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Eyes on the NBA Bubble - Part 2

As we approach the restart of the NBA regular season, I point out some things I’m excited about in the games the Memphis Grizzlies face the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

No more scrimmages! Regular season basketball is about to resume, and it’s going to be electric. For the Memphis Grizzlies in particular, their situation makes these games more compelling than usual. With the prospects of play-in basketball, there’s more on the line in these games, and they’re also facing teams chasing them in 3 of their 8 matchups. It’s going to be riveting.

As the Grizzlies return, I noticed different reasons why I’m excited to see each game. I’ve already hit on the first four games, so now what am I excited about for the last four?

Oklahoma City Thunder (08/07) - Point God vs. Point God

Chris Paul has been the NBA’s “Point God” for the entire century. You could make an arguable case for him to be the greatest point guard of the 21st century, probably with or behind Steve Nash. As CP3 enters the twilight of his career, there’s a young point guard ready to take the mantle of “Point God,” and his name is Ja Morant.

Like my part 1 of this piece, Ja Morant compared well to the rookie campaign of his counterpart here.

ja morant vs. chris paul rookie years
basketball-reference

Where Ja lacks in defense and playmaking compared to CP3, he makes up for it with scoring and shooting efficiency. Both also led the charge for their teams in their rookie campaigns, boasting similar winning percentages — Ja at 32-33 (49.2%), and Paul at 38-44 (46.3%).

This season, these two “point gods” willed their teams into the playoff picture, while many pegged the Grizzlies and Thunder to be at the bottom of the Western Conference. Hell, people thought Chris Paul wouldn’t even play in a Thunder uniform.

In this matchup, we’re going to witness the changing of guard in the NBA and its point guard hierarchy. On one side, there’s an all-time great point guard entering the twilight of his career, while still proving he’s still one of the game’s best floor generals. On the other is a young point guard taking the league by storm and solidifying himself as the next generation’s great point guard. At the same time, we’re going to witness the similarities between the two guards. Both are cerebral, crafty playmakers that can sling any pass and make the ball look like a yoyo with their handles. In addition, both guards are masterful in crunchtime, as Paul has a 28.8 net rating and 29-13 record in the clutch, and Ja is 7th in the league in 4th quarter scoring (7.3).

This game will be fascinating to watch, as we can see how Ja Morant stacks up against an all-time great point guard.

Oh, and Ja will face another bright-future point guard in this game, as CP3 has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on his side as well.

Portland Trail Blazers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Toronto Raptors (08/09) - THE THROWBACKS!

Ok there are A LOT of matchups I’m dying to see here.

Ja Morant and Kyle Lowry.

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Pascal Siakam.

Jonas Valanciunas and Marc Gasol.

Brandon Clarke and Serge Ibaka.

De’Anthony Melton and Terence Davis.

But the real thing to be excited about is the Vancouver Grizzlies and 90s Toronto Raptors uniforms.

It’s going to be the most aesthetically-pleasing game in the entire bubble, and I’m so glad COVID-19 didn’t completely rob us of this experience.

Side note, I wonder if they’ll play a Marc Gasol tribute video, or save it for when we finally get basketball in The Grindhouse.

Boston Celtics (08/11) - Grizzlies Big Men Against the Celtics Bigs

If the Grizzlies came away with a win against the Boston Celtics, they either didn’t have to face the team’s core, or the Memphis big men completely ate in the paint.

Boston’s perimeter talent is unbelievable, probably the deepest in all of basketball. However, their kryptonite could be at the 5-spot. Though Daniel Theis has emerged as a starting-caliber center, he still doesn’t have enough behind him, as Enes Kanter, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams shore up most 4 and 5 minutes off the bench.

Three of the Grizzlies’ 4 best players play their minutes at the 4 and 5, and I see this as a huge opportunity for Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke to have great games.

Not a single center on the Celtics is on Valanciunas’ level as a center. Theis is becoming a prolific rim protector, but isn’t much of an offensive or rebounding threat. Enes Kanter can rebound as well as Valanciunas, but is putrid defender. Grant Williams and Robert Williams just don’t have the size to contend with him. If he and Ja Morant could get Kemba Walker caught in pick-and-roll’s, forcing Theis to switch, either Ja or Jonas could feast.

Jackson will likely see more time against Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, which will be a difficult defensive matchup. However, if he gets looks at the 5, it could be a chance for him to work off the perimeter as an off-dribble threat on drives or pull-up 3’s.

For Clarke, he could dominate the pick-and-roll and open floor versus Enes Kanter, a notorious pick-and-roll liability, or a less explosive Grant Williams.

Then again, all this could happen, and it could still result in a loss for the Grizzlies. Boston’s perimeter core is that damn good.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks (08/13) - Seeing Shades of Bud in Jenkins

This contest is weird, because we may not see Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton. It’ll be the last game before the playoffs, and they have solidified the top seed in the East. Why risk injury playing the league’s reigning MVP — and likely Defensive Player of the Year — and another All-NBA favorite? If that’s the case, the Grizzlies could come away with a win.

The biggest takeaway though is how we will closely see Budenholzer’s schemes within the systems of the Grizzlies. Whether it’s the movement, role players emerging as crucial parts to the team’s success (i.e., Donte DiVincenzo and De’Anthony Melton), or the ATO’s we see from each side, we may see striking similarities between the two systems.

When the Memphis Grizzlies hired Taylor Jenkins, I was immediately sold on him for solely one reason: he’s a part of the Mike Budenholzer coaching tree. Coaches under Budenholzer do well, as we’ve seen with Utah’s Quin Synder and the wrongfully-fired Kenny Atkinson. Jenkins was going to bring a modern offense that predicated on heavy movement, a fast tempo, and a boat load of 3’s. The big questions were going to revolve around if it would be success, and if Jenkins was a good talent and rotation manager.

He’s exceeded expectations and has emerged as one of the brightest young coaches in basketball — and as someone who’s getting some Coach of the Year chatter.

Memphis Grizzlies v Miami Heat Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Though each game contains its different narratives, there’s one that’ll be consistent: how the Memphis Grizzlies perform in the playoff push. Granted, everything in the bubble is sweet for the team’s development. Nobody expected them to be there. This experience will instill more poise and more confidence, as this team enters the next era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball.

Like all the other reasons I’ve mentioned, it’s a big part of why I’m so excited that the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA are back.

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