by the three as much as Utah. Usually they have Donovan Mitchell to help bail them out as an isolation threat when they’re not up to the task.On Sunday night against the Grizzlies they didn’t, and Coach Quin Snyder and his team fell on the sword from beyond the arc to the tune of a 12-47 (25.5%) performance. If Utah shoots just 30% from three, they likely beat the Grizzlies. So it’s not enough to simply say that Memphis caught the Jazz on a cold night. It was a priority of Coach Taylor Jenkins and his team to not allow the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic (until the 2nd half in his case) and the rest of the Jazz (the reserves especially struggled - 1-14 from the floor from Georges Niang and Jordan Clarkson) to get to their spots without at least a hand in their face, especially in transition.
Take these examples from Sunday’s game. First, one of the few second half threes Bogdanovic missed early in the third quarter.
The Jazz have the ball in the hands of an ice cold Bogdanovic, who hadn’t scored at this point of the game (this obviously changes later on, as those who watched know well). He is, however, one of their most important offensive contributors without Donovan Mitchell in the fold, and he can create off the bounce - especially against the still-adjusting Jaren Jackson Jr. He sees opportunity with him and Ja Morant as his most immediate threats and decides to go it alone on this possession.
As Morant and Jackson Jr. come down the floor keeping Bogdanovic between themselves and the basket, Ja makes a common mistake among young players - ball watching. He loses sight of the man he was running alongside up the floor with (Royce O’Neal) and because of this is now out of position. But the angle is off for Bogdanovic to hit him once he gets to the three point spot in the corner - Jaren is too long and capable of disrupting passing lanes to make that pass. Bogdanovic understands that Ja’s misread forces Jaren’s hand however - he should have a shot if he is able to get enough room.
Morant’s elite quickness gets him back to the corner fast enough to enable Jaren to stick Bogdanovic as he side steps off the dribble in to getting his feet underneath himself for a shot. But Jackson Jr.’s defensive versatility shines through on this particular rep - he has the foot speed to react up and the length to contest effectively. This happened throughout the game - whether it be in transition like this shot was, or out of half-court sets, the Grizzlies found ways to get hands up and in the line of sight of shooters.
That is a testament to the film study of players and coaches, and the energy of leaders like Dillon Brooks. When you watch someone like Brooks focus on player tendencies and play with such tenacity like he does, it’s hard to not do your best to rise to that standard - the Grizzlies “standard”. Jackson Jr. has the combination of talent and desire to be a weapon in this way, as he has since he was drafted. Jaren’s struggles have been well documented, but unlike Justise Winslow Jaren will continue to play. He is too important not to. Sequences like this (as well as the one where he blocked a shot on one end and drained a key three on the other) are evidence that he could very well knock off the rust soon.
Brooks’ exploits have been lauded as a primary on-ball defender, but he’s also pretty elite right now in terms of off-ball help and being able to replace back on shooters. This sequence demonstrates just that.
At the start of this set earlier in the first half (before the Jazz officially were frozen from range), Bogdanovic is once again the main option with the ball in his hand. Memphis is (correctly) playing Ja Morant on Royce O’Neal with no true point guard option on the floor for Utah. Kyle Anderson draws the Bogdanovic assignment, with Desmond Bane sticking Joe Ingles and Jonas Valanciunas combating Derrick Favors. This Morant/Bane/Brooks/Anderson/Valanciunas crew combines defensive versatility with offensive punch - Desmond Bane has shown an ability to defend at a higher level despite his wingspan concerns. But there are still weaknesses.
Bogdanovic and Favors enter a pick and roll set, and either by design, by mistake, or a combination of both (most likely) four defenders descend. Jonas Valanciunas, whose main weakness as a defender comes laterally but has improved in that area of late, helps on the Bogdanovic drive off of the Favors screen and that leaves Favors a favorable lane to the rim. Ja Morant collapses down, as does Dillon Brooks - the paint is clogged. No clear options there. But note Jordan Clarkson, the newly minted Sixth Man of the Year, with his hand up in the corner.
The moment Bogdanovic decides to swing to Clarkson. Dillon helps Jonas - again, in this particular set it appears to be by design - and the pass out to the corner is crisp. But if you look at Brooks’ right plant foot he has already decided to begin to take his momentum (and generating a little extra push with hands on Favors’ back) towards the close out. Dillon is not an elite athlete, but his basketball IQ is exquisite. He plays extremely hard, and marries that with a willingness to prepare. He never lost the understanding of exactly where Clarkson was on the floor despite being off him by roughly 20 feet. He had one of two things that was going to happen to him - defend a Favors close range attempt, or sprint out to the corner three. Once Bogdanovic commits, so does Dillon.
Bojan correctly kicks it to Clarkson for a supposedly open three. But so much ground is made up by Dillon on the close out - he was in the middle of the lane when the pass began! Considering how Dillon lacks the explosiveness and quickness of a Ja Morant (or perhaps even a De’Anthony Melton) the fact he closed and, like Jaren earlier, disrupted the line of sight on the shooting Clarkson enough to force the missed shot is quite impressive. Perhaps more importantly, Brooks is also able to gain that ground without his own momentum swinging in to Clarkson, which would have resulted in a three shot shooting foul.
Memphis prioritized forcing Utah in to spots where they could take advantage in terms of either creating a turnover (14 turnovers, 8 from Bogdanovic and Clarkson alone) or giving them a three point shot that was more often than not defended at the launch point. It’s unlikely the Jazz shoot as poorly as they did again, especially with the return of Donovan Mitchell. Yet it is possible that the Grizzlies make the lives of Utah difficult moving forward, especially if Mitchell is knocking off some rust after missing 17 games now including the playoffs.
The Jazz cannot stop effort and execution from the Grizzlies. They can make tough shots, but the tenacity and preparation on display from Memphis played a primary role in winning game one.
Jonas Valanciunas outplaying Rudy Gobert.
Gobert is one of the very best bigs in the NBA. Jonas, while perhaps a tier below Rudy, is more than up to the task of pushing the Jazz center - and on Sunday, he did more than that. While Gobert outrebounded Valanciunas, offensively Jonas was a larger force and played a large role in him fouling out of the contest. This sequence is a reason why.
Jonas is initially pushed a bit off the block by the aggressive Rudy, and he decides to face up against Gobert and begin this isolation opportunity against arguably the best defensive big in the last five or so years. Rudy for some reason bites on the fake - while Valanciunas surely has this shot in his post toolset, this is not Jonas’ greatest area of strength. As soon as Gobert’s momentum rises up with his hand, it provides the deceivingly quick Valanciunas a lane to his right to get to the basket.
Jonas takes that space, closes it by turning his back after the initial move to get to Gobert’s left, and uses his frame (one of the few in the NBA that can compare to Gobert’s) to get in to his rhythm for his patented jump hook shot while also putting Rudy off balance due to his strength. If you’re a big with this shot attempt in your arsenal, it is a valuable weapon against Gobert. Even with his length and size, especially since Jonas has a true big man body, Rudy is not going to be able to block that look. He can of course defend it, but with enough practice and touch it’s a difficult offensive attempt to stop.
One play didn’t win Jonas this battle with Gobert. Their constant pushing and prodding on the block and in the paint for rebounds and the fact that Rudy had to respect the offensive game of Valanciunas so much that he was often out of position on help defensive rotations, leading to some of his foul issues, did. Rudy doesn’t battle legitimate seven footers with low post games like Valanciunas often. It’s a shift for him, one that surely wears him down (as it would most). If Jonas can win this one on one over the next two weeks, Memphis will likely win the war with Utah.
There were other contributions to the victory. Forcing multiple Utah turnovers, and thus limiting the Jazz possessions, certainly helped. The efficient scoring of Dillon Brooks, and his takeover in the third quarter, played a massive role considering the Grizzlies as a whole weren’t able to get much going in the first quarter. But how sustainable are these actions? While Memphis prioritizes creating takeaways it was actually an average night for Utah on that front (14.8 was their season number per game as a team), so that can be continued but it isn’t as if Utah can’t win with that many turnovers moving forward. Dillon Brooks has shot 50% on 20 or more shots just one other time this season - every other time Dillon attempted that many shots, he shot a combined 42.3% over 10 games. That’s still solid for Dillon, but the point is Brooks is unlikely to play at that high of an offensive level on a night in, night out basis.
But what can be maintained - the style of play of Jonas Valanciunas, and the way the Grizzlies committed to forcing the Jazz to make their threes off of the dribble/not in clean catch and shoot situations with clear lines to the basket - should have Utah shook.
Because Memphis isn’t just interested in one with over the Jazz. With every victory that the Grizzlies obtain that they weren’t supposed to get, their confidence grows.
And soon, these wins won’t be so shocking anymore.