The Utah Jazz finished the ‘20-’21 NBA regular season with 52 wins and the best record in the league for the first time in 23 years.
Back in the ‘97-‘98 season, Utah was still led by the Hall of Fame pick-and-roll tandem of Karl Malone and John Stockton, but their championship hunt came up short after succumbing to a certain Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
This time around, Utah are once again bannered by a dynamic inside-out tandem, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and are focused on winning the franchise’s first NBA title since the Jazz entered the league in 1974.
The first stop for Utah on the road to the championship goes through the up-and-coming Memphis Grizzlies and their budding superstar Ja Morant. Coming off two consecutive Play-In Tournament wins, highlighted by a thrilling 117-112 overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors, the Grizzlies enter the series riding a wave of confidence and will not be an easy out for the Jazz.
The spotlight in this opening round best-of-seven series will be the duel between Mitchell and Morant. The two young guards have supreme athletic gifts that they use in their own crafty ways to score the basketball and a big performance in this series from both players can solidify their status as some of the league’s best guards. Mitchell has already entered that conversation, while Morant is quickly making his case.
Now in his fourth year in the NBA, Mitchell has put up the best numbers of his career with averages of 26.4 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. He made his second consecutive All-Star game this season and has emerged as one of the league’s premier offensive weapons.
In the other corner, Morant is coming off a spectacular 35-point, six rebound, and six assist game with a career-best five threes against the Warriors.
Morant averaged 19.1 points and 7.4 assists over the course of his second season in the league while consistently showing the poise and confidence of a veteran. He was the driving force behind Memphis winning 16 of their last 27 games in the regular season to help secure their Play-In berth.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s late game heroics haven’t even been necessary for the Jazz over most of this season. In fact, Mitchell missed the Jazz’s last 16 games with an ankle sprain (He is listed as probable for Game 1 of this series), but Utah still managed to win 10 of their games over that span.
The team’s success down the home stretch without Mitchell is a testament to their depth and the system that head coach Quin Snyder has put into place. The Jazz have implemented a fluid offense this season that emphasizes spacing and zipping the ball around to find their open shooters.
This helped Utah lead the league in net rating (Point differential per 100 possessions) with a 9.48 differential which was well above the second-ranked LA Clippers who registered a decent yet distant 6.26.
Much of this has been because the Jazz made and attempted the most threes in the NBA this season, with seven of their nine regular rotation players taking at least 3.9 per game. The high clip of three pointers that they take and more importantly, make, also opens things up inside for Gobert who is shooting a league-leading 67.5% from the field.
Despite his efficient shooting numbers, the two-time All Star Gobert continues to be known primarily for his work on defense. Already a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he is favored to win the award once again this season after averaging a career-high 2.7 blocks to go with his 14.3 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. The Jazz’s opponents shoot the second lowest field goal percentage in the league at 44.7% and the 7’1 French center has been the pillar behind this.
Gobert will be challenged inside by the Grizzlies’ center Jonas Valanciunas who has recorded the best numbers of his nine-year career in ‘20-’21. Averaging 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds in just 28 minutes per game, Valanciunas has blossomed into a consistent post threat with a decent jump shot. Together with the extended range of Jaren Jackson Jr., who is slowly regaining form after missing most of the season, Valanciunas’ ability to score the ball will make it difficult for Gobert to help off and challenge the other Grizzlies’ shots at the rim.
Another interesting plot line in this series is Utah’s veteran guard Mike Conley playing against his original NBA team. After the Grizzlies drafted him No.4 overall in 2007, Conley played for the franchise until 2019 and remains the franchise’s leader in games played and assists. He was eventually traded to the Jazz before last season when Memphis decided to begin a rebuild around his fellow point guard Morant.
Conley struggled in his first tour with Utah last year, but this season, his statistics have literally improved across the board. He averaged 16.2 points and six assists and in recognition of his role on the league’s top team, Conley was rewarded with his first ever All-Star nod this year. This also marks the first time that the Jazz sent three players to the league’s midseason showcase since ‘88-’89.
Conley has helped lead the steady rhythm of the Jazz’s offense the way he used to with the Grizzlies and has also consistently found the Jazz’s two other starters, floor-spacing forwards Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale, for quality looks at the basket. O’Neale has also emerged as a top tier perimeter defender and he may occasionally be tasked with covering Morant.
Memphis has their own arsenal of wing shooters, with Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen, De’Anthony Melton, and the rookie Desmond Bane all providing spacing for Morant and Valanciunas this season. One of the most important yet unheralded members of the Grizzlies’ rotation this year though has been Kyle Anderson.
After playing his first four seasons with the Spurs, “Slow-Mo” is now in his third year with the Grizzlies and has become one of the team’s most crucial pieces. He averaged 12.4 points, five rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game while starting the most games for Memphis this season at either of the forward spots. His talents as a secondary playmaker and versatility as a defender have been a consistent source of strength for the Grizzlies this year.
The Grizzlies have a deep, young team, but this depth pales in comparison to that of the Jazz.There is no drop off in Utah’s quality of play when their veteran second unit checks in and their ability to star in their roles has more than made up for their lack of athleticism.
Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are deservedly neck and neck in the Sixth Man of the Year race. Ingles has thrived as the primary facilitator for the reserves and is also shooting 45% on more than six three point attempts per game. Clarkson has fed off Ingles’ playmaking to average a career-best 18.4 points per game and the two have formed an unlikely dynamic duo that has blitzed the league’s second units. The threat of these two on offense has opened things up for the sharpshooting Georges Niang who is also enjoying his most productive season in the NBA.
Rounding up this Jazz bench unit is the returning Derrick Favors who is back with the team after starting 49 games for the New Orleans Pelicans last year. Favors is a quality big man who could start on another NBA roster and he completes what has arguably been the league’s best nine-man rotation this season. Utah boasts of six players averaging at least 12 points per game, but more importantly, each player seems to have accepted and embraced their role on the team.
This experienced Utah team will hope to avoid a third consecutive first round exit in this series and are deservedly favored to advance to the next round. Their core has already been together for several years and are raring for a shot at the NBA championship. The efficiency and precision that they have displayed over the season should easily carry over into this series and allow them to make it out quickly.
However, despite having the lowest average age among the 16 teams in the playoffs, Memphis should not be overlooked and taken lightly. The Grizzlies are rolling into Salt Lake City full of confidence from their spectacular Play-In wins and could very much ride this momentum to steal the opener, especially with Utah’s Mitchell fresh off an extended injury lay-off.
If that happens, all bets are off and the Jazz’s highly anticipated playoff run may be interrupted by the latest episode of the electrifying Ja Morant show.