There is a new penthouse occupant in the West. Thanks to LeBron James and Anthony Davis sitting on the shelf for part of the season, the Clippers delaying load management, and the Suns falling short in the last few weeks of the regular season, Utah will enter the 2021 NBA playoffs. in with the No. 1 total seed.
Hold on: that doesn’t give the Jazz the respect they deserve. Have they had a little help from the competition? Certainly. They’ve also used solid coaching, flawless three-point recordings, a resilient year by pick-and-roll savant Mike Conley, better health for Bojan Bogdanovic (as opposed to last fall), a bank breakout by Jordan Clarkson, stellar D by Rudy Gobert, and more All -Stardom by Donovan Mitchell? Absolutely (and it was exhausting writing that sentence).
There are doubts the Jazz is worthy of the best seed just because this unit has yet to travel deep into the postseason. Well, that won’t be the talk here in the first round, where Utah is an understandably strong favorite against the usually inexperienced Grizzlies. This series seems to be a coming-out statement of the Jazz, which will play this round without feeling great urgency and yet inspires a lot of confidence; the pressure increases from the next round.
The Grizzlies bring a level of intrigue and a bit of excitement to the swaggy Ja Morant, fresh from his impressive destruction of Steph Curry and the Warriors in the play-in game. Morant is an unconventional player who, despite his small size, will challenge bigger players on the edge and usually get away successfully. He is the symbol and face of a franchise that is undergoing a gradual process of creating a contender within a few years. In that sense, the Grizzlies are on track, and this series, their first foray into the playoffs since the beginning of that process, will serve like nothing else to dampen their growth.
Utah hasn’t had a contender’s look since the Karl Malone and John Stockton era. To even dream of copying that success, the path has to start here in the first round, against a Memphis team playing with house money. If this series includes six or more games, that says something about the Grizzlies – and even more about the Jazz.
Three things to watch
1. Morant and Conley should be a wonderful combination. There’s a clear angle here: Conley had a string of very good years in Memphis (his only All-Star appearance came with Utah this season, though) and is widely regarded as the best point guard in franchise history. When Memphis chose to shake up the old Grit-N-Grind team, Conley was sacrificed and Morant was soon discovered in the design. What makes this more appealing is that, after a shaky first season in Utah, Conley has returned to the level he saw in Memphis; he averages 16 points and shoots 41 percent from deep. It’s Old School vs. New and it promises to be worth seeing.
2. Jordan Clarkson gets all the love for the Sixth Man, but Joe Ingles is just as solid. Actually, Ingles is the more efficient shooter of the bank, with 45 percent on 3s (against Clarkson’s 35) and 49 overall (down to 43). Ingles also brings more playoff experience and is arguably more clutch. In addition, Ingles is a very underrated and smart passer who sees teammates in the paint. Remember when Ingles knocked out Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the Thunder in the playoffs with timely buckets a few years ago? The Grizzlies better pay Ingles as much respect, if not more, than the Kia Sixth Man of the Year favorite, or else.
3. The Grizzlies still give Jaren Jackson Jr. spoons of playtime., who saw only 15 minutes in their overtime win against the Warriors (he was in big trouble, but still). Jackson only played the last 11 games of the regular season following his off-season knee surgery and Memphis is more concerned about his future than this series. That’s why the Grizzlies need center Jonas Valanciunas to at least keep Gobert working and in general it will mostly go with a smaller line-up, driving Kyle Anderson and rookie Desmond Bane.
Number to know
17.6 – The Jazz were the only team to finish in the top five in both 3-point percentage (38.9%, fourth) and the percentage of their shots that came from 3-point range (48.8%, first). They were also the only team to rank in the top five in both the opponent’s 3-point percentage (34.1%, second) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponent’s shots that came from a 3-point range (34.8%, second). Added together, the Jazz outperformed their opponents by 17.6 points per game from the 3-point range, the second largest difference in the 43 seasons from the 3-point line and more than double that of any other team this season. Portland is in second place with +8.5 points per game.
The Grizzlies had the sixth largest deviation from the 3-point range, surpassing 5.1 points per game from outside the arc. And in beating the regular season series, Utah beat Memphis by 63 points (21 per game) on 3s. But two of the games were within five points in the last five minutes, in part because the Grizzlies outdid the Jazz with 10 points in the paint, 24 points from the middle class and six points from the free-throw line, with their 71 in total. The attempts with free throws were the most against the Jazz this season.
– John Schuhmann
The Jazz is a tremendously deep team and can play as many as nine players in the rotation. That is a huge asset in the play-offs, if only because they will not suffer from dirty problems or failing players. Quin Snyder simply looks further on the couch, which stretches all the way to Provo. It also helps that Mitchell is well rested and healthy and no doubt longs to make up for the time he has lost over the past few weeks. The Jazz is a tough match for the other top teams in the West and will therefore be next level against Morant and the Grizzlies, taking baby steps as a playoff team. Jazz in 4.
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