Memphis Grizzlies regular season basketball is officially back, after a 4 month hiatus due to COVID-19. The Grizzlies are set to resume their regular season as they “visit” the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA’s bubble in Orlando. It’s a big game with huge implications on who ultimately ends up as the 8th seed in the West and a playoff date with the Los Angeles Lakers.
To get ready for tonight’s big game, I caught up with Steve Dewald, a contributor with SB Nation’s Blazers Edge. Here’s what he had to say about tonight and the Trail Blazers in general as they wrap up the season.
1) Basketball is back after a 4-month plus hiatus. What are you most excited to see from the Blazers in Orlando?
The Blazers were a shell of themselves without Jusuf Nurkic in the middle. His return is definitely at the top of the excitement list. So far, things have looked promising for the Bosnian Beast, but it is a shame that his debut won’t occur in front of Portland’s fans. Watching him get back into his pick-and-roll groove with Damian Lillard should be a joy to watch, even if it isn’t in person.
Outside of the obvious injury returns, I am intrigued to see if Carmelo Anthony can play passible minutes at the small forward spot. Now it is time to see if Melo’s weight loss is more than hype. Judging by his time in OKC, I am not exactly confident things are going to be pretty on the defensive end of the court.
2) The Blazers got some extra time to work on the Nurkic/Whiteside pairing with the suspension in the season. How has that looked so far in the practices and scrimmages?
I’ll be blunt, things have not looked good. Given the value that defensive versatility and floor spacing carries in the modern NBA, that is no surprise. It is a little shocking to see what exactly has not worked, though. Calling on two traditional centers to fill out your frontcourt should lead to a dominant rebounding advantage, right? Wrong. Through three scrimmages, teams have consistently pulled the Blazers’ big men out of the paint and shot a staggering amount of three-pointers. That combination has led to Portland’s centers chasing down long rebounds from outside the paint, a task that neither Nurkic nor Whiteside excel at.
3) The last time these two teams met, the Grizzlies won a thriller in Memphis behind a career high 27-points from Brandon Clarke. What corrections from that game are the Blazers going to need to stop Memphis?
Like I eluded to in the first question, this Blazers team is going to look drastically different. In regards to curbing Clarke’s effectiveness, it will come down to the Blazers’ own Gonzaga alum. Zach Collins, while not a great rebounder, has excellent instincts when he is allowed to sit back and plug the holes in Portland’s defense.
On the offensive end, the Blazers must find a way to get Lillard and CJ McCollum open looks. They combined for an atrocious 16-for-44 night from the field the last time they faced Memphis. Inserting Nurkic’s size and passing ability back into the lineup should open up favorable opportunities when the guards look to play off the big fella.
4) There are a bunch of interesting matchups between these two rosters, which matchup are you most excited to see tonight?
I fondly remember Lillard facing the gatekeepers of the NBA’s point guard spot when he entered the league. Time has flown by, and now it is Ja Morant’s turn to do the same in big moments. Friday’s matchup might be the most important game of the year for the Blazers, I’m excited to see what the alpha guards bring to the table.
5) With both the Grizzlies and Blazers (among others) set to compete for the 8th spot in the playoffs, what is your prediction on how that shakes out?
I am on the cautious side with the Blazers’ chances in the postseason hunt. Integrating a handful of new faces back into the rotation is tough. Add in a difficult schedule and things start to look bleak. I’ll stick with my initial thoughts after the schedule release: the Grizzlies will find a way to hold off the surging Pelicans in crunch time. To be clear, I am almost certain that I am wrong. Lillard consistently overcomes the odds in situations like this.
Huge thanks to Steve for taking the time to chat with me ahead of tonight’s big matchup. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@SteveDHoops) as well as Blazer’s Edge (@blazersedge) for some great Trail Blazer content!