After getting a break from playing on Christmas Day for the first time in the last five seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday after finishing their holiday festivities.
However, going against a gritty defensive club like the Grizzlies will be anything but a joyous occasion for the Cavaliers, especially with Cleveland on a three-game losing streak and down three starters with power forward Kevin Love (toe surgery), center Tristan Thompson (sprained foot) and swingman Rodney Hood (sore Achilles) all out against Memphis. The Cavs will also be without guard-forward David Nwaba (sprained ankle), a defensive-minded player and somewhat of a fan favorite, which will be another blow to the team’s defense and chemistry.
Though they just ended a five-game losing streak with a win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, as previously mentioned, the Grizzlies — led by an underrated point guard in Mike Conley — have a stingy defense.
Coming into Wednesday’s game, Memphis is ranked second in opponent’s points per game (102.2) and sixth in defensive rating (106.7). From Conley to All-Star center Marc Gasol, guard Garrett Temple to rookie big man Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies have a number of intelligent players who have built reputations as stout defenders. That said, there’s no player that has a true advantage against their matchup individually in the starting lineup.
Cleveland’s offense will likely be at its best when guards Jordan Clarkson and Matthew Dellavedova — or whoever else may be in the backcourt — step into the game against Memphis’ second unit backcourt of Shelvin Mack and Marshon Brooks. With a laundry list of injuries, an offensive ranking of 107.4 (23rd in the NBA) and averaging 102.8 points per game (27th in the NBA), the Cavs will have a tough time scoring on the Grizzlies to be sure. However, should a player like rookie point guard Collin Sexton or second-year forward Cedi Osman explode to take advantage of their individual matchups, the game could be Cleveland’s to lose.
Luckily for the Cavs, the Grizzlies offense is a night and day difference from their defense. Coming into Wednesday’s game, Memphis is ranked 29th in points per game (101.9) and 29th in offensive rating (106.5). While Conley, Gasol and Brooks are three-level scorers and Jackson and JaMychal Green are an inside-outside threats, the Grizzlies rank in the bottom-five of the league in both three-point makes (9.8) and three-point attempts (27.4) per game.
Though Cleveland is no longer an elite three-point shooting team, neither is Memphis, and that might make for boring basketball to some fans but it means that if the Cavs can build a big lead, the Grizzlies will have a tough time getting back into the game. And vice-versa.
Lastly, crashing the boards should be a priority for the Cavs against the Grizzlies as Memphis ranks 29th in the NBA in both offensive rebounds (7.8) and defensive rebounds (31.9). Controlling the glass will be key for Cleveland on both ends of the ball if they want to come away with a win. Without Thompson or Love, who average a combined 25.1 rebounds per game, this is a tall task.
However, two-way players Jaron Blossomgame and Jalen Jones, who average a combined 14.8 rebounds per 36 minutes will help make up the difference, especially with Nance Jr. averaging 9.7 rebounds per game as a starter.
*All stats gathered from Basketball Reference
Probable starters (CLE):
Larry Nance Jr.
Probable starters (MEM):
Mike Conley Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Tip-off begins at 8:00 p.m. (ET) at FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN.