2:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Trail Blazers -6, Over/Under: 232.5
With the Regular Season finally coming to it’s conclusion and the Playoffs upon us, there is still the matter of who will be the Eighth Seed in the Western Conference to be decided, as the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers meet in today’s Play-In Game for the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the First Round of next week’s Playoffs from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. This Play-In is unique in the manner that in the event that the lower seeded team, which in this case is Memphis, wins today, they will in turn force a successive Play-In on a Sunday. In essence, the Grizzlies need to win two in a row, while the Blazers need win only once, whether it be on Saturday or Sunday. So with that out of the way, arguably the greatest overachievers in the league this season, the Grizzlies (34-39, 9th in Western Conference) entered the Association’s Restart following the four-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic in reasonably comfortable possession of the Eighth Seed out West, sitting no less than four games ahead of the other five teams that were invited to the Bubble, with eight Seeding Games to figure out where the proverbial cards may finally lay. However, in hindsight it’s become readily apparent that this expedition to Orlando has done Memphis ZERO favors, for few teams have struggled as much as they have since the Restart. Over the last eight contests, Taylor Jenkins’ charges have managed to go just 2-6, losing their first four outings in the Bubble, which only proved to grant their competition more confidence down the stretch. In many respects, it has been their youth and inexperience that has betrayed them, for three of those six losses have come by five points or less, which is a clear sign that they’ve struggled to find ways to close games. On the whole of their performance in the Restart they’ve been outscored by a scant average margin of just 1.0 Points per Game. With that said, this team still managed to do just enough to ensure that they still maintained control of their fate, needing only a win against the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks, who at that point were resting just about their entire Starting Lineup and offered little resistance to the Grizzlies’ desperation.
Indeed, Thursday’s 119-106 victory over the Bucks was a very telling performance from the young Grizzlies, for this was every bit the kind of game that was handed to them on a silver platter. Simply put, good teams take advantage of opportunities such as these and Jenkins should congratulate his Coaching Staff and Players for doing what they were supposed to do. The First Quarter was rather tense, as both sides went back and forth with Memphis ending the period with a slim 22-21 lead. The following frame though, is where his troops really put their foot on the gas outscoring Milwaukee 38-29, and then coming out of Halftime to do the same in the third stanza (33-24) to put the game out of reach. In the end, they shot a healthy 50.0% from the field, including 13-of-33 from beyond the arc (39.4%), assisted on a whopping THIRTY-SIX of their Forty-Five Field Goals, and won the battle of the boards 55-36. In an affair in which Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Ja Morant (17.8 PTS, 47.7% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 7.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.4 PER), struggled mightily to find his shooting touch, totaling just Twelve Points on 5-of-17 shooting from the floor (29.4%), the Supporting Cast really came to his aid, with Dillon Brooks (16.2 PTS, 40.7% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.3 PER) scoring a game-high Thirty-One Points on a torrid 12-of-18 shooting (66.7%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), while veteran Center, Jonas Valanciunas (14.9 PTS, 58.5% FG, 11.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 BLK, 22.3 PER), registered an unlikely Triple-Double with Twenty-Six Points, Nineteen Rebounds, and a career-high Twelve Assists. To his credit, Morant didn’t let his shooting ills deter him from contributing in other ways, for the explosive Point Guard also posted a Triple-Double, totaling Thirteen Rebounds and Ten Assists in the victory, marking the first time in franchise history that a pair of players managed to accomplish that same distinction in a game, and are just the twelfth tandem of teammates to do so in NBA History. It was a fine exclamation point on what has been an excellent Rookie Season for Morant, who became the seventh Rookie to average over 17.0 Points and 7.0 Assists, joining a list that includes the likes of Hall of Famers such as Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and Isaiah Thomas. Now we’ll have to see how they respond to a team just as hungry and desperate as they are, and WON’T be resting any of their key contributors.
If you’re wondering how today’s play-in will inevitably play out, then look no further than when these two teams last met, which was ironically their debut in the Bubble, a wild affair in which Memphis came up just short in a 135-140 defeat that needed Overtime to decide a victor. Though Portland carried a 68-60 lead into Halftime, Morant & Co clawed back into the contest in the Third Quarter in which they outscored their counterpart 36-25. Unfortunately, they simply ran out of gas once the tilt went into Overtime, where the Blazers edged them 16-11. In the end, the Grizzlies shot 45.2% from the field, including 13-of-41 from beyond the arc (31.7%), but really managed to level the playing field by knocking down a staggering 38-of-50 Free-Throws (76.0%), which allowed them to slow the pace of play, and set their defense on the opposite end. Morant totaled Twenty-Two Points, Six Rebounds, and Eleven Assists despite another very poor shooting performance, netting 7-of-22 overall (31.8%), including a dreadful 1-of-7 from downtown (14.3%). With that said, the biggest takeaway from that meeting was the performance of Jaren Jackson Jr (17.4 PTS, 46.9% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.6 BLK, 16.3 PER), who will not be taking part in today’s rematch after tearing his meniscus last week, effectively ending his sophomore campaign. The versatile Forward scored a game-high Thirty-Three Points on 10-of-22 shooting (45.5%) and 6-of-15 from three (40.0%). Only 20-Years Old, Jackson improved greatly in 2019-2020, showing the ability to stretch defenses with his shooting while still providing solid length to deter shots in the Paint. With Portland finally at full strength after spending virtually the entire season ravaged by injuries, he figures to be sorely missed in this winner-take-all affair.
Meanwhile, if there was one team that took the opportunity presented by the NBA’s Restart and milked it all for it’s worth (sorry, Phoenix), it was no doubt the Trail Blazers (35-39, 8th in Western Conference), who caught fire down the stretch in securing a place in today’s Play-In Game against the Grizzlies. It’s amazing just how much can change in a year’s time, for Portland ended their trek through the 2019 Playoffs advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. However, this season had been far from kind to Terry Stotts & Co, for injuries ravaged their Rotation, forcing them to integrate new faces on the fly, while asking their talisman, Damian Lillard (30.0 PTS, 46.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 26.9 PER), to carry an even greater load than the considerable weight that he had already been doing in recent years. Residing within six games of the Eighth Seed when the league was suspended due to the Covid-19 Outbreak, this team took advantage of the opportunity to get healthy, welcoming back a pair of key contributors in their Frontcourt, namely Jusuf Nurkic (17.6 PTS, 49.5% FG, 10.3 REB, 4.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 2.0 BLK, 22.6 PER) and Zach Collins (7.0 PTS, 47.1% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 9.9 PER). The former suffered a gruesome broken leg towards the end of the 2018-2019 campaign, finally returning in that aforementioned meeting with the Grizzlies, alongside the latter, who underwent shoulder surgery after just three games, missing virtually the entire term pre-lockdown. In an attempt to replace them, the Blazers added the services of productive, yet mercurial, Center, Hassan Whiteside (15.5 PTS, 62.1% FG, 13.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.9 BLK, 25.0 PER), and ostracized former All-Star Forward, Carmelo Anthony (15.4 PTS, 43.0% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.4 PER), who to their credit have exceeded expectations in finding a home within Stotts’ Rotation.
Let’s be completely honest folks, if the Blazers had been at full strength throughout the season then they certainly wouldn’t have been in this position of desperation, and would’ve in all likelihood occupied one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference. After all, there is a reason that so many experts are frothing at the mouth for a Blazers/Lakers matchup in the First Round, with many already calling for an upset. And the major reason for that is the continued exploits of the aforementioned Lillard, who has been the unanimous MVP of the NBA’s Restart; the five-time All-Star has been impressive all season, but his performance over the past eight games has been nothing short of the stuff of legends, averaging a staggering 37.6 Points per Game on 49.7% shooting, including 43.6% from downtown, 4.3 Rebounds, 9.6 Assists, and 1.4 Steals. Scoring at least Forty Points in four of his last five games, including back-to-back 51-Point and 61-Point outbursts last week, Lillard has absolutely carried Portland through this period, whether knifing through the lane or pulling up four feet beyond the arc to drain a debilitating game-winner. Simply put, this guy has been CLUTCH, and if there’s a more dangerous player in the league at this moment, then we’d challenge you to name them. To put this into further perspective, his three Sixty-Point Games this year (along with Five Rebounds and Assists) put him in a select company with only one player in NBA History, and that is none other than Wilt Chamberlain. Nuff said… When we last saw Lillard, he was guiding his teammates into the Play-In with a terribly tough 134-133 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. This one was far from easy folks, for you would have never guessed that the Nets had already clinched a spot in the Playoffs, and were playing with a makeshift cast of characters due to a ridiculously disassembled roster. Despite leading 74-67 at Halftime, Portland saw their lead evaporate before their eyes as they were outscored 24-37 in the Third Quarter, needing one final push in the last stanza to get over the hump. With both the Phoenix Suns and aforementioned Grizzlies having already won earlier on Thursday, the pressure was squarely on the shoulders of Lillard and the Blazers to get the job done, and thankfully for the faithful in the pacific northwest, that’s exactly what they did.
After cutting the Nets’ lead to 104-97, Lillard brought the basketball downcourt and promptly pulled a few feet in front of the Halfcourt Logo, draining a miraculous triple to cut the lead to four, igniting a 12-4 Blazers’ run that would see them recapture the lead. He would then run down Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, stealing the ball, which led to fellow Guard, CJ McCollum (22.0 PTS, 45.1% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 17.0 PER), knocking down a pair of key Free-Throws to make it 134-130 with just over a minute remaining to play. The lead would be cut to one, but would ultimately not be relinquished, as Portland booked passage into today’s affair with Memphis. In the end, both teams shot the ball very well, with Stotts’ outfit netting 48.1% of their Attempts overall, including 13-of-39 from Three (33.3%). However, the difference proved to be just how aggressive the Blazers were in pursuit of their goal, earning Fourteen Offensive Rebounds and forcing Fourteen Turnovers, which led to Eleven more Field Goal Attempts, while also owning a Plus-8 advantage from the Charity Stripe. Lillard finished with a game-high Forty-Two Points on 13-of-22 shooting (59.1%), including 8-of-14 from the perimeter (57.1%), along with Three Rebounds and Twelve Assists, while McCollum added Twenty-Five Points on 9-of-21 shooting (42.9%), though he missed all six of his attempts from beyond the arc. Furthermore, Nurkic posted Twenty-Two Points and Ten Rebounds, while the tandem of Whiteside and Gary Trent Jr. (8.9 PTS, 44.4% FG, 41.8% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.9 PER) combined for Thirty-Two Points off the Bench.