SALT LAKE CITY — More than 30 kids huddled around Utah Jazz players Ricky Rubio, Naz Mitrou-Long and Georges Niang after an hour and a half of drills in the Rowland Hall gymnasium on Saturday evening.
Once the Q&A session began, one of the Ricky Rubio Academy participants asked Rubio, “what’s your biggest rivals right now?”
“Right now … wow,” Rubio thought, before catching eye contact with Niang. “Memphis. I think everybody in the West … but any team is good.”
Why Memphis? Two of Utah’s early home losses this season have come against the Grizzlies.
After last season’s abysmal 22-60 finish, Memphis has emerged as a force in the Western Conference with a 7-4 start.
Part of the success is the return of point guard Mike Conley, who missed most of last season with a left heel injury. Memphis also drafted rookie forward Jaren Jackson Jr. out of Michigan State University, while center Marc Gasol is putting up 14.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game.
Utah will begin the first of a five-game road trip at Memphis on Monday, Nov. 12, at 6 p.m. MST riding a two-game winning streak, but the Jazz are 0-2 against the Grit and Grind.
Jazz players are certainly aware, too.
“It doesn’t take anyone to see that the Memphis one is circled on our calendars,” Jazz guard Dante Exum told the Deseret News. “I think we owe them not one but two, but we’re going to game plan and make sure we’re ready.”
Utah (6-6) suffered its first loss to Memphis 92-84 on Oct. 22 behind 23 points from Conley. Gasol also posted 18 points and 13 points in the Grizzlies’ first road win of the season, Cheap Utah Jazz Jerseys despite shooting 36.9 percent from the field. Utah didn’t shoot much better at 35.4 percent in an ugly contest.
Then on Nov. 2, the teams met again at Vivint Arena. This time, Utah was playing without star guard Donovan Mitchell, who sat with a right hamstring strain.
Conley again went off for 28 points, five rebounds and five assists on 7-for-18 shooting as the Grizzlies won 110-100 on 50.7 percent shooting. Former Jazzman Shelvin Mack also burned them for 16 of his 19 points in the second half. The win marked the fourth time in franchise history that the Grizzlies won multiple road games over the Jazz in the same regular season.
“They’re a very disciplined team,” Gasol said after the Nov. 2 win at Utah. “You have to make them uncomfortable. You have to figure out ways to get to their shooters, their playmakers.”
Utah is shooting just 40.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent at the free-throw line against Memphis in both home losses. Although this road trip also includes stops in Dallas, Philadelphia, Boston and Indiana, the trip to FedEx Forum is personal.
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“They beat us twice in our home, which shouldn’t happen, so we’ve got to return the favor,” Exum said.
Rubio and Gasol hold a tight friendship, as longtime members of the Spanish National Team, but that will be out of the window once the ball is tipped.
“Marc (Gasol) is a great screener and he can pop too,” Rubio said. “A big can’t help much because he is tough to guard. That is why he has been in the league so long and putting up big numbers, just because he can really shoot the ball and can set good screens and get guys open.”