The Utah Jazz (17-10) are right behind the Memphis Grizzlies (18-10) in the Western Conference standings. Only half a game separates the two teams. Both teams are slow, and defense first. Their relatively young head coaches, David Fizdale and Quin Snyder, are energized by challenges. And again, both teams have had plenty of injuries this year. The two small market clubs, teams that moved for more stability away from bigger, more popular cities (New Orleans in the 70s, Vancouver in the 2000s) have homes where they are now. And loyal fans.
But both are still looking up at other teams in the conference. Memphis is, somehow, still holding on as darkhorse contenders. Utah is, somehow, still holding onto a playoff spot. It’s going to be a fun game.
These two teams played before, last month, and Memphis walked away with a 102-96 victory. It was a close game despite both teams missing guys (while the Jazz were out a few rotation guys, the Grizz were without Tony Allen). Tonight should be payback time — however, it’s not going to be easy.
Memphis has the TOP defense in the league at 102.0 points per 100.0 possessions. Their slow pace, 28th, makes it a force multiplier where they allow only 97.2 ppg, 3rd. Utah has taken a hit of late, and is down to just the seventh best defense in the league, giving up 104.7 points per 100.0 possessions. At the slowest pace in the NBA, 30th, they give up the actual least points per game, 95.4, 1st.
The strength vs. strength fight continues on the glass, on causing turn overs, and contesting every shot. Making Memphis stronger has been the return of Mike Conley. However, they aren’t at full strength. Wade Baldwin IV is assigned to the NBA D-League. Bigs Brandan Wright and Deyonta Davis are both out. Sharpshooting wing Chandler Parsons is questionable. And Jarell Martin and James Ennis III are probable for tonight. Sure, a lot of these guys aren’t difference makers — even Parsons has been kinda crappy against Utah his entire career (three 20+ point games, many man more under 10). Utah is still going to be missing George Hill and Alec Burks. So in terms of missing value, I think the Jazz are missing more right now.
Marquee Match-Up: The Battle of the Bigs
But the big attraction tonight has got to be Marc Gasol against Rudy Gobert. Defense against Defense. Rebounding vs. Rebounding. Or more worrisome right now, outside shooting vs. how far can the defense live with Rudy creeping out of the paint? That’s gotta be the focal point of Memphis’ offense right now. If Rudy can be coaxed away from the rim the world of offensive options open up for the Grizzlies. Of course, on the other end of thing with Gobert being much more willing to draw contact on offense, if he can put their bigs in foul trouble he can make them pay for it now with his improved free throw shooting.
The game is made up of a million different things, but if Rudy wins this match-up it will go a long way to helping the Jazz win this game.
X-Factor: Bench Production
Both of these teams are built for teamwork. Yes, Memphis has stars and Utah hopes they have a few in Gobert and wings Gordon Hayward and Rodney Hood. But it’s going to be very important that the other guys help them out. Especially this afternoon. Memphis brings some experience off the bench in Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Furthermore, they are getting some ‘okay’ minutes from Troy Daniels and Andrew Harrison. Those four guys have given their team a big lift this year -- occasionally starting, but always competing.
Utah needs to fight back with play from Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson, Shelvin Mack, and Joe Ingles. Their four guys on the bench outscore our four guys by +5.8 ppg, and win the rebounding battle by +2.0 rpg. In a game where extra possessions are going to be hard, and scoring scarce, it’s these guys who are going to matter. Of course, these two teams aren’t likely to just play nine players tonight. But outside of something spectacular from Trey Lyles or Toney Douglas, I think these guys are the ones who will make a difference. (Of course, replace Boris Diaw with Favors here if Favors is starting again.)
Prediction Jazz win
Memphis has won 7 of their last 10. Utah 8 of their last 10. Even though they have more veteran talent, are at home, and have more of their starting line-up in tact . . . I am going with the Jazz here.