This weekend, the NBA offers a mini-series that will serve as a preliminary act to the playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers duke it up with the Memphis Grizzlies in a win-or-die affair to determine who takes the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. With all but the Western 8th seed set, the playoffs will commence next week. But before that, here’s a bit of an appetizer.
The Blazers overhauled a comfortable 3.5 game lead by the Grizzlies before the Restart by checking in with a 6-2 slate in Orlando’s Bubble. The Grizzlies sizzled during the regular pre-pandemic season, but fizzled 2-6 in the 8-game Bubble seeding. This set the stage for the play-in, with Portland having a Twice-to-beat advantage over Memphis.
Here’s how the 2 teams stack up for the duel. On offense, the Blazers ranked 3rd in the league with an offensive rating of 113.2, while Memphis was way behind at 21st with an offensive rating of 108.7. On defense however, Memphis was far better at 15th with a defensive rating of 109.7, while Portland was a poor 27th with a 114.3 defensive rating. Their net rating point differential was quite negligible, with Memphis at 17th with a -1.0 net rating, while Portland followed closely at 18th with -1.1 net rating. With a very close net rating, this tells us that this mano-a-mano face-off will be as close as can be, with the breaks of the game likely to decide who gets to stay in the Bubble and who gets booted out.
However, these statistics reveal to us what type of game these 2 teams will run this weekend. The Blazers will naturally depend on their strong offensive side, with Damian Lillard at the forefront, and backcourt partner, CJ McCollum, the comebacking Carmelo Anthony and new offensive discovery Gary Trent Jr firing from all corners of the court. The return of injured bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins should be added help on the defensive end, the perceived Achilles heel of this team.
The Grizzlies, on the other hand, will rely on their pesky defense to stop the Blazer juggernaut. With Ja Morant jamming the offensive lines, Jonas Valanciunas protecting the shaded lanes, the rest providing quick help defense, and a quick rotation that guarantees fresh legs on the court at all times, the Grizzlies’ key to win this match-up will be to produce those defensive stops. Those stops will initiate their quick transition baskets on the other end.
That said, Ja will be leading a quick transition offense in the hope of tiring out the older Blazer veterans. This will favor their younger legs. Dame will pick his battles, preferring to orchestrate a slower, more deliberate offense. With him and CJ logging in 40+ minutes a game, and Melo upping his playing time to close to 35 minutes a game, the Blazers will need all the rest they can get.
Health will play a significant factor in this series. For Portland, CJ McCollum will be playing gingerly on an injured back. CJ is a valuable piece in the offensive dynamic for the Blazers, and he averages 40-plus minutes per game. His uncertain situation is worrisome. He will be needed if they want to optimize their chance to move up. For Memphis, out for the remainder of the games is Jaren Jackson Jr, who suffered a knee injury in the Bubble games. Jackson played a key role in the Grizzlies’ rotation. In fact, he was averaging 25.3 points on 48.3% shooting, plus 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals in a breakout performance in the Bubble before he hurt his knee.
Jackson’s absence will hurt the Grizzlies’ rotation, making man-mountain Valanciunas go for major minutes at the 5-slot. On the other hand, Nurkic will have more than adequate help in Hassan Whiteside, their prized transferee from Miami. Bench depth, it seems, will favor the Blazers.
This will be a classic game between offense and defense, a showdown between precision shooting and speed, a clash between veterans and young turks. I see the Blazers slowing down the game. The Grizzlies will double-team Damian to try to force the ball out of his hands. Ja will try to create an up-tempo game for the Grizzlies. It will be a battle of wills for the two teams. In the end, the question that begs to be answered is: will it be Dame demolishing the defense, or will it be Ja jamming the offense?
Watch the NBA 2020 Restart, and the continuing saga of the ‘Bubble Games’.
Cover photo courtesy of NBC Sports. Other photos courtesy of: Grizzly Bear Blues, Bleacher Report, Fake Teams, the New York Times, Rip City Project and Talk Basket.