The surging Denver Nuggets (44-19) host the struggling Memphis Grizzlies (38-23) on Friday in a clash between the top two teams in the Western Conference.
Since the turn of the year, only the 22-5 Milwaukee Bucks have boasted a better record than Denver's 21-7, and the Nuggets have surged to a five-game lead atop the West.
Their closest challengers are the Grizzlies, who have been flailing since starting center Steven Adams suffered a knee injury on January 22, going 7-8 in the 15 games since.
Adams is only averaging 8.6 points per game in his 27 minutes of action, while shooting a league-worst 36.4 per cent from the free-throw line, but his impact on the Grizzlies' success has proven to be immense.
During the first 46 games of the season – prior to Adams' injury – the Grizzlies owned the best defensive rating in the NBA, while also boasting the second-best rebounding rate, and a top-10 offense.
Since then, Memphis have held up surprisingly well defensively and have been fourth in defense over the past 15 games, but their offense has cratered – becoming the 24th-ranked unit – and their ability to rebound has fallen off a cliff.
Adams leads the team at 11.5 rebounds per game, but his value goes far beyond just the rebounds he hauls down himself, as he is almost universally considered the physically strongest player in the league, and he uses that to wreak havoc on the offensive boards.
@RealStevenAdams pic.twitter.com/Q4Dtpqd8To— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) February 25, 2023
The Grizzlies have been 27th in rebounding rate since his injury, falling from the second-best offensive rebounding team to 18th in that category, while also dropping from 15th in defensive rebounding to 28th.
While it is easy to point to some recent cold shooting from Memphis as the reason for their recent struggles – 29th in three-point percentage (31.7 per cent) since Adams' injury – it is their failure in the rebounding department that is ruining a lot of their good work.
It is great to have a top-five defense, but when you are only gathering 68.2 per cent of opponents' misses, it means that even your strength is no longer a strength.
It goes to show that while Jaren Jackson Jr is Memphis' best defensive player – and a strong favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year – Adams may be their most important piece on that end.
That is even more true when the other team rolls out a center like Nikola Jokic.
Jokic, the reigning back-to-back league MVP and favourite to earn the first three-peat since Larry Bird from 1984-86, is essentially unguardable, but it is incredibly helpful to have a physical presence like Adams who is impossible to push around and can at least dictate Jokic's catch positions.
Going up (and under)— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2023
Nikola Jokic uses the smooth post move for the bucket on NBA TV!
Watch now https://t.co/0rrSPxOHD0 pic.twitter.com/CwroLjwbWb
With Adams out, Jackson will likely assume the responsibility, and while that is a mouth-watering matchup between arguably the league's most gifted players on each side of the ball, the Grizzlies ace will need to be on his most disciplined behaviour.
Leading the league with 3.3 blocks per game, Jackson also sits sixth in fouls per game (3.4), and could leave his team without an anchor on the defensive end if the crafty Jokic draws a couple of early calls and puts his opponent in foul trouble.
But Jokic, while almost flawless on the offensive end, still has his own exploitable warts defensively.
The Serbian has shed the reputation of being a poor defender – leading all centers with 1.3 steals per game – but remains a liability when it comes to protecting the rim, with Denver ranking 25th when it comes to preventing points in the paint.
That is where the Grizzlies will see their greatest advantage as the league leaders for points in the paint, with Ja Morant's 14.8 points per game in that area trailing only Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (15.5) for the most among all guards.
Denver's plan of attack will likely be the complete opposite, as Memphis are the fourth-best team at preventing points in the paint but allow the fourth-most made three-pointers per game, while the Nuggets lead the league in three-point percentage (39.2 percent).
EVERY ANGLE OF JA MORANT'S UNBELIEVABLE DUNK OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE pic.twitter.com/8u1j6ZNH3F— NBA (@NBA) January 15, 2023
Memphis Grizzlies – Ja Morant
Sometimes it is complicated to see whose impact will have the greatest effect on their team's success, and sometimes it is painfully obvious.
Morant is the Grizzlies' franchise player, leading scorer (27.1 points per game), leader in assists (8.2) and the heartbeat of their fast-paced, rim-attacking offense.
It will be his responsibility to exploit Jokic's defensive deficiency and generate high-quality looks inside for himself and team-mates, as Memphis are likely doomed if they have to rely on outside shooting (24th in three-point percentage).
Denver Nuggets – Jamal Murray
The Nuggets know what they are going to get from the metronomically consistent Jokic on a nightly basis, but the contributions from second star Jamal Murray are often what make or break their results.
In the 35 wins he has played in this season, Murray is averaging 21.7 points and 6.1 assists per game while shooting 48.3 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from deep and 85.5 per cent from the free-throw line.
In 14 losses, those figures plummet to 16.3 points and 5.5 assists on dismal shooting splits of 38.2/29.7/76.9 – illustrating that when it is not Murray's night, it is usually not the Nuggets' night either.
Jamal Murray steps back from DEEP @nuggets in front on ESPN! pic.twitter.com/YQZrhw7J2o— NBA (@NBA) February 27, 2023
KEY BATTLE – Can Denver capitalise on the absence of Adams?
While Jokic is one of the best defensive rebounders in the league, having the third-best rate among players averaging at least 20 minutes, he is not even close to the same kind of threat on the offensive boards, where Adams' absence will be felt.
If Memphis can figure out how to limit Denver to one shot per possession and secure the defensive glass, it will not just limit second opportunities, but it will ignite the Grizzlies' fast-break offense and allow Morant to operate in the open floor with a runway.
Another key factor is that while Denver have been shooting the lights out, and Memphis have been struggling from distance, three-point percentage is often a stat that regresses to the mean over time, meaning at some point their fortunes will likely reverse.
These sides have split their two meetings this season, with Denver securing a 14-point home win in December, before Memphis evened the ledger with an 18-point home win of their own in January.
It fits with their evenly matched recent history, with a 2-2 record from their past four meetings, and a 5-5 record dating back to January 2020.