4:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Trail Blazers -3, Over/Under: 223.5
With the NBA returning to action in the Bubble constructed at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, the race for the Eighth Seed in the Western Conference is ON, as the Memphis Grizzlies look to thwart the competition of a host of teams breathing down the back of their neck, starting with the Portland Trail Blazers. When the Association went on hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Grizzlies (32-33, 8th in Western Conference) stood 3.5 games ahead of not just their opponent tonight, but two other teams (New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings) for the final postseason pass out West, and now with just eight games remaining and a hellacious schedule ahead of them, this young group of overachievers will be tested like they never have before. The first three games of their “Seeding Schedule” come against opponents whom they are in direct competition with for the Eighth Seed, with meetings with the aforementioned Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs following tonight’s tilt with Portland. After that, it’s affairs with the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, and the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Needless to say, that’s quite the gauntlet.
However, in addition to fending off those other teams, the magic number for everyone is four games, for that is the figure that the NBA has deemed necessary to facilitate a Two-Game Playoff to ultimately decide the Eighth Seed. For example, if the Trail Blazers finish within four games of the Grizzlies, which is very likely given the distance between them now, then the two teams will meet in a play-in, mini series if you will, to earn passage into the postseason, and most likely serve as cannon fodder for the Los Angeles Lakers. With that said, it should be fascinating to see how Memphis handles the circumstances moving forward, for the majority of the season they’ve very much been overachievers, led by a cadre of young talent who have played well beyond their years. In this respect, Taylor Jenkins has done an excellent job in his first season as Head Coach, overcoming a relatively slow start to really gain some momentum as the campaign has progressed. The Grizzlies began the season a disappointing 13-22, only to go on a 15-4 run heading into the All-Star Break, and won four of their final six contests before the term was suspended due to the pandemic.
At the forefront is Second Overall Pick, Ja Morant (17.6 PTS, 49.1% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 6.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 18.0 PER), who for all intents and purposes is the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, spearheading this resurgence in the Music City. The electric Point Guard has been everything that the faithful in Memphis could have hoped for, blazing past defenders and attacking the Paint with a dogged ferocity, while setting up his teammates in a selfless manner. When the Grizzlies faced the Trail Blazers back on February 12th, Morant reveled in his matchup with the Western Conference Finalists, posting Twenty Points, Five Rebounds, Nine Assists, and a Steal in a 111-104 victory. Fellow Rookie, Brandon Clarke (12.0 PTS, 62.3% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 BLK, 21.8 PER), was huge off the Bench, scoring a team-high Twenty-Seven Points on an efficient 12-of-14 shooting from the field, along with Six Rebounds, an Assist, Two Steals, and a Block in just 22:45 of action. Jenkins is hoping that he can count on Clarke to be ready for action soon, for the 23-Year Old has been dealing with a bruised Quadriceps and is listed as Day-to-Day. With Portland returning to full health and beefing back up in the Frontcourt, it will be imperative that Memphis be able to utilize as many of the athletic bigs that they have at their disposal; alongside Clarke, Sophomore, Jaren Jackson Jr. (16.9 PTS, 46.8% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 4.7 REB,1.4 AST, 1.6 BLK, 16.1 PER), has been productive on both ends of the court, while exhibiting the ability to stretch defenses with his shooting.
Meanwhile, it may be in poor taste to point out that the leaguewide shutdown could potentially be a boon for the Trail Blazers (29-37, 9th in Western Conference), but there really isn’t another team in the Bubble that has benefitted more from the four-month suspension of play. A year after advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals, Portland limped their way through an injury-ravaged campaign, adding pieces along the way in the hopes that they would be able to sneak into the postseason for a seventh consecutive year. A 5-12 start set them behind the pace of the competition, which out West is always tough, and a similar 5-11 stretch from late December to Late January had their hopes of returning to the Playoffs on proverbial life support. With that said, Terry Stotts’ charges met the requisite criteria to be invited to Orlando, trailing their opponent tonight by 3.5 Games, and as we stated earlier, if they can manage to keep that gap from widening, while also fending off the rest of the competition, then the Blazers will face the Grizzlies in a Two-Game Playoff, which will decide who advances to the Playoffs. Given their return to health and their wealth of experience, one would have to fancy this group in a mini-series with their much younger counterparts.
So why the optimism, you ask? Well, Portland will be welcoming back the services of not one, but two members of their Starting Frontcourt, including towering Center, Jusuf Nurkic, and versatile Power Forward, Zach Collins (9.0 PTS, 47.4% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 9.0 PER), the former who suffered a broken leg in the latter stages of the 2018-2019 campaign, and the latter who was forced to undergo shoulder surgery after just three games. Now, a season-long weakness appears to be a real strength, as both players are able contribute offensively and defensively, with Nurkic averaging a career-high 15.6 Points per Game, along with 10.4 Rebounds, 3.2 Assists, and 1.4 Blocks before his unfortunate injury eighteen months ago. While it remains to be seen just what kind of shape these players are in, Stotts won’t necessarily have to play them MAJOR minutes, given the additions of Center, Hassan Whiteside (16.3 PTS, 61.8% FG, 14.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 3.1 BLK, 25.0 PER), and veteran Forward, Carmelo Anthony (15.3 PTS, 42.6% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.6 AST, 12.2 PER), who have picked up the slack for the majority of the season. Whiteside was acquired in the Offseason as Nurkic’s replacement, and though he’s far from the most disciplined of players, the mercurial big man is enough of a deterrent around the rim (3.1 Blocks per Game) to help fill the void left by the Bosnian. Anthony on the other hand, was signed as a Free Agent back in November, and after shaking off the rust, looks far more comfortable within Stotts’ Rotation than he had in previous stops.
Of course, these long-awaited reinforcements will come as a relief to MVP candidate, Damian Lillard (28.9 PTS, 45.7% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.2 PER), who has practically carried the Blazers on his back in 2019-2020. The five-time All-Star has been nothing short of tremendous this season, filling out his game while getting stronger to boot. This year, Lillard has averaged career-highs in a slew of categories, including Points (28.9), Field Goal Percentage (45.7%), Three-Point Percentage (39.4%), Two-Point Percentage (51.8%), Assists (7.8), and PER (26.2), all the while leading the Association in Minutes Played (36.9). During one particular stretch in January, the four-time All-NBA selection absolutely erupted for 45.1 Points on 53.2% shooting from the floor, including a remarkable 52.8% from downtown over eight games in which Portland went 5-3. Fatigue was a real concern before the shutdown, but now that he’s had basically an entire offseason to recharge his batteries, we have a feeling that we’ll be seeing the very best of Dame Dolla, starting tonight.