This is a nice footnote for the Utah Jazz – finishing the regular season with the NBA’s best record. What the Jazz want now is to show they are a legitimate title contender.
They host the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Sunday. The Jazz are intent on erasing bitter memories of a first-round exit to Denver last season after blowing a 3-1 series lead.
Finding greater success this time won’t be any easier. The Jazz overwhelmed many opponents with their outside shooting and dogged defense. But Utah now carries a huge target as the top seed in the Western Conference.
”Nothing is going to be given to us,” guard Donovan Mitchell said. ”At the end of the day, we have an X on our backs. Teams are going to come out hungry for us. No one really expects us to do much, and I think that kind of feeds our fire.”
Memphis faces longer odds in proving it can make a postseason run.
The Grizzlies earned the No. 8 seed after beating San Antonio and Golden State in the NBA Play-in Tournament. Only three No. 8 seeds have upset a No. 1 since 2003 and none since 2012. Then again, Memphis was one of those teams – knocking off the Spurs in 2011.
The Grizzlies would like nothing more than to deliver another jolt.
”We know this position we’re in, we’ve had a chip on our shoulder our whole lives,” forward Jaren Jackson Jr. said. ”We’re just hungry, we’re still hungry. It’s surging through everybody.”
Utah won all three games this season against Memphis while averaging 118.0 points. Mitchell averaged 35.0 points on 60% shooting in those games. Ja Morant paced the Grizzlies with 26.7 points on 51% shooting.
MITCHELL IS BACK
Mitchell is expected to return for Game 1 after being sidelined for five weeks. He sprained his right ankle April 16 against Indiana.
”The overriding thing for Don is that he’s listening to his body,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. ”That will determine where he is. Obviously, he wants to be effective. He can be. But he’s also got to be able to function out there in a way where he feels he can be impactful. That’s the goal.”
On Thursday, Mitchell practiced for the first time since his injury. He felt fatigued in spots but experienced no lingering pain.
”I’m just trying to find ways to get back in the groove, get back in full shape,” he said. ”I feel like I’m getting there. Things are progressing well. I can’t complain.”
Before his injury, Mitchell averaged a career-high 26.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 53 regular-season games. The two-time All-Star averaged 36.3 points while shooting nearly 53% during the playoffs last season.
Memphis averaged 55.8 points a game in the paint thi season, tops in the NBA. Jonas Valanciunas is a big reason, ranking sixth scoring 12.7 points in the paint. But Morant also averages 10.6 points inside with his drives, floaters and dunks.
Attacking the rim will be a chore with Rudy Gobert down low. Gobert owns the top individual defensive rating (100.6) in the NBA. He led the league with 960 rebounds and 190 blocks.
Memphis hopes it can challenge Gobert enough to make a difference.
”Hopefully, it’s a tough fight and we’re going to grow and get stronger and better for it,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said.
Mike Conley will face his former team in the playoffs for the first time after leading Memphis to the postseason each year from 2010 to 2017. The Jazz guard is the Grizzlies’ career leader in points, 3-pointers, assists, steals and games. Conley appeared in 788 games with the Grizzlies over 12 seasons and averaged 14.9 points and 5.7 assists in 32.6 minutes.
AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker in Memphis and Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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