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Grizzlies face Jazz, look to extend winning streak

Jan 5, 2023; Orlando, Florida, USA;  Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) drives pat Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz (20) in the fourth quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

After early results for fan voting for the 2023 All-Star Game were announced Thursday, the Memphis Grizzlies’ Taylor Jenkins was asked about potentially earning the opportunity to coach in the game should his team have the best record in the Western Conference.

That would be a nice honor, right?

But Jenkins instead focused his attention on more pressing matters, namely Sunday evening’s matchup against the visiting Utah Jazz and helping his team continue to surge.

“I just want our guys playing better basketball day after day; that’s all I’m focused on right now,” Jenkins said. “Whatever’s in the cards is in the cards for our players and all that stuff. I’m just focused on the team getting better, and we’ve got a lot to work on.”

Still, the Grizzlies are in strong contention for the top spot in the West, as their five-game winning streak has them a half-game out of first place behind Denver.

Leading the Grizzlies’ charge, of course, is Ja Morant, who had the third-most votes among Western Conference guards to be an All-Star starter. He trails Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Dallas’ Luka Doncic in the first fan voting returns.

Morant scored 32 in the most recent Memphis win, 123-115 over Orlando on Thursday.

“When he makes winning plays in different fashions — as a playmaker, as a scorer, as a defender, (and) just his spirit, his energy, just every night’s just a joy to watch him play. And when it impacts winning, that’s the best version of all,” Jenkins said.

The Jazz will host the 2023 All-Star Weekend festivities in Salt Lake City, culminating with the game on Feb. 19.

Despite trading their three-time All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert this past offseason, the Jazz have been bolstered by the much-improved Lauri Markkanen, who continues to play at an All-Star level. The Finnish big man had 49 points Thursday in a 131-114 win in Houston, and he dropped in 28 during a rough 126-118 loss at Chicago on Saturday.

Markkanen has improved remarkably in the two seasons since his four-year tenure at Chicago ended. He spent the 2021-22 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Everyone has their own growth period,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said when asked about why the Bulls weren’t able to get this level of play out of Markkanen in his first four NBA seasons from 2017-21. “I was always a big fan of Lauri in my short period of time being with him.”

Despite another stellar night by Markkanen, the Jazz suffered another frustrating loss in a game in which they had ample opportunities to win.

“The learning moment for our team is guys can make two or three hard shots in a row, and you still got to maintain your discipline to the game plan to play to the level of intensity you need on defense,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “You can’t let three tough shots deflate you, and I felt that’s what happened in those moments. Our energy level went down.”

The Jazz are 2-0 against the Grizzlies this season, winning in consecutive games in late October. The teams will play again in Memphis next month.

–Field Level Media