PREVIEW: Rockets at Grizzlies- March 22

Mar 1, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) reacts after scoring a basket during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Rockets at Grizzlies- March 22

The Rockets will open a five-game road trip when they play the first of two in Memphis against the Grizzlies on Wednesday night. The Rockets are coming off a 3-3 homestand that saw them win three straight games for the first time all season. Alperen Sengun will play after he missed Monday’s loss to the Warriors due to an illness.

Eye on the Grizzlies

Record: 44-27 (2nd in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 114.0 (T-15th)

Defensive rating (rank): 110.0 (2nd)

Wednesday’s game marks the return of Ja Morant after his suspension for “conduct detrimental to the league”. The Grizzlies lost their first two games without Morant, but recovered to win six of their last seven to reclaim second place in the Western Conference standings. The injury bug has hit Memphis hard the last two months. Not only have the Grizzlies been without Morant, but Brandon Clarke is out for the rest of the season after tearing his achilles on March 3, Steven Adams hasn’t played since late January due to a knee injury, and Dillon Brooks will serve a suspension on Wednesday for picking up his 18th technical foul of the season.

Matchup to watch: Rockets paint offense vs. Grizzlies paint defense

The Rockets are averaging a league-high 60.6 points in the paint in 14 games since the All-Star break, but Memphis has allowed the third-fewest paint points in that span (44.7). For the season, the Grizzlies have the NBA’s fourth stingiest paint defense, surrendering just 46.7 points per game. Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr. is a big part of that, leading the league with 3.1 blocks per game, and holding opponents to 49.4% on shots inside of six feet when he’s the closest defender. He blocked five shots in the Grizzlies 113-99 win at Toyota Center three weeks ago, and the Grizzlies held the Rockets to 46 paint points on 46% shooting in the paint in that game.

What I’m watching for

This isn’t a nationally televised game, but there may be more eyes on it than any of the other nine games on Wednesday’s schedule due to Morant’s return. The Rockets will be an afterthought, but it is an opportunity to show the progress they’ve made over the last month. Houston is 5-5 in its last 10 games, an improvement after starting the season 13-49, and the Rockets are 16th in offensive rating and 19th in defensive rating during that span. These aren’t normally numbers worth bragging about, but the Rockets were bottom-three in both categories when the month started, so improvement is the name of the game.

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