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Preview: Grizzlies vs. Jazz

The Grizzlies will look to hold off the Utah Jazz tonight in a game that is sure to be played with a playoff intensity. Leading the Jazz by two games in the standings for the final postseason playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies know the magnitude of tonight’s contest. Win and they separate themselves even more from a team that underwent a major transition this season when Jerry Sloan left his spot on the bench and then again at the trading deadline when they dealt their franchise cornerstone Deron Williams. The Jazz appeared to have lost their way midway through the season as they went 5-16 from Jan. 17 to March 3. At the time it seemed that one of the teams that the Grizzlies were expecting to have to battle for a playoff spot would no longer be a factor. That is no longer the case as Utah has steadied the ship and played .500 basketball (4-4) over their last eight games. After Utah dropped a contest to Houston last night, the Grizzlies could create even more separation between the two teams with this head-to-head matchup. With not much breathing room, tonight’s game becomes even more imperative, as the Jazz have taken two of three games against the Grizzlies this season. The last time these two teams met the Grizzlies asserted themselves with a wire-to-wire 110-99 victory. They’ll need to come up with the same kind of effort tonight in one of the biggest games of the regular season.

Here are a few things to watch for in tonight’s contest…

This is a big one: Throughout the 2010-11 season there have been multiple games that have had a must-win feel to them that have resulted in games that are arguably the biggest of the season. The contest on Nov. 20 at home against the Heat, when the Grizzlies were struggling at 4-9 and were on a five game losing streak, at that time had significant importance because Rudy Gay’s winner snapped the losing streak and set forth a season when the Grizzlies had the confidence to beat any opponent, especially in the comforts of FedExForum. Then on February 8 on the road in the second game of a back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder without Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo the Grizzlies managed to come up with a big win that helped continue their most impressive stretch of the season. In the midst of the toughest portion of the schedule of the season the Grizzlies came away with a huge road victory against the Dallas Mavericks on a Zach Randolph game-winner that helped them keep the teams behind them at bay. The magnitude of tonight’s contest will trump each of those games as the Grizzlies fight to hold on to the final seed in the Western Conference. Expect the Grizzlies to jump out early tonight and play with their best collective focus of the entire season.

Matchup of the night: The matchup to keep an eye on tonight will definitely be at the power forward position, where Zach Randolph will go head-to-head with Paul Millsap. Millsap’s progress as a player allowed the Jazz to watch Carlos Boozer leave in free agency to Chicago in the offseason, and Millsap has not disappointed, averaging 17.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest this season. He is as steady as they come in the NBA, but the difference between Millsap and Randolph is that the Grizzlies power forward has the ability to put his team on his back and carry them to wins on a nigh-in night-out basis, while Millsap is more of secondary or third option in the best case scenario. That being said, the pressure will be on Randolph tonight to win this matchup. If he can come away with a big performance tonight the Grizzlies should find themselves with one of their biggest wins of the regular season. Stat of the night: The Grizzlies are a league-best 15-1 against opponents who are playing on the second night of a back-to-back and are undefeated in those games played at FedExForum (12-0). It just so happens that the Jazz lost to Houston 110-108 last night. With a little breathing room in the standings on the line, the Grizzlies will look to build on that number.