The Utah Jazz’s contender for defensive player of the year complained about an imbalance in physical play in game one of the playoffs against the Grizzlies, setting up a watch party for how game two would be officiated.
Things certainly were different Wednesday night. Utah and rim-protecting center Rudy Gobert drew fouls at a clip that helped propel them to 141-129 victory that evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece heading into a game-three showdown in Memphis at the FedExForum on Saturday night.
“We weren’t able to play physical like we were in the first game,” said Memphis’ ascending star point guard Ja Morant, who racked the franchise’s playoffs scoring record with 47 points. “We had a lot of guys in foul trouble, which led them to shooting free throws, which led to up to us lightening up on defense and they took advantage of it.”
Three of Memphis’ starting five players were in early foul trouble. Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brook and Jaren Jackson Jr. each were whistled for three fouls in the first half, forcing adjustments that hampered the Grizzlies.
Gobert, who fouled out in Utah’s game one loss, finished game two with 4 fouls, 21 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. One of those blocks was an at-the-rim, highlight-reel rejection of a Morant attempt at a power slam.
Asked about Gobert’s block, a confident Morant said, “I am not afraid,” putting his attack mode in context.
With the No. 8-seeded Grizzlies playing with house money after their game-one upset of the No. 1 seed, Utah welcomed the return of All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who was out 40 days with an ankle injury. He scored 12 of his 25 points in the first quarter, connecting on three of five from three-point territory as the Jazz rolled to a 20-point (74-54) half time lead.
The Grizzlies made a trademark, keep-fighting run in the third quarter, cutting the halftime deficit to three points (100-97) with just over a minute left in the frame. Morant powered the way back. His combined 71 points in his first two playoff games are the most by a player since the NBA resulted from the merger of two forerunner leagues.
“It is an honor to be able to do that. I am blessed to be in a position that I am in; to be able to play the game at the highest level,” said Morant, “but that is not on my mind at all. We lost, so obliviously it wasn’t enough.
“I have just got to be aggressive, at all times. I put that pressure on myself to get us back into the game. I was able to get to my spots on the floor.”
Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said Morant’s performance was “an amazing feat in his early career. He will talk about how he can come back to get a win. That is his focus. He is driven to win. There (are) a lot of things he is going to learn from. The things he did well and what we can do as a team to get better.”
The heavily-favored Jazz played an incredible game, Jenkins said, noting that Utah made 19 three-pointers, shot 54 percent and got off and running early.
“I am really proud of our group for bouncing back in the third quarter. We cut the lead to a one-possession game,” Jenkins said. “The Jazz had some 50-50 balls in the fourth quarter that you couldn’t have down the stretch in a close ball game. The fact that we can compete with these guys and we have beat these guys is a great take away from these two games.”
Game three of the playoffs on Saturday will be the first home playoff game for the Grizzlies since 2017.
“We get to return the favor of what their crowd has been doing to us,” Morant said. “We are excited (to be) 1-1 and go back home to defend home court.”
- Brooks finished with 23 points and Jackson Jr. had 16 points.
- Valanciunas, who has had been a consistent double-double performer, had 18 points and six rebounds.
- The Grizzlies have increased attendance capacity to 55 percent.
- The Grizzlies have been hosting official watch parties at the Summer Drive-in and on the Fourth Bluff downtown.
- Tipoff on Saturday is set for 8:30 p.m., with the game televised on ESPN.