WHERE: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida at the NBA’s Bubble Campus
WHEN: 1:30 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: ABC/92.9 FM ESPN MEMPHIS
MEMPHIS: Tyus Jones (doubtful, knee), Jaren Jackson Jr. (out, knee), Justise Winslow (out, hip)
PORTLAND: Trevor Ariza (out, personal), Caleb Swanigan (out, personal), Nassir Little (out, dehydration), Rodney Hood (out, Achilles)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Anthony Tolliver, Jonas Valanciunas
PORTLAND: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic
When this season began all the way back in October of 2019, even the most optimistic of Grizzlies fans and media saw this team for what they are - one of the youngest squads in the NBA, and therefore likely destined for the NBA Lottery. Whether or not they would be sending their first round pick to the Boston Celtics in the 2020 draft was a major point of discussion (again). The goal was to see growth from game 1 to game 82. If that happened - and Memphis found a way to best their preseason win total projection of 27.5 - then the season would be a success.
Ten months later? In so many ways, the world has changed.
As improbable as it is that the Memphis Grizzlies may see their season end in Florida - in August and at Disney World, no less - it is almost as unlikely that the team is even in the position to see their season extend beyond the regular season in the first place. Yet here they stand, after 65 regular season games and 8 seeding contests in the (to this point) tremendously successful NBA Bubble, as one of 17 teams still alive for an opportunity to compete for an NBA Championship.
Of course they’re not going to win the NBA Finals - that’s not the point. The fact that they’re still alive is a basketball miracle in and of itself. No one expected them to be in this moment - with the eyes of the NBA world upon them, staring down a team that made the Western Conference Finals last season for a chance to match up with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
What an amazing opportunity for a team led by a 21-year old rookie point guard from Murray State.
Despite their poor play overall as a team in Orlando, Ja Morant and his Memphis Grizzlies have a shot at extending their season one day more. But it’s going to take a Herculean effort against the Bubble’s likely MVP in Damian Lillard and his high-powered Portland team that fights and competes just as hard as the Grizzlies.
For the first time in years, “postseason” basketball is back for the Memphis Grizzlies. Here’s what to watch for as Memphis, the nine seed in the play-in, looks to beat Portland (the eight seed) and advance to a winner-take-all show down on Sunday.
Make Dame Uncomfortable...but Don’t Abandon Who You Are
Damian Lillard has been absurd in Orlando. Truly an out of this world run of success.
No offense to Devin Booker and T.J. Warren, but Damian Lillard is the Bubble MVP.
So while there are other weapons available for the Trail Blazers, the straw that stirs the drink is Dame. Carmelo Anthony has had solid performances, CJ McCollum (though injured, more on that in a bit) is a certified Grizz Killer, Jusuf Nurkic can be a force on both ends of the floor, and names like Gary Trent Jr. and Hassan Whiteside have made major impacts as Portland earned their way in to the eight seed slot that Memphis once called theirs. Yet without Damian Lillard willing his team to wins by doing ridiculous things like this...
...Portland is just a team than can score somewhat well and can’t defend.
You don’t stop Damian Lillard. You hope to contain him, and while Memphis doesn’t need to abandon their defensive scheme entirely like the Brooklyn Nets did at times on Thursday night, they have to adjust to force him to get the ball out of his hands. The Grizzlies cannot leave open shooters consistently to do so, though - just two weeks ago when these squads opened up the seeding slate Gary Trent Jr. hit four threes and cost Memphis dearly as the game went in to overtime. But they do need to make Dame work and disrupt his rhythm, while forcing others that haven’t crushed in the Bubble beat them.
How do the Grizzlies do that? They throw different defenders at Lillard, like Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, and even Kyle Anderson at times to impact Dame’s perception of passing lanes and angles at the rim. They press/hedge off of screens and pick and roll sets, putting pressure on him and forcing him to make a decision without his dribble wherever possible. And they pick and choose their help - if Mario Hezonja beats you, so be it. If you’re defending him, you can help off a bit more on Lillard drives. But Trent Jr. should have earned the Grizzlies’ respect by now. Rotations must be crisp, and communication must be concise if Memphis wants to knock off Portland.
Lillard’s game is all about rhythm. It must be a priority to make him as out of sync and uncomfortable as possible so the game doesn’t become part of his masterful control of pace and play.
Attack CJ McCollum
It was announced prior to Thursday’s eight-seed clinching victory for Portland that CJ McCollum is dealing with a back injury. It is an ailment that isn’t serious enough for him to not be able to play - he is not even listen on the injury report for the Trail Blazers. But it clearly is impacting him. McCollum the first five games of the Bubble - including their OT win over Memphis July 31st - vs. CJ the last three contests are two different players.
FIRST FIVE - 47.8% from the field (45.9% from three), 22.4 points per game.
LAST THREE - 34.6% from the field (17.6% from three), 16.3 points per game
A drastic drop...McCollum isn’t right. And it was evident on defense as well against the Brooklyn Nets, as Caris LeVert (a talented wing but not an All-Star) torched C.J. and the Portland Trail Blazers. He had his way off the dribble especially, taking opponents in and around the rim and finishing with nice touch at the basket.
Dillon Brooks had his best game of the Bubble against the Bucks, and he did similar things to what LeVert did to Portland. Granted it’s fair to say that Caris is better than Dillon offensively, but if Brooks remains willing to play in the two-man game with Jonas Valanciunas and finding himself open for floaters and other shots in the paint that skill deficiency won’t matter. McCollum is not healthy - his shot (especially from range) is limited and defensively every time he suddenly moves it has to be at the very least stiff, and probably quite painful.
Portland needs McCollum, and it’s a testament to his toughness that he’s fighting through. His presence commands respect. But Memphis needs to embrace and attack the fact that CJ is not 100%, and they must make him work especially hard defensively to negate his offensive impact even more.
- Keep Jonas on the floor. He was the best player for the Grizzlies against Milwaukee as he posted his first career triple-double, but in the first seeding game with Portland he only played 14 minutes due to foul trouble. If Valanciunas cannot stay on the floor to help fill the Jaren void - and keep facilitating out of double teams and collapsing defenders on the post/paint - Memphis’ season will likely end Saturday. Jusuf Nurkic is that good - they need Jonas to try to neutralize Nurkic’s impacts on both offense and defense (Nurkic had 6 blocks against Memphis two weeks ago while scoring 18 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and dishing out 5 assists).
- Abuse Whiteside with Clarke. Hassan Whiteside was quite impactful in limited minutes against the Nets...but Brandon Clarke outplayed him the last time these two teams met (21 points, 7 rebounds). Clarke is simply too explosive and athletic for Whiteside, and this is a mismatch Memphis must find ways to exploit. The pick and roll (and even a pop or two) should be engaged early and often.
- Keep Carmelo quiet...but not too quiet. Anthony deserves credit for resurrecting his career. But every once and a while his inefficient scoring “older” self shows up - against both the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets Melo was 5-14 from the floor, and against Brooklyn he was 4-12. Combine that with a 2-8 performance against the Denver Nuggets, and in half the seeding games Anthony shot 33.3% from the field. Now in the other four he shot 55.6% from the floor (including 7-10 against the Grizzlies), so in a small sample size it’s a 50-50 proposition as to who will show up Saturday. Memphis needs to force Melo off his spots and make him move for his scoring...while making him feel like he’s just a shot away from heating up (when he’s not).
The last time these two squads stood toe to toe, Jaren Jackson Jr. went off for 33 points and dominated the game at times. Now, of course, Jaren is gone. So with him out, replacing that scoring must be a priority. The good news? Ja and Dillon shot 13-38 from the field in that game, and since this game was played both Grayson Allen and Anthony Tolliver have gained some confidence in newer, larger roles for the team. Despite having played one another so recently, Portland and Memphis are different now than they were then - for better and worse on both sides.
On a recent episode of our GBBLive podcast, I predicted that the Memphis Grizzlies (who were 0-4 at the time) would win three games in the Bubble. Since that time, they’ve won twice - against Oklahoma City and against Milwaukee. In order for my prediction to come true, Memphis must win this game and live to fight another day. I can’t back down now.
Damian Lillard and his Blazers are legit. But Ja Morant and the Grizzlies make the most of their moment on the national stage.
Memphis 124, Portland 121