WHEN: 3:00 PM CT
WHERE: The Arena - ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World in Orlando, Florida
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: NBATV/Fox Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Tyus Jones (out, knee), Justise Winslow (out, hip)
PORTLAND: Trevor Ariza (out, personal), Caleb Swanigan (out, personal), Rodney Hood (out, Achilles), Hassan Whiteside (probable, Achilles)
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
PORTLAND: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Jusuf Nurkic, Hassan Whiteside
And we’re off!
The NBA has officially resumed play, and after an entertaining doubleheader of national games Thursday night the Memphis Grizzlies briefly take center stage as their season restarts today against the Portland Trail Blazers. It is in no way, shape, or form a normal game - the absence of fans reminds us of the ongoing pandemic, and the social justice messages and protests keep the ongoing pursuit of positive and meaningful change at the forefront as sports return to the national consciousness.
But the NBA is indeed back playing basketball again. And whether it’s January or July, in an empty arena or with 20,000 screaming fans, the sight is beautiful to many sets of sore eyes in Memphis and beyond.
For the Grizzlies in particular, as their sprint to protect their eighth seed in the Western Conference begins in earnest the advantage of their position atop the contenders for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot comes in to full vision beginning today. For over the next four days, Memphis will be taking on three of the five teams chasing them for that final postseason ticket. The New Orleans Pelicans, who Memphis plays Monday, lost their opening night contest against the Utah Jazz, and the San Antonio Spurs resume play against the Sacramento Kings Friday evening. If the Spurs defeat the Kings, and Memphis finds a way to somehow go 3-0 over the long weekend, the 8 seed - without any play-in scenario at all - could be a real possibility.
Of course, in order to accomplish such a lofty goal the Grizzlies would need to play their best basketball of the season. That will not be easy, considering Memphis will be without the leader of their very good second unit for those games and perhaps beyond. Without Tyus Jones, the Grizzlies will have to replicate his leadership and steady hand in the aggregate - not an adjustment to take lightly. But with likely Rookie of the Year Ja Morant leading the way (and probably taking on a few more minutes than the 30 he averaged before the season’s suspension), that task won’t be as complicated as it could’ve been under normal circumstances. De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson are the most likely hands that will be depended on to try to fill the Tyus void.
In what will be the most abnormal game in Memphis Grizzlies history, here is what the young squad must do to start this home stretch 1-0.
Slow Lillard and McCollum
Among all the teams racing for the postseason from the current 8 seed down, Damian Lillard is the best player on any of their rosters. He has the ability to take over games at any point offensively, and in key moments has displayed the capacity to make big shots. When the Trail Blazers are mentioned as a squad to watch in any scenario where they catch the Grizzlies, it starts with Lillard. He scores roughly 29 points a game while shooting almost 40% from beyond the arc and also dishes out almost 8 assists per game across 37 minutes played per contest.
But he’s not alone. His partner in crime, C.J. McCollum, averages 22.5 points per game on 38.5% shooting from beyond the arc and 4.3 assists per game. Combined, Lillard and McCollum account for roughly 45.3% of the scoring output for the 8th ranked points per game team in the NBA while also accounting for a combined 12.3 assists. Mathematically speaking, they’re about half of the offensive production for Portland.
That could adjust a bit with the return of Jusuf Nurkic (more on him in a moment) and the possibility of a hot hand for Carmelo Anthony. But make no mistake - the Trail Blazers start and end offensively with Lillard and McCollum. You’re not going to “stop” them - but throwing multiple defenders at them and forcing shots in to the hands of others must be a priority.
Win the front court battle
Even the most optimistic Grizzlies fan can acknowledge a stalemate between the guards of Memphis against Lillard and McCollum would be a win. Yet in the front court, Memphis could find themselves enjoying a real advantage. Jusuf Nurkic - a very talented big who can do a lot of things on both sides of the floor - has not played meaningful basketball in over a year. Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins do not have the athletic ability to hang with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the perimeter, or Brandon Clarke (who scored 27 points against Portland the last time these teams played) in the pick and roll. The raw physicality of Jonas Valanciunas will also be a solid changeup to the tempo and pace the younger, more fleet of foot bigs of Memphis will bring.
It even goes beyond the bigs. On the wing, without Trevor Ariza or Rodney Hood the Blazers may struggle with matching up with the depth of Memphis. Dillon Brooks (when he is at the 3 position) and Kyle Anderson have size and strength on their side, while De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, and even Josh Jackson have the ability to run and gun while also facilitating offense and switching if necessary defensively, depending on coverages and matchups.
As good as Portland has been offensively (10th in the NBA in offensive rating per basketball-reference.com), they’re that bad defensively (27th in defensive rating). They do not match up well anywhere defensively with Memphis, and if the Grizzlies can be disciplined and play their game they have a chance to win a shootout if it comes to that.
The Trail Blazers, as of this writing, are 2 point favorites over the Grizzlies heading in to this game. It’s essentially a toss-up, a one possession game where the tide can turn in favor of Memphis relatively easily. But the fact Portland is favored - while not surprising - is a slight to what Memphis did against the Miami Heat. Damian Lillard has not played since the first scrimmage for Portland. Both Dame and McCollum sat out the final scrimmage for the Blazers, emphasizing the veteran approach to the scrimmages as opposed to how Memphis attacked them by not resting players unless games were decided (as the Heat scrimmage was).
Between Lillard’s potential slow start, Nurkic’s first meaningful action in a long time, and the fact that beyond the 3-5 position potential advantages for Memphis (Mario Hezonja and Nassir Little can’t match what Clarke and company can do) the Trail Blazers have no one in the back court capable of defending Ja Morant (Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons are young and talented, but can’t hang consistently with Ja), the Grizzlies have a chance to jump on Portland early and maintain the advantage the rest of the game.
Will they? Maybe not - the fire power of the Trail Blazers is to be respected. But while this game likely will be a close one, Memphis should come out on top if they play the way they have shown they’re capable of - Tyus Jones or no Tyus Jones.
Memphis 115, Portland 112