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Eyes on the NBA bubble - Part 1

The Grizzlies’ 8-game slate in the bubble is going to feature marquee matchups and storylines. I share something I’m looking forward to in each game, starting with the first game.

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2020 NBA All-Star - Rising Stars Game Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

NBA basketball is back in full force! We’ve all waited to watch live sports again, as we’ve gone about four months without it. While leagues like MLB and MLS are restarting, the NBA is finishing its season, finally answering season-long questions. Who will win the championship? Can Zion Williamson come back to lead the Pelicans to the playoffs? Who will win the NBA awards this season? Which team will be forced to blow it up? Who will rise to the occasion, and who will fall?

This past week gave us a glimpse of both what we love and miss about the game. We’ve longed for live basketball — the sound of shoes squeaking, the art of a beautiful pass or shot, and the jaw-dropping dunks. On the other hand, we’ve gotten to see the stuff we despise about the game — bad calls from the referees, poor shooting or defensive rotations, and hasty takes based off one game or play.

Regardless, it’s so sweet to have basketball again.

As the Memphis Grizzlies approach the Orlando Bubble, there are so many things I’m excited to see unfold. The Memphis Grizzlies’ charge to the playoffs. The Ja Morant show featuring dazzling assists, handles, and finishes at the rim. Jaren Jackson Jr. stretching the definition of an NBA big man. Jonas Valanciunas’ brute force down low. The effective bench trio of Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, and Tyus Jones. Dillon Brooks’ streakiness — ok that one may be me.

Nonetheless, I broke down what I’m anticipating in each of the 8 games in the bubble.

Portland Trailblazers (07/31) - Ja Morant vs. Damian Lillard

Ja Morant and Damian Lillard are cut from the same cloth. Both under-the-radar point guards in mid-majors, Morant and Lillard have defied the odds to emerge as two of the league’s premier point guards.

Morant has also generated a similar rookie campaign to Lillard’s:

ja rookie and lillard rookie

The minute distribution jacks things up a bit on Lillard’s end, and he was also on a weaker team compared to Ja’s Grizzlies team, as Portland only won 33 games that year.

This bubble game will be the first real test for the Grizzlies, as they fight to prove naysayers that they hold the 8th seed comfortably for a reason. In those declarations, analysts, fans, and I guess players too say it should be Portland or New Orleans.

With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back, they’ll be a formidable threat, as the former is on the same tier as Jonas Valanciunas in the hierarchy of big men, and the latter is a young 4/5 hybrid with defensive switchability. However, without Trevor Ariza, their wing core is a 35-year old Carmelo Anthony, Mario Hezonja, Gary Trent Jr., and Nassir Little.

This matchup, like every game for Portland, will come down to the dominance of Dame Time that night. Reminder, he had an 8-game stretch where he averaged a blistering 45.1 points and 9.6 assists on 52.8% shooting from deep (13.5 attempts per game!!!). Even 80% of that stretch can bolster Portland’s playoff chances.

How Ja Morant stops Lillard will determine the outcome of this game. Though he only saw a minute of possession time against the All-Star guard, Morant has proven that he can hold the league’s elite perimeter scorers — whether it’s Trae Young, Kyrie Irving, or Dame’s teammate CJ McCollum. In addition, opponents are shooting 1.9% worse overall and 2.7% worse from deep with Morant as the primary defender. With his defensive tenacity, his plus-5 wingspan (6’2” with a 6’7” wingspan), and his lateral quickness, Morant has the tools to be a solid defender from the point guard spot.

Ja Morant has a chance to showcase his underrated defensive chops by slowing Damian Lillard down, while also shutting the door on Portland’s playoff chances with a signature win.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio (08/02) - A “Chance to Hammer, Nail, Coffin the Spurs Playoff Streak”

You have to be a real die-hard NBA nerd to find fascinating matchups in this one. Analytic-centric podcasts will gush over the Derrick White and De’Anthony Melton matchup, as both have served as analytic darlings the past two seasons. Toronto loyals will love the Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl dual down low. The main storyline for San Antonio’s bubble experience, and the real excitement here for this game, will be the Spurs’ playoff streak that’s lasted over two decades.

The San Antonio Spurs have served as an Achilles’ heel for the Memphis Grizzlies ever since the 2011 1-8 upset. The Spurs blitzed the Grizzlies in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, squashed an injury-depleted Memphis squad in the 2016 playoffs, and came through in a competitive first-round series in 2017. If you date back even further within the Spurs’ two-decade playoff run, they also swept the Grizzlies in the franchise’s first playoff appearance.

This season, the Spurs are long-shots to nab the 8th seed, especially considering they’ll be without LaMarcus Aldridge. In this particular game, the Grizzlies have a chance to “hammer, nail, coffin” San Antonio’s impressive playoff streak, as this contest swings a whole game in the standings.

When it comes to achieving this goal, there are a few things the Grizzlies need to monitor. They’ll have to keep DeMar DeRozan in check, while making sure Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes or Rudy Gay don’t go off that night. In addition, they’ll have to limit the defensive impact of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, two of the league’s defensive stalwarts from the perimeter.

There aren’t many gimme games in the bubble for the Memphis Grizzlies, but with the Spurs’ focus on development, this is the closest thing to one for them. For the Grizzlies to either have the 8th seed going into the play-in, or avoid the play-in outright, they must win this game.

New Orleans (08/03) - Jackson Jr. vs. Zion Williamson

From a national perspective, the real storylines here are the Ja Morant and Zion Williamson dual and the Pelicans’ rise into the playoffs — mainly pushed through the media’s narrative.

While most eyes will be on this game for those reasons, there’s something we still haven’t seen yet: Jaren Jackson Jr. against Zion Williamson. In this first matchup, Williamson missed because of his knee injury; and in the second, Jaren Jackson Jr. was suspended for leaving the bench in the scuffle with the New York Knicks.

These two young big men surely represent the future of the NBA for many reasons. Obviously, they are both extremely talented, and it’s not far-fetched to say they are both in the top 50-60 in the entire league. However, they both embody the multiple definitions of modern NBA big men, both in the present and future.

Built like an NFL defensive end, Zion Williamson has the game of a 90s 4-man and the athleticism of a guard. Though he canned 4 three’s in his NBA debut, he lives off bullying opponents to the basket and attacking downhill. His explosiveness and athleticism generate great offensive plays, but monster blocks showcase his defensive potential. There’s no reason, besides injury, that he can’t become a dominant 4 that gets some run as a small-ball 5.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the antithesis of Zion Williamson. He’s athletic in his own right, but his game is more perimeter-oriented. At times, he hits dribble combos like a guard, drills step-back 3s, and fires 3s like a Splash Brother.

Among all players 6’10” or taller in NBA history, Jackson shot the 16th-most three’s per game in a single season, while also converting on 39.7% of his attempts. What’s crazy is, his defensive potential replicates his offensive ceiling. He can switch on multiple defenders and protect the rim. He even lead the league in most games with multiple blocks and multiple 3-pointers. He can become a 6’11” Klay Thompson, as our Site Manager Joe Mullinax dubs him.

This matchup between these two young big men will provide a glimpse of the NBA’s future in how the game’s run and in who represents the league’s elite.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Utah (08/05) - For Brandon Clarke to Show What Utah Missed On

I’m not saying the Utah Jazz shouldn’t have made the Mike Conley trade. At the time, it was a move that catapulted them to title-contention status, before the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets made big-time moves. However, it’s not entirely far-fetched to be thinking they should be kicking themselves for missing on Brandon Clarke, especially given Utah’s slim title odds this season.

He was a consensus top-10 prospect, while some had him as high as 2 and 3, even in front of Ja Morant and/or RJ Barrett. With his extreme efficiency and defensive versatility, he was fail-proof.

This season, he’s backed it up, as he’s 4th in both True Shooting Percentage (67.0%) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (64.8%), and those numbers rank in the top 4 among all rookies in NBA history. On top of that, he’s made real strides as a perimeter threat. He’s truly resoundingly impactful, as his BPM of 3.5 is 16th among every rookie ever. He’s also quickly found a signature move to generate offense, a rare feat for most young players:

His fit with Utah would’ve been easy. He slides in as that Derrick Favors replacement at the 4-spot and part-time small-ball 5, offering a dash of outside shooting, defensive versatility, and efficient offense. He also fits the same timeline of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and finding players in that window is imperative if they want to keep this duo together.

Against Utah this season, Clarke shot 10-13 (76.9%) from the field — his 2nd-best mark against teams he faced more than once. With Utah’s depleted frontcourt off the bench, it could be a prime opportunity for Clarke to feast and have a big game. In the process, he could show Utah what they missed out on.

Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s plenty to look forward to in the Orlando Bubble for the Memphis Grizzlies, and you can probably go down players 1-11 and say at least one reason you’re excited to see them play. Regardless, in the middle of everything going on in our world, it just feels damn good to have something to look forward to.

Let’s enjoy it.

Part 2 is coming tomorrow.

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