There’s a rather large basketball game tonight for the Memphis Grizzlies against the Utah Jazz. The stakes are somewhat convoluted for the Grizzlies coming off their upset victory over the Jazz Sunday night that shocked the NBA world. The very best that the young Grizzlies and their coaching staff could’ve hoped for realistically was a split in Utah, earning Memphis home court advantage coming in to what is sure to be a raucous FedExForum this weekend for games 3 and 4. But now that that has already been achieved, while it is important to understand that the team has garnered more success than most anticipated in this series just one game in, the truth is everyone associated with Memphis and their Grizzlies wants more.
One win was awesome. But two?
Maybe Memphis doesn’t come back out to Utah.
That, of course, would be a Herculean feat that almost certainly will not happen. The Jazz are too good to be swept, and the smart money/pick is to take Utah to even the series tonight while the Grizzlies feel good about the split. But since now, win or lose, this is very much a series heading in to the weekend, there are some wrinkles to this contest that will dictate how the rest of this Grizzlies-Jazz playoff pairing will shake out.
Let’s take a look at five questions that tonight’s festivities will almost certainly answer.
How healthy, rusty, and angry is Donovan Mitchell?
Mitchell did not play in game one, and The Athletic reported that while his own personal training team cleared him to play the Utah one did not. Is that the reason the Jazz lost? No - Utah was 10-6 without Mitchell while he was recovering, and Utah had opportunities late to win the game that they did not capitalize on. Is he a huge help to them winning? Of course he is - he’s a nightmare matchup for the Grizzlies. Their best perimeter defender, Dillon Brooks, has had issues sticking the unique Mitchell in the past. Understandably so - “Spida” is one of the more perplexing offensive players in the NBA given his frame and skill set. For a player like Dillon who relies so much on film study, it takes more than a session or two on an IPad to prepare for a talent like Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell and his Jazz teammates will have plenty of inspiration entering this game to prove that Sunday was a fluke and this Grizzlies team can’t touch them at full strength. The first quarter will be key for Memphis - can they withstand the wave that will almost surely hit them to begin the contest? And if Donovan is not feeling his shot early and Memphis starts fast, will Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder be able to afford to let Mitchell find his footing for an extended period? It seems likely he will - after all, the Jazz cannot win a championship without a thriving Mitchell.
But they have to beat the Grizzlies first.
What does Dillon Brooks do for an encore?
After his 31 points, 7 rebound performance against the Jazz on Sunday night it is safe to say a lot more casual NBA fans know Dillon Brooks’ name now. Memphis, of course, understands exactly who Brooks is - he is their defensive catalyst and the overall spirit animal for the Grizzlies. But Brooks’ offensive production was uncommon in terms of his efficiency - his 31 points on 50% shooting is something he has done five other times across over 240 games played in his NBA career. Combining that with the stated goal of the Jazz to prioritize him more in terms of contested looks entering this contest, and it is enough to give even the most optimistic Grizzlies fan reasons for pause.
Brooks’ confidence is a double-edged sword. When he’s feeling it offensively? He’s one of the most fun players to watch arguably in Grizzlies history. When he’s cold? He’s undeniably frustrating. But Dillon remains Dillon, admirably, through the good times and the bad. If he doesn’t have the shooting stroke, will he be able to adjust his game offensively so it doesn’t hurt is massive defensive importance/the team’s unselfish offensive approach?
Can Jaren Jackson Jr. take another step forward?
Jaren once again showed flashes of his old self in the Utah game on Sunday. One sequence in particular stands out - a Jackson Jr. block on one end of the floor that led to a transition three for him on the other. But after the Jazz called timeout and the team wanted to celebrate Jaren’s productive set, Jackson Jr. very clearly was not interested. He was not being rude - he wanted to focus, because he knew outside of those two (albeit important) plays he was struggling overall.
The numbers show that too. Jackson in 24 minutes of play was a -19, the only Grizzlies starter in the +/- negatives. Part of that was Coach Taylor Jenkins’ rotations - please, coach, no Jaren/Tyus Jones/De’Anthony Melton/Grayson Allen/Xavier Tillman minutes tonight - but Jaren is still having foul issues (4 in 24 minutes) and only managed three rebounds. if he isn’t scoring (2-8 overall, 1-5 from the floor) he isn’t helping. But Memphis will continue to play him. Because they need him.
But to shock the world again? They need more from him.
If Jaren falters, who is the “fifth man”?
And we’re back!
Before Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return from injury, the debate centered around three players in particular - Grayson Allen, Desmond Bane, and De’Anthony Melton. The other four starters - Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jonas Valanciunas - are locked in to place. And Jaren, whose importance to the franchise now and in the future is well-documented, will keep getting opportunities. But let’s assume that tonight goes like Sunday did - some good, some bad, 25-ish minutes. That’s a realistic expectation, aside from perhaps hoping for some progression to his mean as he knocks off the rust. But there’s still an additional 10-ish minutes with the starters to account for.
So - Melton, Bane, or Allen?
It almost certainly will not be Melton. For better or worse De’Anthony is not viewed as this level of player by Jenkins, at least not when compared to Bane or Allen as a starter. To be fair, the offensive games of Allen and Bane are likely seen as bigger pluses next to Ja Morant (although Melton overall this season has been comparable, especially to Allen, in terms of three point shooting percentage). Melton will likely get run, but Allen and Bane will be the priority.
Between those two? Bane played the better game against the Jazz on Sunday, posting a +23 in 18 minutes played to Allen’s -10 in 23 minutes. Who you get your run with matters with regard to that number, but Bane has been healthier of late and Allen is still trying to find his footing. Jenkins trusts Allen - Grayson was the primary starter when Jaren was out - so it is likely that he gets the first crack at being the stand-in for a struggling Jackson Jr. But Bane has grown as a rebounder, facilitator, and defender - and he has been playing more consistently.
It will be Grayson or Desmond. But whichever one Jenkins runs with will play a major role in this win - and the series moving forward.
Is Brandon Clarke done “for good”?
Brandon got a DNP-CD in game one in favor of Xavier Tillman, who played a relatively unproductive 8 minutes. 2 rebounds, 2 fouls, 1 turnover, and a -10 in +/- does not inspire tremendous confidence. But at the same time, Tillman was pretty influential in the Play-In Tournament and has a frame/style of defense that lines up better with the strengths of key Utah reserve big Derrick Favors than Clarke...at least in theory. Brandon has had some struggles this season to be sure - between injury and the insane schedule post All-Star Break he simply did not have time to find his shooting stroke or shooting. Perhaps the lighter load over the last week or two has helped with that.
But since Jonas Valanciunas will likely (and correctly) play 36-40 minutes, and Kyle Anderson sliding to the 4 in favor of Allen/Melton/Bane minutes has been the constant for this entire season, the answer for now is probably only going to result in 8-10 minutes of playing time, barring foul trouble for Jonas and/or Jaren. But that run can be the difference between a lead or a deficit if the game is tight. Is Tillman indeed the best option now? If so, what does that mean long-term for Brandon Clarke?
That may be more of a question for the offseason, and the potential roster consolidation to come. But for now, Clarke’s existence outside the Memphis rotation is a testament to how good Tillman has been - and how difficult this season has been in some ways for key players over the last two years.
One game won’t decide the series. That’s why the seven game nature of these matchups is seen as so valuable - almost always, the better team winds up on top. Of course the 2011 Spurs would perhaps disagree with that assessment - and the history of that series is surely on the minds of Grizzlies fans, who know full well what a team with momentum and confidence can do in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
One game won’t decide the series. But it could put those odds on the Utah Jazz, and not the Memphis Grizzlies.
What a turn of events that would be.