It’s been exactly 11 months since the Raptors and Jazz last played (on New Year’s Day, 2019). Things have changed, slightly, since then; Marc Gasol joined the Raptors, the Jazz were bounced (easily) in Round 1, the Raptors won a title, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left Toronto, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors left Utah and Mike Conley arrived... and about six million other things happened around them too. Phew!
Even with all that change, you can see the parallels between where the Jazz are right now and where the Raptors had been the past several years: A good team, knocking on the door, trying to break through as a legitimate title contender.
Things finally broke right for Toronto last year and the Raptors won their first championship. Is it Utah’s turn this year? Early results have been a bit of a mixed bag for the Jazz; they’re 12-7 in the very competitive West, but it’s worth nothing they’ve had the 7th-toughest strength of schedule so far. They do have quality wins against the both the Clippers and Bucks, but have lost to both of those teams as well. And it takes teams time to gel; Conley and Bojan Bogdanović are still settling in, the Jazz are still getting used to their new point guard, and — following meetings with the Raptors, 76ers and Lakers — the schedule does turn in their favour.
Where to watch:
Sportsnet, 6:00 p.m. EST
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol
Utah — Bojan Bogdanović, Royce O’Neale, Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley
Toronto — Kyle Lowry (doubtful - left thumb fracture); Serge Ibaka (questionable - right ankle sprain); Dewan Hernandez (out - right thumb sprain); Stanley Johnson (out - left groin stress reaction); Patrick McCaw (out - left knee surgery); Matt Thomas (out - left middle finger fracture)
Utah — None
This is the first time Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will face each other in an NBA game. The two played 10.5 seasons together in Memphis, getting as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2013 and establishing a real identity for the Grizzlies in Memphis. Now, both have moved on. I’m sure it’ll be surreal for them to play each other for the first time, especially with neither one of them in a Grizzlies uniform.
It’s also interesting how their roles have changed. They were the 1A and 1B options in Memphis for years, but now, both serve almost as role players on their new teams, although those roles are kind of the same in both cases — playmaker, defensive anchor, and steady veteran hand, only one does it from inside and one does it on the perimeter — and certainly important. Both, though, have had slow starts; as noted, Conley’s role isn’t as large as it was in Memphis, so a dip in stats was to be expected, but his biggest stat drop off has been in shooting (36% vs 44% career), and in theory, he should be getting more open looks with Donocan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanović, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert drawing attention.
Gasol’s scoring and shooting are also at career lows, although he continues to show his value as a playmaker, and on the other end of the floor as well. Speaking of which...
Gasol vs. Gobert
My memories of past Jazz vs. Raptors games have Jonas Valanciunas regularly eating Rudy Gobert’s lunch. A quick check of the stats shows JV’s teams have won their matchups against the Jazz 11-3, and Valanciunas has held Gobert to 10.9 ppg in their 14 matchups, on 57% shooting — which is just a shade below his career numbers of 11.2 on 63%. On the other hand, Jonas himself has averaged 15.4 ppg on 61% FG against Gobert, well above his career 12.1 on 56% shooting.
So, maybe not “eating his lunch” — but Valanciunas has done pretty well for himself against Gobert. Can we expect the same from Marc Gasol? Gobert’s Jazz actually hold an 8-7 edge over Gasol’s Grizzlies in their matchups, but Gasol has held Gobert to about the same numbers as JV (9.9 ppg on 57% shooting). Gasol scored extremely well in those matchups, 18.1 ppg on 45% shooting, but as noted, Gasol isn’t the offensive player he used to be.
Defensively, though, Gasol continues to shine, and if he can bring a bit of the same magic to the the Gobert matchup as he’s brought to matchups with centres such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic this season, he’ll have done his job.
The Jazz come in without a single player on their injury report as I write this, which is impressive. The Raptors have been missing Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry for 10 games now, and while they’ve both been reported as close to returning, as of this writing, neither has been cleared to play today.
When they do return, though, Nick Nurse will have some decisions to make. Some will be easy: Reduce Fred VanVleet’s minutes! (Poor Freddy is leading the league in minutes per game.) Some will be tougher, such as finding minutes for Chris Boucher with Ibaka and Gasol holding down the centre position, and finding minutes for Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Norman Powell, all of whom have stepped up over the past 10 games. Then there’s Matt Thomas, who’s proven valuable as a floor spacer, and Patrick McCaw, who’s earned Nurse’s trust as a defender, who’ll both be back at some point as well.
Ultimately having capable guys and finding minutes for all of them is a good problem to face. And certainly Nick Nurse has shown he has the chops to solve problems creatively! At the very least, I look forward to seeing how he solves this one.