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Jazz-Grizzlies: A look at the key things that could define the first-round playoff series

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots over Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021.

(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Friday night was date night for Mike and Mary Conley. Or at least as close as they could get during playoff time.

On the itinerary: dinner and a game.

"It was the one night we get to go out to eat and I had my phone and I told her I got to work," the Utah Jazz point guard said. "So I put my phone up on the table and was watching the game."

They watched together as Mike Conley tried to scout for either team — calling out each play for both the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors — knowing full well what it would mean if Memphis won.

Was he cheering for his old team? He wouldn't admit to that, but he sounded awfully happy for the people that surrounded him for more than a decade as he made his name playing in a Grizzlies uniform.

"Obviously happy for fans of Memphis that they have something to continue to root for going forward," Conley said. "Obviously it's business for me so I'm gonna be locked in and ready to go and excited for the challenge."

So how much of a challenge will the Grizzlies be? Here are some things to look for when the Grizzlies and Jazz tipoff their series Sunday night.

Will Donovan Mitchell be at full strength?

Mitchell scored 35 points in each of the two games he played against Memphis, while shooting 60% from the field and 71% from 3. The opening minutes of Utah's 126-110 win on March 27 showed just how dominant Mitchell can be against the Grizzlies.

Play 1: Mitchell gets a dribble hand off from Rudy Gobert that eliminates Dillon Brooks from the play and gives Mitchell an open look

Play 2: After dying on the last screen, Brooks goes under the Gobert screen and Mitchell pulls up and drains a 3.

Play 3: Mitchell catches Brooks anticipating a Gobert screen and crosses him the other way and gets to the rim.

Play 4: Brooks stays in position to eliminate the Gobert dribble hand off and then gets hit with a back cut that gets Mitchell to the rim.

Brooks tried everything to stop the Mitchell-Gobert pick-and-roll and was beaten by it each time. That seems awfully repeatable in the series. And Mitchell's masterpiece didn't stop when Brooks got a breather.

Play 5: Mitchell hits a standard pull up 3.

Play 6: Mitchell uses a slipped screen from Bojan Bogdanovic and takes Justise Winslow off the dribble to get into the paint and draws a foul.

In short, the Grizzlies didn't show even the faintest ability to guard Mitchell in the regular season, so the only real question is how healthy is Mitchell? If he's close to 100%, he could be looking at yet another first-round outburst.

The good news on that front: He was not mentioned on the Jazz's injury report for Sunday's Game 1.

"Donovan is excited," coach Quin Snyder said. "This is a time of year that he really embraces, and it's the culmination of all the work that he's put in and our team's put in. … He's excited to play. Excited to compete. And it's just great to have him back."

Rudy Gobert's dominance

Notice a trend from Mitchell's hot start? The first four plays featured a Gobert screen.

If the Grizzlies want to play Jonas Valanciunas (they do), that means they'll be in plenty of drop-big coverage — a defense that Utah has had little trouble with this season. A standard pick-and-roll against drop-big coverage almost always opens up an open pull-up 3, which the Jazz ball-handlers can certainly make.

Conley and Joe Ingles are shooting 41% on pull-up 3's this season, while Mitchell is hitting at a 36% clip. And if the Grizzlies choose to counter that by bringing up Valanciunas, the Jazz guards have more space to drive and kick, leading to the crisp ball movement that was prevalent this season. That all stems from Gobert setting screens.

In the three games against the Grizzlies, the Jazz had 120.8 offensive rating and a 98.1 defensive rating when Gobert was on the floor. When he was off, the Jazz were outscored by 24 points.

So, yeah, if Gobert plays, the Jazz should be just fine.

How will the Jazz defend Ja Morant?

Snyder said Ja Morant is "as dynamic a player as there is in the league."

With his latest performance, there won't be many arguing. Morant out-dueled Steph Curry on Friday to lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs. The blossoming 21-year-old had 35 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals. And with the game — not to mention the season — on the line, he delivered. Morant scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

"For him to go out there and come out and play against high level player in Steph and the defensive situations as he was put in with Draymond (Green) and those guys trying to hawk them a little bit, and he just was patient with the ball and doing the things that he does down the stretch and making plays was impressive," Conley said. "I think everybody took notice of it on the big stage, and he's just continually getting better, so it'd be really fun to watch him grow and continue to develop and he's still got a higher ceiling ahead of him."

So fresh off the star-turning performance, how do the Jazz guard him?

Morant was 10-of-17 in the paint against the Warriors where he was near automatic with his floater, including hitting two in the final minute to secure the win. Conley and Royce O'Neale will likely be tasked with guarding Morant on the perimeter, but the more important factor may just be how effective Gobert is at stepping and defending Morant's shots in the paint. With that the case, there are two key things the Jazz must do:

  1. If Gobert is away from the basket, the Jazz perimeter players — especially O'Neale — must come in for rebounds. Valanciunas gets a lot of easy putbacks; the Jazz have to limit that when Gobert can't.
  2. Don't foul. With Utah's defense suspect without Gobert on the court, he can't be baited into cheap fouls. Morant averaged 13 free throws in the two close games against the Jazz; he had just four in Utah's rout.

The Grit and Run Grizzlies

Being a part of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies made Conley a beloved figure in Memphis. While there's still plenty of grit in this new incarnation of the Grizzlies, there's not so much grind.

"They have a lot of strengths ... the way they turn people over and steal the ball and convert," Snyder said.

This team runs — and runs a lot.

Memphis averages the third-most transition field goal attempts in the league. It doesn't matter if it's a turnover or a live rebound, the Grizzlies are always looking to push the tempo. They are the third-best transition team off of rebounds, and the second-best transition team off steals. So if the Jazz get heavy footed, Memphis can make things interesting.


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