NBA fans might have been clamoring for the top-seeded Utah Jazz to take on Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, but the Memphis Grizzlies earned their way into the matchup — and we should be just as excited for it. Ja Morant is one of the most electric young players in the league, coming off a memorable performance in Friday’s elimination game, and the Grizzlies are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
On the other side, you have the well-oiled machine that is the Jazz, who finished fourth in the league in offense and third in defense while compiling the NBA’s best record. This will be a good test of momentum, as Memphis is coming off of three games with playoff intensity, and will be ready to go from the opening tip. Add in the fact that Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is recovering from a serious ankle injury, and this could be a much closer 1 vs. 8 matchup than we’re used to seeing in the NBA.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Jazz-Grizzlies opening-round series.
(1) Utah Jazz vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies
Series tied 1-1
Game 1: Grizzlies 112, Jazz 109
Game 2: Jazz 141, Grizzlies 129
Game 3: Saturday, May 29, 1 p.m. ET | TV: ESPN
Game 4: Monday, May 31, 9:30 p.m. ET | TV: TNT
Game 5: Wednesday, June 2, TBD | TV: TBD
Game 6*: Friday, June 4, TBD | TV: TBD
Game 7*: Sunday, June 6, TBD | TV: TBD
1. How healthy is Donovan Mitchell?
Mitchell said he planned on suiting up for Game 1 after missing the final 16 games of the regular season with a sprained right ankle, but did not play in the series opener. There’s a big difference between being on the court and having the impact that Utah needs him to have. He led the team in scoring while putting up career-highs in assists (5.2) and 3-point accuracy (38 percent), and is one of the few Jazz players capable of creating his own shot in late-clock situations. Mitchell scored 35 points in each of the two games he played against the Grizzlies this season, both Jazz wins.
But we’ve seen how players, namely LeBron James, have struggled to return from these severe ankle sprains. Even if he can avoid a setback with the ankle itself, it’s going to take at least a couple of games to get his conditioning back to playoff level. If that’s the case, the Grizzlies could steal one of the first two games in Utah to shift the landscape of the series.
2. Ja Morant’s playoff debut
Morant is coming off the best performance of his career in the biggest game of his career, and must be absolutely brimming with confidence entering this series. He scored 36 and 32 points in two of the games this season against the Jazz, putting up just 12 points in 26 minutes in a blowout loss in the third matchup.
The Warriors sagged off of Morant in the final game of the regular season and he struggled mightily from 3-point range. They tried the same tactic in Friday’s elimination game, and Morant made a career-high five 3-pointers in 10 attempts, en route to 35 points. Utah will likely employ a similar strategy in the pick-and-roll, dropping Rudy Gobert into the paint to prevent penetration. If Morant can continue shooting well from deep, it could force Quin Snyder to at least slightly change the Jazz’s defensive approach.
Either way, it will be fun to watch Morant operate in what will likely be the first of many playoff series in his career.
3. Contrasting styles
This is going to be a battle of extremely different styles of play. The Jazz were first in the NBA during the regular season in 3-pointers attempted and made, while the Grizzlies were 23rd in attempts and 24th in makes. Meanwhile, Memphis led the league with 55.8 points in the paint per game and the Jazz finished 24th with 44.2. Utah also allowed the ninth-most points in the paint per game this season. It’s no secret how each team is going to try to win: The Jazz will try to dominate the 3-point line, while the Grizzlies will try to dominate the paint.
Big man Jonas Valanciunas has been excellent of late, putting up 29 points and 16 rebounds in the regular-season finale against Golden State, then a monster line of 23 points and 23 rebounds in the Grizzlies’ first play-in game against the Spurs. But he hasn’t had to match up with the likes of Rudy Gobert, who could be on his way to a third Defensive Player of the Year trophy. The contrasting styles from Utah and Memphis should make for a fun matchup in the opening round.