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Preview: Suns and Grizzlies battle for playoff positioning

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The race for the No. 8 seed is on.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What: Memphis Grizzlies (14-22) at Phoenix Suns (14-21)

When: 7:00 PM, AZ time

Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM


Starting with defeats of the Warriors and Suns on the road in early December, the young Grizzlies are 8-6 and charging right into the playoff race in the West.

At the same time, the Suns have reeled, losing eight straight before recovering with a 3-1 record in their last 4 games.

With their unexpected win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday, the Grizzlies are now right on the Suns heels just one game out of the 8th slot behind the 15-21 Trail Blazers.

In fact, there are no fewer than six teams within three games of playoff position in the West.

So every game counts, especially these games against direct competition. But then again, none of these teams have even played half their schedule yet so let’s not get too crazy. No game is a must-win right now.

Season series 1-1

Each team has won on the road. The Suns beat the Grizzlies handily in October, while the Grizzlies shocked the listless Suns in early December in what Ricky Rubio called one of their worst of the season. That loss to the Grizzlies sparked an 8-game losing streak for the Suns.

The teams play two more times this season — today in Phoenix, and then on January 26 in Memphis.

Not many observers think either the Suns or the Grizzlies will be playoff contenders 40 games from now, but both teams would prefer winning the head-to-head matchup.

Ayton vs. JJJ

It’s not really a fair fight, considering Ayton has only played 5 games this season to Jaren Jackson Jr.’s full load of 35 games. JJJ has really come on after a slow start in his new coach’s system, something Ayton has not yet had a chance to do.

JJJ’s first 5 games this year: 13 points (26% three point shooting on 3.8 per game), 5 rebounds, 4.6 personal fouls as the Grizzlies started 1-4.

They are similarly sized, and taken three spots away from each other in the vaunted 2018 NBA Draft, but there are obvious differences between the two players. Ayton is widely panned as an 90s-style center while JJJ is ballyhooed as the bellweather of the modern stretch-five.

The most obvious statistical differences between the two players are that Ayton is a much better rebounder (12.4 to 4.8) and Jackson is a much better three-point shooter (41% of 6.3 per game vs. Ayton’s 0). Both can defend, but Jackson has a much better reputation on that end. Jackson does struggle with foul trouble — a problem he had in college too — hence the mere 28 minutes per game despite stellar stats.

I’m curious to see who has the better game tonight. This will be their first head-to-head matchup of the season.

Morant vs. Rubio

This feels a little like old vs. new. While Rubio is only 29 years old, he looks at least a full generation older than Ja Morant.

Rubio moves at a slower, more-methodical pace, while Morant is all about flash and dash. Clearly, you’d love Morant as your starting point guard for the next decade. But at the moment, Rubio contributes more directly to winning basketball games.

Cam vs. Clarke

Ahhh, the 2019 draft, where the Suns famously passed on Brandon Clarke, who went 21st overall to Memphis in what might end up as one of the best drafts of their franchise existence.

The Suns, meanwhile, took Cameron Johnson. Both players are “old” at 23.

Clarke is the better player at this point, and maybe for their careers. But Cameron Johnson serves an excellent role on the Suns as a deadly three point shooter with volume.

The Suns would be well-served if Cam at least plays comparable on the scoreboard to Clarke on this night.

Booker vs. Brooks

This is where the teams differ the most. While the Grizzlies best two players are JJJ and Morant, the Suns still have this guy named Devin Booker.

On most nights, Booker will badly outshine his counterpart Dillon Brooks, but not on that night in early December. Booker was about to miss the next three games because of a strained right forearm suffered two days before in the win over Minnesota, but muscled through this one with a 15 point, 10 assist outing marred by 6-17 shooting. On the other hand, Dillon Brooks was excellent with 27 points, 2 steals and very physical defense. Those 27 points are Brooks’ second highest of the season (36 games).

Booker is going to have to outplay Brooks this time for the Suns to have a chance.

Prediction

The Grizzlies are already on a roll with 35 games playing the same guys to get their comfort level high. Meanwhile, the Suns are trying to capture momentum and keep it going.

Suns 117, Grizzlies 110