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NBA

The Grizzlies Are Here To Party

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MAY 23: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz blocks Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies in Game One of the Western Conference first-round playoff series at Vivint Smart Home Arena on May 23, 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Halfway through the third quarter of last night’s extremely entertaining Grizzlies-Jazz mudfest, Utah seemed to be breaking through. Quin Snyder swapped Jordan Clarkson in for Mike Conley for some extra offensive punch, Bojan Bogdanovic was scoring from all three levels, and a double-digit Memphis lead had shrunk to one. You see this sort of turning point in many early playoff games, when the higher-seeded team, tested for the the first time, stops scuffling, locks in, and crunches the opposition to death. The Grizzlies in particular appeared ripe for some crunching, as they’d only earned their trip to Utah after winning two elimination games. They were probably tired, and you see teams like them get bowled over by third-quarter runs all the time. What you almost never see is the higher-seeded team’s momentum being halted by a play as odd as this:

Kyle Anderson’s glacial layup kept the Jazz at bay and helped cement a fragile lead that Memphis would hold until the final buzzer. Anderson wasn’t the Grizzlies best player on the night (Dillon Brooks), nor their most clutch (Ja Morant), though his particularly grimy contributions set the tone for a mucky Game 1 upset. While Brooks and Morant were exploding the Jazz’s allegedly quality interior defense, Anderson was rolling around in the muck. He had six steals, the smartest foul of the night, and the game-sealing assist off a clever inbounds play.

The Jazz can win ugly, and indeed, the metrics say their defense should be even better than Memphis’s, though they were never comfortable at any point once the Grizzlies got rolling in the second quarter. The team made just 12 of their 47 threes, with Clarkson missing all eight, and Rudy Gobert was played more or less evenly by his ursine counterpart, Jonas Valanciunas, until he fouled out halfway through the fourth quarter. A Jazz optimist has plenty of fuel. The team will probably not shoot 25 percent from three on the series, an apparently quite mad Donovan Mitchell probably will not miss any more games, and the Grizzlies will probably get tired sooner than the Jazz, especially with road games at altitude. The Grizzlies are the youngest playoff team in a decade, while the Jazz are the picture of steadiness. All the stats indicate that the Jazz are a legitimately elite team that can win the title.

But I am the opposite of a Jazz optimist, so I will point out here that Grizzlies defenders manufactured a lot of those misses by sprinting into perfect closeouts, and their youth isn’t nearly the liability it’s being cast as, since two of their young players are Morant and Brooks. I had a hard time internalizing the fact that Game 1 was the pair’s first playoff game, as they took control of the game with a swagger the Jazz couldn’t even come close to matching, though I suppose this is what one should expect from the duo that told Andre Iguodala to get fucked when he agitated for a trade. Two days after eliminating Steph Curry with a game-winner, Morant scored 10 of his 26 points in the final five minutes of Game 1, all through sublime pick-and-roll trickery.

Morant’s audacity is what leaps off the TV screen. He’s 21, but carries himself like he’s been an all-star for a decade. This was his first playoff game, and rather than shrink from the moment or defer, he played everything cool, despite a Jazz defense geared specifically towards making point guards like him struggle. They will drop Gobert or Derrick Favors under screens, giving the ballhandler more space in the midrange while denying a path to the rim. Morant isn’t that much of a shooter, though he’s slick enough in tight spaces that he cashed a few floaters and flummoxed Gobert a few times. The Jazz would switch, blitz him, and give him a wide array of looks that he nonetheless navigated through with the coolness of a player cruising through practice.

Morant was the player who protected the Grizz’s lead at the end, but Brooks was the dude who built it. Though Memphis held a lead for most of the game, they had just 17 points through the first 15 minutes of the game. Brooks led the offense throughout the Grizzlies’ comeback, hitting long shots and also gutting out a series of improbable finishes. Coach Taylor Jenkins called him the “ultimate competitor” and the team’s “spirit leader” after the game, while Morant described him as an assassin. In that same ESPN story, which is about how Brooks won the game by being an ornery killer, Mike Conley said, “When you play against him, you hate it,” an obviously correct point which Brooks underlined by simply saying, “I try to push guys to the limit.” He finished with 31 points, seven boards, two steals, two blocks, and at least three Improbably Gutsy Plays. The one that begins at 1:19 in the highlight reel below shows you the sort of energy Brooks brought to every play.

Here is the part of the story where I caution you that Game 1 doesn’t mean much and that eight seeds almost always lose and that Donovan Mitchell is coming back. Yes, the Grizzlies are still the underdogs here, but their furor is infectious and I simply want to watch them play with their ungodly version of playoff intensity as long as they can stick around. How can you root against these guys?

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