After a disappointing loss to the Heat on Friday, in which dubious officiating against the Grizzlies was cited as a culprit by many, the Grizzlies got back on the right track, taking down the Pacers and Jazz, improving their record to 42-28 and guaranteeing them a fourth consecutive winning season. Now, they head down to Salt Lake City to handle a plucky, talented young Jazz team. After gaining some steam in December and January, the Jazz have fallen off lately, it’s reasonable to wonder if tanking has played a role in the Jazz’s recent struggles. They’ve lost their earlier spark, and seem to just be waiting for the season to be over. If the Jazz are similarly unmotivated tonight, look for the grizzlies to take advantage of a good situation and grab their third straight victory.
Expected Starting Lineups
Mike Conley vs Trey Burke
Trey Burke is good. I mean, he’s going to be really good, but he’s already one of the best rookies in this admittedly weak draft class, and the Jazz are clearly a better team with him in the lineup. Admittedly, Burke’s raw stats aren’t particularly impressive, but that’s simply because he’s struggling with the same growing pains that the vast majority of NBA rookies suffer from. Some nights, he’s completely in the zone, and is the best player on the court, other times, his youth betrays him, and he ends up making costly mistakes, and struggling to hit shots. Really, though, it’s pretty obvious that Burke is a special player with the potential to develop into an All-Star. The chance to go against a wise veteran like Conley should be a great opportunity for him to gain experience against the best, but there’ also a good chance the crafty Conley will force some errors from the inexperienced Burke.
Courtney Lee vs Gordon Hayward
Its sort of difficult to evaluate the season Hayward is having. On one hand, he’s at or near his career highs in just about every category, but on the other hand, he’s shooting a acreer low, and has struggled as a first option on offense. Hayward has evolved nicely from a role player who mostly hit threes to a guy who can put 15-20 on the board night after night. Unfortunately, he’s not getting a great deal of help from his teammates, which has forced him to take too many shots, and often, a lot of bad shots. When Burke begins scoring more consistently, look for Hayward’s efficiency to improve as a huge albatross is lifted. As for Lee, he continues to be used less and less with Allen back in the lineup, but he’s still valuable as a starter because of the spacing problem that happens when Tony and Tayshaun take the floor at the same time. The problem with this, however, is that Lee is barely taking shots lately. If other teams are going to respect his presence on the court, he’s gonna need to start letting it fly a little more.
Tayshaun Prince vs Richard Jefferson
The worst starting small forward in the league versus the second worst. I mean, I’m sorry, but let’s be honest about how dreadfully dull this matchup. I mean, it’s kind of nice that Jefferson has shot the ball well with the Jazz, and somewhat revived his career after falling out of the rotation with the Warriors last year, but really, he was more or less signed as a tanking move, and the fact that he’s managed to exceed expectations isn’t that special of a story. If nothing else though, he is a better payer than Tayshaun Prince at this point. If the Jazz were serious about challenging the Sixers and Bucks in the tank race, they would have swapped Jefferson for Prince at the deadline.
Zach Randolph vs Marvin Williams
I’ve always felt bad for Marvin Williams, if only because he’s not a bad player, but he will always be judged harshly for something that was entirely out of his control: the Atlanta Hawks choosing him over Chris Paul. Indeed, it was a very poor decision, and if the Hawks had teamed up Chris Paul up with Joe Johnson and Josh Smith (they wouldn’t get Horford under this scenario), they might have been a title contender, but it’s not like Williams is a totally useless player; he’s an efficient, low-usage guy who played well enough to fight his way into the starting lineup, and send Enes Kanter to the bench – that has to be good for something. But for any praise we may give Williams, this is not the best matchup for him; Z-Bo is bigger stronger, and just generally more skilled. Look for a 20-10 from Mr. 20-10 tonight.
Marc Gasol vs Derrick Favors
We had initially thought Derrick favors would be a power forward, but he’s thrived at the 5 for the Jazz this year, and this may be his best position in the long run. Favors is scoring at a career high, but his averages still are a bit below what the Jazz were likely hoping for from him. In the future, it’ll be interesting to see if Favors can average 15 a night, and take some of the pressure off Burke and Hayward. In the meantime, this is obviously not the best matchup for Favors, as he goes against one of the most skilled, defensively dominant centers in the game. If Favors is still struggling to play the 5, look for him to be exposed tonight.
The bad news for Utah was that Enes Kanter struggled to the point where the Jazz decided to bring him off the bench (note: I picked him for Most Improved Player. Whoops), but on the plus side, they now have a talented big man leading their second unit. We’ve seen Alec Burks emerge as a legitimate contributor in his third season, while Rudy Gobert has shown flashes of potential. Still, the Grizzlies second unit is much deeper at this point, as Joerger still struggles to find minutes for everyone who deserves them. The Jazz will likely rely on the youth of the starters, while the Grizzlies will benefit from the option of having far more legitimate players to plus into the lineup.