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Game Preview: Suns (25-12) host scrappy, scary Grizzlies (17-18)

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Winner of this game holds the playoff seeding tiebreaker, if it comes down to that

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Memphis Grizzlies (17-18) at Phoenix Suns (25-12)

When: 7:00 p.m. AZ time

Where: Phoenix Suns Arena

Watch: Fox Sports Arizona, NBA League Pass

Listen: 98.7 FM


The Grizzlies and Suns have split this season’s matchups so far, setting up tonight’s rubber match as the tie breaker in case the two teams finish with the same record.

Yes, the Suns have a much better record at this time, but the Grizzlies are playing well and will only get better if Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) returns before the season ends. Mostly though, winning the season series is hedging bets in case the Suns sustain some disaster and fall back into the 7- to 10-seed fray with the Grizz.

The Grizzlies have had the Suns number most of the last two seasons when they haven’t been missing half their roster due to rest/COVID issues. And tonight they’re mostly all available, which should be scary for the Suns no matter how well this season has gone.


Probable Starting Lineups

Suns notes: I am guessing Monty will do his matchup thing and start Jae instead of Frank Kaminsky to both add to the starting lineup’s focus after a loss and to match up with the smaller and shiftier Kyle Anderson

Grizzlies notes: They have gone with this three-guard lineup to start the last four games.


Grizzlies Update

You can find a great preview from their point of view, including the latest on the Grizzlies, over at our SB Nation bro GrizzlyBearBlues.com.

The Grizz are doing their usual thing, playing hard every second of every game, taking each game down to the wire and winning about half the time and even while often being outmatched on paper. That they have lost their last three should only worry the Suns more.

Memphis is a relatively young team, led by future All-Star Ja Morant (21) at the point guard position. Around him are two handfuls of role players aged 22-27 years old, including a pair of rookies in shooters Desmond Bane and big man Xavier Tillman. The other “old” guy in their rotation is the venerable Gorgui Dieng, 31, who always seems to play well against the Suns.

In this section, I’d like to focus on a former Suns player doing well over there in the blue jersey. Y’all remember the Suns last “we don’t need no stinking point guard” season of 2018-19? They ran out plethora combo guards next to Book that season, including Elie Okobo (16 starts), Isaiah Canaan (15), Tyler Johnson (12) and current Grizzly De’Anthony Melton (31 starts). Okobo and Melton were rookies who couldn’t really shoot, pass or run a team, but neither could Isaiah Canaan. Tyler Johnson, who hasn’t played point guard before or since, was the best of the bunch.

We all knew that Melton had the brightest future of the pack. Sure, probably not at point guard, but his defensive intensity and mindset to disrupt the other team’s offense as much or more than he disrupted his own was refreshing. Even as a 20-year-old rookie, he profiled as a long-time third or fourth guard, potentially a starter if he could nail down one of the shooting/assisting/playmaking skills a starter really needs. But he wasn’t going to be a starting point guard early in Book’s prime. None of the point guards that season averaged more than four assists a game, and the Suns finished with the league’s second-worst record.

Melton was traded that off-season to the Grizzlies as the carrot in the Josh Jackson salary dump to clear space to sign one of those in Ricky Rubio. The Suns have missed Melton, but it worked out quite well because Ricky helped them become relevant, learn how to win, and finish the season on an eight-game winning streak. Thanks to that finish, the Suns became attractive enough to Chris Paul that he orchestrated a trade to the Suns and now they’ve gone from the league’s second-worst team to its third-best in the 20 months since the Melton trade.

Melton has been good in Memphis. He was an integral third or fourth guard in his second year, earning him a whopping $9 mil a year salary. This season he’s not a starter, but he plays about 20 minutes per game off the bench in a combo guard role, averaging a career-best 10.2 points (42.7% on 3.9 3P attempts) along with 3 assists and 1.3 steals and a career-high 0.7 blocks per game. So much productivity in so little time! Melton contributes heavily to the Grizzlies pace, steals, assists and offensive rebound heights that are most of the reason they are beating teams they shouldn’t be able to beat this season.

Why doesn’t Melton play more? Because Morant and Tyus Jones are sharing the point, and Dillon Brooks, Grayson Allen and rookie Desmond Bane are in the shooting guard rotation. So much depth of playable guards, it’s hard to get more minutes than he’s getting. Lately, coach Taylor Jenkins has begun to start three of his guards at once, moving Dillon to ‘small forward’ in the starting lineup with Kyle Anderson moving to ‘power forward’. Melton still doesn’t start but this gives him a few more minutes a game.

Where the Grizzlies lack is among the wings and bigs. The only ‘long’ wing they have is Kyle Anderson, though the recent return of Justice Winslow really helps on that front. The 6-6, 220 lb. Winslow is noticeably sturdier than the Grizz other wings, much like Jae Crowder stands out among the Suns.

Their bigs are limited to starter Jonas Valanciunas, second-year Brandon Clarke, rookie Xavier Tillman, and journeyman Gorgui Dieng. Jonas is a threat to post 20/20 and get your center in fouls trouble on any given night, Clarke and Tillman contribute on effort if not big production (Clarke is a 6’8” version of Melton), and Dieng comes in when needed.


Suns Update

Your Suns are coming off a loss (their fourth in 21 games!) so of course Sunday was a dump of podcasts/blog/social media/newsletters delving heavily into the need to make a trade, like right now.

Hold yer horses, Suns fans. You’re really willing to break up the second-best team in the league because they lost one game?

Oh I know the argument about making the team EVEN better, but let’s think about it like a ladder — there’s only 1-2 precarious steps left to the top (you KNOW the very top of a ladder is the shakiest step), while there’s a long painful way to fall back to the ground. You really want to shake things up?

I also know the argument about “playoffs are a different thing” to discount the Suns 2nd seed in the West, but the Suns play exactly the way that wins in the playoffs and Chris Paul is dead set on breaking through to higher heights than he’s ever reached.

I’ll make the opposite argument and say that I don’t want to do anything that breaks the spell of this season. Sure, a buyout guy to fill that 15th position is great as long as he has the same mentality as the rest of the team. But I’m not breaking up this team’s core. Remember the last time (2008) when the Suns front office shifted the team’s core mid-season despite having the best record in the West? Yeah me too.


Stats


Prediction

Obviously, the Suns are the better team... provided they can hold onto the ball. If the Grizzlies force a lot of turnovers, the game could get dicey.

Cross your fingers for a good ball-control from the boys in purple (or orange, black or white, whatever they’re wearing in this one).

I’ll predict Suns win 120-110.