Thanks to the emergence of Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, the Grizz could be the first No. 8 seed to pull off an upset of the No. 1 seed since 2012 when the 76ers defeated the Bulls following Derrick Rose's torn ACL in Game 1.
Will Memphis maintain momentum and silence the Jazz? Here are four reasons why the Grizzlies' victory wasn't a fluke.
Ja Morant is Unstoppable
Ja Morant is too fast, too athletic and too talented for anyone on the Jazz to contain him right now — even with the return of Donovan Mitchell in Game 2.
This was one of the flashier plays all game, but Morant was getting to his spots with ease. Even though the Jazz didn’t respect his jump shot, he effortlessly slithered into prime offensive real estate again and again. His finishing package has matured as well. You won’t see as many haphazard, reckless attempts at the rim that result in botched layups.
Morant dropped 26 points on 52% from the field in Game 1 on Sunday, and the Grizzlies had a whopping 120 offensive rating when he was on the court. He’s going to be a problem no matter how healthy Mitchell gets because it seems as if every play with Morant ends with a layup or an open three.
Dillon Brooks' Emergence
One of the great things about the playoffs is that it tends to turn under-the-radar players into postseason heroes.
Dillon Brooks is one of those dudes. The 25-year-old wing started out his career as the prototypical average forward. But now in his fourth season, Brooks has slowly and surely developed into a physical, snarling linebacker on both ends of the court. He doesn’t just invite contact; he relishes it. A good chunk of Brooks' game-high 31 points were a product of Brooks finishing unconventional layups.
He’s also comfortable popping off flare screens, a la J.J. Redick, using his physicality to create openings to drain mid-range jumpers in tight spaces. The former second-round pick was Memphis’ best all-around player because he also locked in on defense. Brooks recorded four deflections and nabbed two steals and two blocks on defense. Opposing players shot just 30.8% from the field when Brooks was their primary defender, which was the best mark among all 10 starters. The Grizzlies outscored the Jazz by more than 17 points per 100 possessions when Brooks was on the floor.
Brooks has always had supreme confidence, but now he’s justifying that conviction in his game even more.
The Supporting Cast is Built For The Playoffs
The Grizzlies have been flush with depth all season, and while the rotation has predictably shrunk as the games grow more important, Memphis has waves of capable role players who play both ends of the floor and perfectly complement everyone around them.
Jonas Valanciunas, now in his ninth season, has blossomed into an absolute bruiser in the paint. Out of the 13 players who posted up the most in the league this season, Valanciunas ranked fourth, producing 1.03 points per possession. When the 6-foot-11 Lithuanian was on the court, Memphis boasted a top-five defensive rating. He put up 15 points, 12 rebounds and one block in Game 1, outplaying Rudy Gobert.
The Grizzlies also get help from Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson, who has — no pun intended — slowly improved every season he’s been in the league and has become a core member behind Memphis’ late-season run. Anderson swiped a game-high six steals Sunday, chipping in 14 points, four rebounds and three assists on an efficient 50% shooting.
the nickname “Slow Mo” should retire with Kyle Anderson. nobody will ever do it better. pic.twitter.com/LpFuDmYtfW— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) May 24, 2021
The Grizzlies also have a trio of scrappy wings in Desmond Bane, Grayson Allen and De'Anthony Melton. And, of course, Jaren Jackson Jr., who has struggled with his persistent foul trouble and efficiency since returning from a lengthy injury absence. Very few big men in the league can run back on defense, block a transition layup attempt, then run back on offense and drain a key three-pointer.
Jaren Jackson Jr block and three and tells the Grizzlies to stay focused instead of celebrating 😤pic.twitter.com/HdCcsXQ7UA— Top Ball Coverage (@TopBallCoverage) May 24, 2021
Memphis has ascended so quickly that they’re unlikely to have another shot at a top draft prospect, therefore making Jackson Jr.'s development even more vital. If he's able to regain his pre-injury form, the Grizzlies should prevail.
Donovan Mitchell’s Availability
Donovan Mitchell’s absence in Game 1 was both shocking and concerning for the Jazz. Even though he missed the last month-plus of the regular season with an ankle sprain, it was widely believed that Utah was just being cautious holding him out.
Without Mitchell’s services, Utah stumbled. Aside from Bojan Bogdanovic, the Jazz lacked creators to help keep their offense churning. Mike Conley Jr. dropped 22 points and dished 11 assists, but he shot just 33% from the field. Ditto for Jordan Clarkson, who shot 5-of-16. Rudy Gobert submitted his usually stingy defense but finished with just 11 points after fouling out in 25 minutes.
Mitchell, who is reportedly furious with the franchise for holding him out, will return for Game 2, but how effective will he be?
Mitchell has turned his game up a notch in the playoffs, sure, but he hasn’t played an NBA game in over a month. It'll surely take time for Mitchell to get his legs under him and adapt to the intensity of a playoff game.
The Jazz are obviously very capable of winning this series, but the surrounding cloud of uncertainty hovering over Mitchell’s situation is a hurdle that Utah likely didn’t expect they’d have to deal with.
Maybe Mitchell returns at full strength and goes back to his world-destroying ways in Game 2, but that’s far from a given.
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