Last week, the NBA finally released the remaining regular season schedule for the 22 teams remaining in Orlando. Specifically, the Grizzlies drew a tough but manageable road to the playoffs.
The Grizzlies schedule in Orlando. pic.twitter.com/xGEABrgCqr— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) June 26, 2020
A big key to remember is that nearly every team will be stronger health wise now than when the season was suspended. While many teams may now be more talented than Memphis, the Grizzlies depth can help overcome that in games. Overall, if Memphis can achieve a .500 or better record, their odds remain quite favorable to earn the 8th seed.
Let’s look at how the Grizzlies can earn a win in each of their first four games:
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Once they arrive in Orlando, the TrailBlazers will be without Trevor Ariza. However, they will welcome the returns of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Portland could easily be one of the teams that benefited the most from the season being suspended.
On defense, the Grizzlies must be aware of Portland’s activity beyond the arc. The Trailblazers are fourth in 3PFG% in the NBA, and the Grizzlies are in the bottom third of the league in defending the three. The Trailblazers are also last in assists, and are top five in the league in points scored from mid-range shots and unassisted two pointers. They also are in the top five in catch-and-shoot and pull-up accuracy. All of this suggests Portland loves isolation and shooting jumpers. The Grizzlies will have to communicate, rotate effectively, and challenge looks to keep Portland from finding a rhythm.
Though Portland may be a burden to handle offensively, their burden this year has been their lack of defense. They rank lower than the Grizzlies in defending three pointers. They also rank 27th in turnovers forced, which means that the Grizzlies can be successful if they feature their strength as a passing team. Furthermore, if the Grizzlies can get out on the run, the primary defenders they will face is Portland’s perimeter players, where their clear defensive weakness lies. The presence of Whiteside, Collins, and Nurkic could make life in the paint tough, thus perimeter passing and scoring in transition could benefit the Grizzlies greatly.
Two keys for Memphis to win are rather simple to identify. Portland is third in the league in turnovers committed, while Memphis is 23rd. The Grizzlies must take care of the ball. Of course, another big key will be to in some way keep Lillard and McCollum from getting hot. When Lillard and McCollum shoot 45% or lower from the field, Portland is 7-17 and 9-21, respectively. Limiting the production of those two stars could be a huge step toward a win.
Without a doubt, the Spurs’ game is quite critical on the Grizzlies’ road to the playoffs. While this is not a must-win game, it could easily be the Grizzlies’ most winnable game. The absence of LaMarcus Aldridge is a big reason why.
Defensively, the big key for Memphis is staying in position. The Spurs are among the top three in the league in FG% in both pull-up shooting situations and catch and shoot situations, very similar to Portland’s strengths offensively. They know when to take the shot and when to pass, so the Grizzlies must communicate and stay disciplined. Even with Aldridge, the Spurs were 29th in offensive rebounding percentage. The Grizzlies can trust their post players to grab the rebounds, thus allowing the perimeter players to challenge shots and passing lanes with ease.
Offensively, the Spurs’ weaknesses fall right into the Grizzlies strengths. The Grizzlies will likely have both the size and quickness advantage, which should help them get to the paint. Though the Spurs are decent at defending jumpers, they are 26th in opponent 3PFG% and 27th in assists allowed per game. If the Grizzlies can regularly get into the paint, they should be able to find kick out options for good looks on three pointers. They also should be able to find Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, and Brandon Clarke for good looks close to the basket. The Grizzlies must make intelligent passes and shots, as the Spurs do not allow many second chance points and can capitalize on turnovers.
Similar to their potential plan to beat the Trail Blazers, if the Grizzlies can remain disciplined on defense, they should be able to find advantages on offense by scoring in transition and through facilitation. If they can feature their size early and wear the Spurs down a bit, the Grizzlies should be able to gain the lead and maintain it to earn the win.
The marquee game on the Grizzlies schedule, and one of the most anticipated across the entire NBA, is their duel with New Orleans. They are division rivals, feature the top three rookies (YUP, I SAID IT) in the league, and are two of the best young cores in the NBA. However, simply put, its logical to say, that when both rosters are at full health, the Pelicans are a better team. However, the Grizzlies depth makes this a very close match-up.
It seems a bit flawed to consider the Pelicans numbers over a full season, as since Zion returned on January 22nd, New Orleans is a lot to handle on offense. They rank in the top two in points, rebounds, and assists per games, and a big reason for that is their pace, which is second in the league this season.
Defensively, the Grizzlies must know that the Pelicans’ success starts at the rim. Since Williamson returned, New Orleans leads the league in shots at the rim. They also are near the top of the league in passes per game, assists per game, and turnovers per game during that time frame. This suggests that New Orleans loves to move the ball towards the rim, especially on the move. However, if they have to move the ball in the half court, they could be susceptible to mistakes. Though they can find success moving the ball around the perimeter, the Grizzlies can feature lineups with length, utilizing players such as Justise Winslow, Kyle Anderson, and Josh Jackson. If the Grizzlies’ bigs can effectively guard the rim, their length can cause some disruption on the outside.
Offensively, the paint and the mid-range will need to be a big focus for the Grizzlies, as well as effective passing. Since Williamson’s return, the Pelicans have allowed the lowest opponent 3PFG% in the NBA. They also are decent at defending the rim. However, the Grizzlies’ guards were among the most productive back court units at scoring in the paint so far this season. If the Grizzlies can find their rhythm with their jump shots and utilize their assortment of floaters early, it could open up passing lanes for looks at the rim and from beyond the arc. This could fall right into the strength of the Grizzlies offense, especially when each team’s second unit is on the court.
The Pelicans have beat the Grizzlies twice this year due to finding good looks from the outside, making 21 and 15 threes in their two wins, respectively. Of course, the Grizzlies have also not been at full strength in those games, and with Clarke, Jackson Jr., Anderson, Jackson, and Winslow available, the Grizzlies length should make life a bit more difficult for talents such as Brandon Ingram and J.J. Redick. Overall, New Orleans is simply a tough matchup for the Grizzlies. Memphis must take care of the basketball, win the battle in the paint, challenge shots all over, and have a highly effective game from their bench. All of these goals can be accomplished, but Memphis must play to their potential at all times to earn the win.
The Grizzlies’ fourth opponent in Orlando will bring a familiar face against his former team: Mike Conley and the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have obviously been one of the teams impacted most by the COVID-19 pandemic, but should likely be near full strength once they arrive in Florida, though they will be without a key member of their rotation in Bojan Bogdanovic.
On defense, the Grizzlies cannot afford to allow the Jazz to have many good looks on shots. The Jazz are fourth in FG% overall, and first in 3PFG%. Despite being 24th in the league in pace, the Jazz are 12th in the league in passes per game. They know how to move the ball, especially on the perimeter to find open looks. The Grizzlies will need to focus on where Conley and Donovan Mitchell are at all times. The absence of Bogdanovic will certainly help the Grizzlies cause. However, they must remain effective even as reserves enter the game, as Jordan Clarkson and Emmanuel Mudiay are highly effective off the bench. This could be a game where Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and Anderson make a big difference.
On offense, the key for Memphis is operating quickly and avoiding Rudy Gobert. The way to accomplish that is by finding looks early in the shot clock. If the Grizzlies can find fast-break opportunities and make effective passing or pull-up decisions in transition, they could find some good looks. If the Grizzlies settle into a half court game, Utah’s discipline and the presence of Gobert becomes harder to manage. The Grizzlies are going to have less possessions in general due to the Jazz’s slow place; however, if they can operate quickly, and get Utah on the run, the Grizzlies depth could also take over as fatigue works to their advantage.
This simply becomes a game of which team establishes their style of play early. If the Grizzlies are making mistakes and not hitting shots, this becomes a very tough win to earn. However, if the Grizzlies are able to contain Conley and Mitchell to some extent and are finding success through quick and efficient offensive possessions they can earn a much needed win to close out the first half of their eight game schedule.
The Memphis Grizzlies, and the rest of the NBA, are entering a unique situation that’ll be under a huge microscope. How the Grizzlies respond in these four games could impact the play-in race significantly.