8:00 PM EST – Line: Grizzlies -1.5, Over/Under: 237.5
Oftentimes the most difficult thing to do in sports is not going from point A to B, but rather B to C, with tonight’s battle between the upstart Memphis Grizzlies and the Chicago Bulls featuring two teams who have done precisely that in this, the most unlikely of potential Finals previews from United Center in Chicago, Illinois. After making the playoffs for the first time in four years, the Grizzlies (41-20, 3rd in Western Conference) have continued to ascend out West, going from a young play-in team to a legitimate contender in a relatively short period of time. A meager 72-73 over the first two years of (Head Coach) Taylor Jenkins’ tenure, Memphis has exploded during year three, filling the power vacuum left by the Lakers and Clippers and molding themselves into one of the most impressive groups in the National Basketball Association. With that said, the campaign didn’t necessarily start this way for the Grizz, who by the end of November were very much treading water at 11-10, only to put their foot on the gas and win thirty of their next thirty-nine games heading into the All-Star Break. During this period, they’ve averaged 115.8 points per game on 46.8% shooting from the field, including 34.5% from beyond the arc, along with 25.5 assists in comparison to 12.5 turnovers, while utterly ANNIHILATING the opposition on the glass (+7.5), particularly on the offensive end where they’re a healthy +4.2. So, what in the name of Hubie Brown is going in Memphis you ask? Well, as has been the case on so many occasions throughout their brief history as a franchise, the Grizzlies owe their rapid improvement to a wealth of internal growth, with Jenkins and his coaching staff performing a tremendous job of developing their young talent. First and foremost, (All-Star Point Guard) Ja Morant (26.7 PTS, 48.9% FG, 32.4% 3FG, 75.3% FT, 5.9 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 24.6 PER) continues to be a revelation, earning his first All-Star nod as a result. Back when Jenkins and (General Manager) Zachary Kleiman chose him second overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, all attention was paid to the guy chosen before him (Zion Williamson), but three years later there is ZERO question as to who has become the superior performer; no pun intended, but Morant has taken a MAJOR leap in his third season in the league, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (26.7), field goal percentage (48.9%), two-point percentage (53.6%), rebounds (5.9), and steals 1.2). Ironically, this current run of form was sparked without the 22-year-yold dynamo, who was nursing a sprained ankle back in early December when Memphis began their ascension; 10-1 during that period, credit to the supporting cast for learning how to be effective without their star, with a number of young talents making their own evolutional leap. (Versatile Forward) Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.8 PTS, 41.5% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 80.3% FT, 6.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 2.2 BLK, 17.6 PER), who was selected fourth overall in the draft prior to Morant’s, is slowly becoming the two-way force that Jenkins and Kleiman envisioned, even if it has only been in spurts. Furthermore, (sharpshooting Swingman) Desmond Bane (17.8 PTS, 45.8% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 90.9% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 16.8 PER) has brought some sorely needed spacing to the equation, while (bullish Guard) Dillon Brooks (18.4 PTS, 42.6% FG, 32.7% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 3.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 15.8 PER) brings plenty of attitude and tenacity on both ends of the hardwood. Add a veteran Center such as Steven Adams (7.0 PTS, 54.2% FG, 55.4% FT, 9.6 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 17.4 PER) to the mix and you have a hungry, young group that has been nothing short of entertaining to watch, leading the NBA in transition points and opportunities, thanks in large to their penchant for forcing turnovers; the Grizzlies have logged 15.3 takeaways per game (5th Overall) and posted a turnover percentage of 13.5% (6th Overall). As we hinted at earlier, they also put in plenty of work on the glass, for not only are the league’s top rebounding side (48.9), they’re also its most prolific offensive rebounding unit too, securing 13.9 a night, along with a healthy percentage of 29.7% (1st Overall), which of course leads to a wealth of easy second chance points. Getting easy buckets is something that great teams do in spades, and the Grizz are no different, with a whopping 27.2% of their field goal attempts coming within zero to three feet of the rim. Now, is this style of play sustainable come the playoffs? Well, we certainly understand the skepticism regarding Jenkins’ troops given that they have the least amount of postseason experience of any side at the top of the Western Conference, but their energy and effort on the defensive end of the court translates well to the playoffs, even for a team that has an average age of only 22.25. Consider this though: the Grizzlies are a combined 5-2 against the other three teams that comprise the West’s top-four, including the Suns (1-1), Warriors (2-1), and Jazz (2-0), while 10-1 against the Nuggets (3-0), Clippers (4-0), and Lakers (3-1). No wonder, Jenkins and Kleiman ultimately decided against tweaking their team chemistry and stood pat at the Trade Deadline… they’re fine where they are.
When we last saw the Grizzlies, they opened up the second half of the campaign with a narrow 119-114 loss at the Timberwolves, though they may have dodged a much larger bullet in the process. Midway through the third quarter, Morant appeared to have suffered some sort of a hip injury on a drive into the paint and missed the better part of the next two periods before returning late in the fourth stanza. Jenkins has labeled him as day-to-day, so it is anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will suit for tonight’s jaunt in the Windy City or how effected by it he will be. It was clear that he was hindered by this malady on Thursday night, for despite totaling twenty points, eight rebounds, four assists, and a pair of steals, the All-Star could muster only 7-of-25 shooting (28.0%), including 0-of-4 from downtown, with his last attempt serving as a potential game-tying shot. As a whole, Memphis struggled on the offensive end, shooting just 38.8% overall and 9-of-31 from beyond the arc (29.0%), though managed to remain in the affair thanks to planting a flag at the charity stripe, where they knocked down 29-of-40 free-throws (72.5%), outscoring the Wolves by twelve points in the process. With Morant sidelined, the likes of Bane and Jackson picked up the slack, scoring fourteen and twenty-one points respectively, with the latter compiling eleven rebounds and three blocks to boot. (Rookie Swingman) Zaire Williams () showed out too, dropping twenty-one points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%) and 3-of-6 from three (50.0%). As they typically do, the Grizz owned this game in transition (14-3), though were careless with the basketball (16 turnovers) and couldn’t establish an overwhelming advantage in terms of points in the paint (52-54). Now they’ll be looking to snap their first losing streak of any kind since the turn of the new year, while looking to chew away the sizable deficit between them and the Suns and Warriors in the standings out West. As it currently stands, Jenkins charges are 8.5 games behind Phoenix for first place, though the Suns are expected to be without (All-Star Point Guard) Chris Paul for the next two months following a thumb injury before the All-Star Break. As for Golden State, there are only 2.5 games that separate them for second place, which is a far more likely goal at this point in time. But first things first, they’re going to have survive a battle with Chicago, whom they bested back in Mid-January in a 119-106 encounter at FedEx Forum; tied after one quarter of play, this one was decided in the second where the hosts put their foot on the gas and outscored the visiting side 38-25, with the aforementioned Bane pouring in fifteen of his team-high twenty-five points.
Meanwhile, it’s been a similar story in the Windy City where the Bulls (39-21, T-1st in Eastern Conference) are on the verge of putting four years of ineptitude behind them, as they have vaulted to the top of the East. While their opponent tonight has largely built themselves into a contender the old-fashioned way (I.E., drafting and developing), Chicago has gone the more en vogue rout of amassing talent via trade and free agency, though the results have been nonetheless similar. After going a dreadful 71-158 (.310) from 2017-2018 to 2019-2020, enough was indeed enough for one the NBA’s proudest franchises, as ownership hit the reset button and hired (General Manager) Arturas Karnisovas, who in turn pried (Head Coach) Billy Donovan away from the Thunder, leading to a hopeful 31-41 campaign that would lay the groundwork for what this group would become a year later. Though they ultimately missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season, there was plenty to like about the Bulls; (All-Star Swingman) Zach LaVine (24.5 PTS, 48.0% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 87.1% FT, 4.9 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 20.3 PER) had blossomed into a prolific offensive force on the wings, while the trade that netted (All-Star Center) Nikola Vucevic (18.1 PTS, 47.2% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 76.7% FT, 11.7 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.2 BLK, 19.1 PER) paired him with an all-around talent in the paint. This past summer, Karnisovas and Donovan took it one step further with the additions of (All-Star Guard) DeMar DeRozan (28.3 PTS, 52.1% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 86.4% FT, 5.2 REB, 5.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 24.9 PER), and (unselfish Point Guard) Lonzo Ball (13.0 PTS, 42.3% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 14.7 PER), alongside (defensive stopper) Alex Caruso (8.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 81.4% FT, 3.9 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.9 STL, 13.9 PER) bringing further balance and dynamism to a completely renovated rotation that has propelled this group to the top of the standings. While none of those names may grab your attention in the manner of a Giannis or Durant or Embiid, the fact of the matter is that with Donovan pulling the strings Chicago’s rotation has proven greater than the sum of its parts. And with that said, who says that they don’t have an MVP candidate? One of the most underrated storylines of this season has been the rebirth of DeRozan in the Windy City, where the 32-year-old has made a seismic impact. For years the book on the five-time All-Star was that he was a throwback whose game simply didn’t translate to where the NBA was headed, essentially a volume scorer at the two who was unwilling to shoot from downtown and even less effective when he did so. Watching his former franchise, the Raptors, hoist a Larry O’Brien trophy immediately after trading hm away certainly didn’t help how he was viewed, and spending the last three years in San Antonio removed him from the radar of many. However, working with the venerable Gregg Popovich was arguably the best thing that ever happened to him, and it’s clear that he took those lessons with him to Chicago, where he has inserted himself in the discussion for Most Valuable Player; the definition of a late bloomer, DeRozan has posted career-highs in a slew of categories, including scoring (28.3), free-throw percentage (86.4%), and yes, even three-point percentage (35.3%). Furthermore, he entered the All-Star Break in rare form, becoming the first player since WILT CHAMBERLAIN to average 30+ points, 5+ rebounds, and 5+ assists while shooting over 55.0% from the field during an eight-game stretch. Hey, anytime your name is mentioned alongside Wilt’s, you’re doing big things, right? Credit also goes to Donovan and his coaching staff for finding a way to tailor their system to his unique skillset and not vice versa, for the Bulls have been one of the most dynamic offensive teams in the league as a result. Entering the All-star Break, they averaged 112.6 points (7th Overall) on an NBA-best 48.3% shooting from the field (1st Overall), including 37.6% from beyond the arc (2nd Overall) and 53.9% within it (10th Overall), all the while doing plenty of damage from the charity stripe where they’ve netted 17.3 free-throws a night (6th Overall) on 81.7% shooting (1st Overall). It should also be noted that this group has proven to be nothing short of resilient in the wake of a number of injuries; LaVine (knee), Caruso (wrist), and Ball (knee) have all missed plenty of time with various maladies, with the latter two expected to be sidelined for another few weeks following the Break, while (Sophomore Forward) Patrick Williams (6.6 PTS, 56.5% FG, 50.0% 3FG, 100.0% FT, 2.2 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 9.4 PER), who was expected to play a major role defensively in the rotation, lasted just five games before breaking his left wrist. Despite all of that, the Bulls entered the Break on a five-game winning streak and tied with the Heat in what is now a wide-open East, and as they return to health, they should absolutely be considered among the legitimate contenders to claim its no. one seed, which would be their first in over a decade.
When we last saw the Bulls, they continued to build momentum coming out of the All-Star Break with a thrilling 112-108 victory over the Hawks last Thursday night, their sixth in a row. Nip and tuck throughout the affair, this one went down to the wire, where it would be the aforementioned DeRozan who continued to flex his MVP credentials; trailing 108-105 with less than a minute left to play, the All-Star drilled a contested 19-foot mid-range jumper to cut the deficit to one point with forty-six seconds remaining. After a quick stop, the veteran swingman again attacked the elbow, using his body to create precious space for a turnaround fallaway jumper to give Chicago the lead, sealing the deal with a pair of free-throws afterwards. With the United Center in euphoria, DeRozan added yet another outstanding performance to the run that he has been on, totaling THIRTY-SEVEN points on a staggering 15-of-21 shooting from the field (71.4%), along with six rebounds, three assists, and a steal. LaVine added another twenty points on 7-of-17 shooting (41.2%), five rebounds and three assists, while Vucevic posted a respectable double-double with twelve points and ten rebounds, with (Rookie Point Guard) Ayo Dosunmu (8.2 PTS, 52.3% FG, 41.3% 3FG, 67.7% FT, 2.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 11.6 PER) stepping up again with a dozen points of his own. As a team, Donovan’s charges shot a torrid 48.8% from the field, with a lot of their damage coming from the charity stripe, netting 22-of-27 free-throws (81.5%). Both teams took excellent care of the ball with fewer than ten turnovers apiece, but it was the hosts who managed to get out in transition and take an advantage, outscoring Atlanta 12-5 in this regard. This victory briefly placed the Bulls back into first place int eh highly competitive Eastern Conference, where they figure to be dueling with a host of other teams for what is sure to be a photo finish.