On Grizzly Bear Blues, I’m going to scout the enemy and look into the teams chasing the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8th and final playoffs spot.
All eyes will be on the New Orleans Pelicans during the bubble, in large part because of the phenomenon that is Zion Williamson.
Zion only played in 19 games this season, but damn he’s was captivating. In those games, he averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on 58.9 percent shooting from the field — hitting similar benchmarks to Shaquille O’Neal in his rookie season. OH, and now he’s not “fat” anymore:
“No one cared who I was until I put on the mask.” pic.twitter.com/sJBWYAYrDh— Andrew Lopez (@_Andrew_Lopez) July 2, 2020
Though Williamson got unwarranted buzz for Rookie of the Year, he’s still a force that could heavily influence this playoff race. What’s scary is, Zion isn’t alone here.
The New Orleans Pelicans also have a 22-year old All-Star on the wing in Brandon Ingram, who averaged 24.3 points on 38.7% shooting from deep (6.3 attempts per game), 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. On pretty much any other team, Ingram would have more national hype. Jrue Holiday is still widely-regarded as one of the best two-way guards in basketball, and joining him in the backcourt is Lonzo Ball, who’s finally fixed his goofy shot mechanics to become a legitimate threat shooting the ball.
Behind their young core are veterans Derrick Favors and JJ Redick, two steady contributors that play pivotal roles in accelerating the post-Anthony Davis rebuild.
Can the Grizzlies hold off these Pelicans? What must they do to hold them off?
Where the Pelicans have the advantage
People will point to the Pelicans’ 2-0 series lead, but the two games are tough to critique. In the first outing Zion wasn’t playing, and the Pelicans had one of the best shooting games this season. In the second, the Grizzlies were playing without Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Justise Winslow, which led to a Pelicans blowout.
Despite that, the Pelicans are a tough matchup for the Grizzlies because they have two guys that can cause problems for Ja Morant. Jrue Holiday (6’3”, 6’7” wingspan) and Lonzo Ball (6’6”, 6’9” wingspan) have the size and elite defensive chops to give Morant headaches offensively. In the two games against New Orleans, Morant averaged 16 points and 6 assists, while shooting 46.2% from the field.
If the Pelicans are going to pass the Grizzlies for the 8th spot, it’ll be because Holiday and Ball did a fantastic job locking up Ja Morant.
Where the Grizzlies have the advantage
One potential area of weakness the Grizzlies may be able to attack is the matchup between Jaren Jackson Jr. and Zion Williamson. Though Zion makes eye-popping defensive plays, that end of the floor is still a struggle for him as he has a negative defensive box plus/minus (-1.1). Can Jaren utilize his height advantage (6’11” vs. 6’6”) and his off-dribble game to exploit Zion’s defensive deficiencies?
The main advantage where the Grizzlies must attack is within the second unit, particularly targeting JJ Redick defensively. A 45.2% 3-point shooter this season, Redick is one of the most prolific shooters in basketball. He has always been a negative defensively, though. Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton can potentially use their playmaking and the pick-and-roll with Brandon Clarke to expose Redick, they may be able to phase him out of the game. If they can do that, they would take away the Pelicans’ most potent 3-point shooting weapon.
Ja Morant and Zion Williamson will be the big storyline here. The former AAU teammates have risen up the league ranks to become two of the most exciting young players in the NBA. They are two players that can be marquee stars in the next era of NBA basketball.
This bubble will be the first chapter of their prolific division rivalry — heck, it’s not even a rivalry, as the two are friends and support each other, despite the narratives that say otherwise.
Regardless of the outcome, these two rookies will make this bubble race exciting while giving the nation a preview of the NBA’s future.
Stats found on basketball-reference.