The Western Conference’s top-seeded Utah Jazz and eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies beat the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament.
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How they got here
The Jazz were the league's best team all season, which is not a sentence you probably expected.
They are loaded with high-end talent, even beyond All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley. Bojan Bogdanovic returned from the wrist injury that cost him last year's playoffs to serve as Utah's third-leading scorer. Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are probably going to finish 1-2 in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, probably not in that order. They may not have a superstar, but no team has such quality depth.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder dialed up his team's 3-point attempts to 43 per game, and they hit them at a 38.9% clip — the backbone of a motion offense that rated fourth in the league. As usual, Gobert anchored an elite defense, and Utah outscored opponents by an average of nine points per 100 possessions, almost three points better than anyone else. Picture the egalitarian "Beautiful Game" San Antonio Spurs, who rolled to the 2014 NBA championship, only more efficient, and that is the Jazz during this regular season.
The young Grizzlies continued to play like veterans under coach Taylor Jenkins, and the development of everyone on the roster under his watch was enough to advance Memphis to the playoffs for the first time since the Grit and Grind era (co-starring Conley before his 2019 trade to the Jazz, interestingly enough).
To a lesser degree than Utah, the Grizzlies are rich with talent throughout their rotation. Ja Morant is a superstar in the making. Jonas Valanciunas has been an absolute beast on the block. Dillon Brooks is one of the more underrated two-way wings in the game when playing at his peak. Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen all averaged double figures and just play smart basketball. The bench is littered with capable young contributors, including Desmond Bane and De'Anthony Melton. And Jaren Jackson Jr. returned from a knee injury in late April to assume his place as Memphis' second option behind Morant.
The Grizzlies may be a couple years away from their best players performing at a level that lifts them into true contention, but they already do everything well. They play with pace, share the ball, keep turnovers low and try like hell on defense. It is the mark of a well-coached team developed from years of quality drafting.
Head to head
The Jazz swept their season series with the Grizzlies, 3-0.
All three games came between March 26 and 31, and two of them came down to the final minute. Mitchell averaged 35 points and seven assists in the first two games, and the Jazz didn't even need him in the third.
Morant's aggressiveness was the bellwether for Memphis' ability to hang with Utah. He combined for 68 points and 26 free throws in the two games the Grizzlies nearly won, and he finished with 12 points and four free-throw attempts in the one meeting they lost by 16 points on the second night of a back-to-back.
You might think Utah would roll out its best five players to close tight games, but Conley, Mitchell, Ingles, Bogdanovic and Gobert have played only 24 possessions together. Royce O'Neale is their defensive wing stopper and has played more clutch minutes than anyone on the Jazz. Few lineups in the NBA have played more together this season than O'Neale, Conley, Mitchell, Bogdanovic and Gobert, who are outscoring opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Snyder also has the option to mix Clarkson and/or Ingles into the closing lineup if the offense demands either. That is a bigger discussion if Mitchell experiences a setback returning from the ankle injury that cost him the last month of the regular season. The All-Star guard was an absolute monster in the clutch during Utah's first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets last season. Mitchell is their creator when the motion stops.
Morant, Valanciunas, Brooks and Anderson have been mainstays. Jackson would be the natural choice to join them in the closing lineup if he were fully healthy. That quintet is +18 in a limited 50-minute sample size. Jenkins also entrusts Bane when push comes to shove. Swap Bane in for Jackson, and the Grizzlies are still outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions in four times as many minutes this season.
Matchup to watch
Gobert's length wreaks havoc on the interior, but so does Valanciunas' brute strength. The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Lithuanian just posted 23 points and 23 rebounds opposite Spurs center Jakob Poeltl — a very good defender in his own right. Valanciunas will not be intimidated by the 7-foot-1, 258-pound Frenchman.
Gobert spent more time defending Valanciunas than anyone else in the league this season, according to the NBA's tracking data, and the Grizzlies center managed a decent helping of 30 points on 13-for-30 shooting in 21:05 opposite his Jazz counterpart. Gobert countered with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting and 13 free throws opposite Valanciunas. Memphis will need a far greater discrepancy to have any shot in this series.
Jazz in six.
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