The Memphis Grizzlies are in the rare position of having to avoid a letdown against one of the top teams in the league when they host the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.
The Grizzlies are coming off one of their most emotional wins since their playoff days, when they celebrated Mike Conley’s return with a festive night Friday that concluded in a 107-106 win over Utah.
The event, which honored one of the franchise’s all-time greatest players, served as an unofficial passing of the torch from Conley to Ja Morant, who the Grizzlies took with the second pick in the draft in June.
Morant went for 25 points and eight assists in his first head-to-head with Conley, and later admitted he’d taken the court accompanied by butterflies.
“It’s a big night for me, honestly,” Morant told reporters afterward, “and just to top it off with a win, it just felt good. It was special.”
The return of former University of Memphis standout Will Barton, who is with the Nuggets, isn’t expected to have quite the same buzz, but the Grizzlies would be wise not to overlook the 28-year-old’s homecoming.
Barton has played brilliantly in Denver’s 8-3 start, scoring at least 13 points in eight of his nine games while averaging a career-best 15.8. He contributed 17 points to a 101-93 win over Brooklyn on Thursday night, the Nuggets’ fifth win in their last six games.
“He’s ‘Thrill,'” Nuggets star Nikola Jokic said of Barton. “When he plays aggressive, when the shots are coming, he’s a problem.”
Barton often has saved his best for the return to his college hometown. He went for 20 points in Denver’s win at Memphis last January, after having reached 25 and 24 points in two of his previous three reunions.
In two years for the Memphis Tigers, Barton averaged 15.2 points and 6.5 rebounds. He earned Conference USA Player of the Year honors as a sophomore before entering the 2012 NBA Draft.
While Barton has been sparking nightly fireworks at the other end of the floor, the Nuggets have made their mark on defense this season. Their game result almost always has been dictated by their defense.
Denver has allowed 98 or fewer points in each of its last six wins. On the other hand, the club’s three losses this season have all come in games when the opponent scored 109 or more.
The Nuggets’ defense dominated the Morant-less Grizzlies last year, holding them to an average of 93.3 points while winning two of three contests.
Denver will see a whole new look this time around, thanks mostly to Morant, who began the weekend as the league’s leading scorer (208 points) and assist man (66) among rookies.
Morant already has scored 20 or more points six times, including two in a row and five of the last seven.
The Grizzlies have averaged 117.2 points in their five wins, including 113 a night during their current three-game winning streak over San Antonio, Charlotte and Utah.
–Field Level Media