What to watch for in the Utah Jazz-Memphis Grizzlies series

These four factors are what will make the difference for the Jazz in the series.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) with the bucket as the Utah Jazz host the Memphis Grizzlies, Mar. 27, 2021 at Vivint Arena.

Can Donovan Mitchell cook Brooks?

Donovan Mitchell smoked Dillon Brooks — who just defended Steph Curry exceptionally well — in their two regular-season meetings this year; Mitchell scored 35 points in both games, once on 12-of-17 shooting and once on 12-of-23 shooting. (He didn’t play in the the third game after the Jazz’s plane scare.) The Jazz would love any performance like those.

Is it repeatable? I think so. Look at this masterclass from Mitchell on Brooks, at the very beginning of their second game.

• On the first play, Mitchell is patient, runs pick and roll, and finds himself in a huge pocket of space as Memphis plays drop big defense. Brooks dies on the screen from Gobert. Easy pull-up jumper.

• On the second, Brooks thinks he can sneak under the Gobert screen this time, and Mitchell just elevates for the easy pull-up 3.

• On the third play, Brooks realizes he has to stay attached to Mitchell, and sets up to go over the screen this time. Mitchell hits him with the crossover, drives hard, and finishes an and-one.

Bingo, bango, bongo. That’s eight points for Mitchell in under three minutes, and he’s beaten Brooks in three different ways.

The only real question here is if Mitchell will be at his best, and I think it’s a fair question; we haven’t seen him play since the ankle sprain. But if he’s close or at 100%, the Jazz’s star guard should be able to find success.

Defending Ja Morant

Ja Morant just cooked the Golden State Warriors in a win-or-go-home game, to the tune of 35 points, six rebounds and six assists. Morant’s a rising star, and the Jazz will want to defend him well.

First, know this about Morant in the pick and roll: He’s more efficient when he passes the ball than when he shoots himself. On over 1,000 pick and roll plays this year, when he passes it, it leads to a shot worth 1.19 points per possession — really good half-court offense. When he tries to score himself, it’s only 0.80 points per possession.

This is really good defense, for example. Royce O’Neale shades Morant away from the screen, but Morant figures he can get the first step. Rudy Gobert, though, is lurking, to defends the shot — there’s not really a good passing option, because the Jazz are defending the play 2-on-2. And even if Morant had gotten this all the way on the glass, O’Neale is in good position, boxing out Jonas Valanciunas well.

It’s all about that point of communication with the defense: Morant’s defender forcing them into the waiting Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors, those guys picking up on Morant in time to avoid the easy floater, and then Morant’s defender, the big man, and the rest of the team fighting for the rebound. Having Gobert involved, who can play a role in both defending and rebounding, really helps too.

The other big thing? Don’t foul. While the Jazz won all three matchups against the Grizzlies this season, the two in which Morant went to the free-throw line 11 and 15 times were nailbiters. When he was contained to only four free-throw attempts, the Jazz won in a blowout.

Rebound on one end, get back on the other

The Grizzlies are the league’s third-most dangerous team in the offensive rebounding game, per Cleaning The Glass. Valanciunas gets just a ton of easy putbacks, because he’s huge, physical, and a good quick finisher who can take advantage when the opposing big is defending Morant’s shot. He averaged 4.1 offensive rebounds per game this season, but 6.7 in the matchups against the Jazz.

That means an important series for O’Neale, the Jazz’s most capable perimeter rebounder, diving in for those loose balls. But Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, not known for their rebounding prowess, need to help too. Gobert and Favors will need to compete as much as possible while still defending the shots from driving guards.

And on the other end? The Jazz might want to consider going for fewer offensive rebounds, instead preferring to get back. The Grizzlies were the league’s most dangerous transition team this season, according to Cleaning The Glass: They ranked third in transition efficiency and third in transition opportunities, and when you add it up, they just outperformed everyone else on that end.

If you can keep the Grizzlies in regular old halfcourt offense, they rank 26th in the league, scoring just 0.92 points per possession. Just get back, defend and rebound.

Can Jazz get threes and layups?

In the Jazz’s first game against the Grizzlies this year, they took 37 of their shots from midrange. In the second game, they took 21 shots from midrange. In the third game, they took 17 shots from midrange.

You can see that number trending downward; to give you a reference point, they usually take about 22 shots per game from there. In short, as the Jazz continued to play the Grizzlies, they did more and more to take the kind of shots that they wanted to take.

With Valanciunas on the court, the Grizzlies play a drop-big defense with the big man taking up space in the paint, scaring away shots at the rim and preventing rotation on the court. If you’re running a standard pick and roll, the open shot is going to be the pull-up jumper — which the Jazz can certainly take and make, but they’re much more efficient if they’re threes.

But there are, of course, other plays to run. Here, the Grizzlies are expecting the pick and roll as the late-shot-clock last-ditch play. Gobert starts to float toward Mitchell, to set a screen like he always does. But wait!

Gobert sets the screen to set up an open Ingles three instead. That’ll work.

Or you can have other players set screens, leaving Memphis’ big men in the lurch. Here’s O’Neale running up to set a screen for Mitchell, then slipping it to head to the rim. In the end, Favors’ man has to help, leaving for a chain reaction of passes that ends up as a Clarkson three.

The Jazz shouldn’t settle, shouldn’t be too predictable. This is a young Grizzlies team that will make defensive mistakes, but you have to get them on the move first, get them out of their basic defensive looks. Quin Snyder’s teams are usually very good at this, and I’m sure he’ll have plenty of wrinkles to throw at the Grizzlies in this series.


At Vivint Arena

When • Sunday, 7:30 p.m.