WHEN: 5:30 PM CT
WHERE: HP Field House at the NBA Bubble in Orlando, Florida
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: ESPN/Fox Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Tyus Jones (out, knee), Justise Winslow (out, hip)
NEW ORLEANS: Darius Miller (out, Achilles)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas
NEW ORLEANS: Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Derrick Favors
This game has lost a bit of its luster, hasn’t it?
Before the seeding slate officially began, folks circled this game as a key one because it may be a preview of what was to come in terms of the play-in. Zion vs. Ja. The NBA’s “anointed ones” vs. the ones that are crashing the party. All the stories wrote themselves - two of the youngest teams in the NBA with the brightest futures competing for the chance to meet up with the current king of the Association LeBron James in the first round of the playoffs.
The problem with that? Veteran teams exist.
While the Grizzlies have competed admirably in their first two games in Orlando the Trail Blazers and Spurs had older players that were more experienced and able to make plays when there were most needed than Memphis. The Pelicans let a game against a similar style of squad veteran wise, the Jazz, slip away and then got absolutely blasted by the title contending Los Angeles Clippers.
Now? Two teams face off today on ESPN with the loser very likely losing control of what their destiny was entering this restart. A Grizzlies defeat could very well put them a game away from surrendering the 8 seed to the Spurs or Blazers. A loss for the Pelicans would push them further away from the play-in, and with the uncertain health situation facing Zion Williamson perhaps a tough decision for what is best for the franchise in the long run.
It’s still a very interesting contest. Just for different reasons than originally anticipated.
Here’s what to watch for.
Ja vs. the Pelicans’ wings
“But Ja is a point guard - he won’t be defended by wings”. That’s probably what you just thought to yourself. But here the definition of wing is literal - the arms of Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball will have a huge role in the contest this evening. Jrue (6’3” with a 6’7” wingspan) and Lonzo (6’6” with a 6’9” wingspan) both have the length and lateral foot speed to give Morant fits. The last time these two teams faced off Ja had 16 points on 12 shots but only three assists, and in the previous game between NOLA and Memphis Morant had nine assists but only 16 pojnts on 14 shots. Ja has scored 20+ in both Bubble games so far, and his offensive impact as both a passer and a scorer is more important than ever before.
But bigger, longer guards have been issues for Morant in the past. The good news? Last night against Dejounte Murray (6’4” with a 6’10” wingspan) Ja had some success as he showed some layers of hesitation and handle that weren’t in his repertoire the last time these squads tangled. That will be needed in this game and then some if Memphis hopes to get back to winning basketball.
Defend the perimeter
A disturbing trend has developed for Memphis in two bubble games. Portland and San Antonio have combined to shoot 25-59 from beyond the arc against the Grizzlies. Believe it or not this was a strength of this young Memphis team during the season - opponents shot 36.4% from three against the Grizzlies over the 65 pre-bubble contests, meaning that if we took that same 59 shot attempts number from above and applied that average percentage instead of the current roughly 42.4% those squads would have made 21.5 threes instead of those 25. Round up to 22 if you’d like - do the math. Nine fewer points. Memphis has lost two games by a total of seven points.
Seems a little relevant, right?
It’s not a perfect comparison. The Grizzlies could be better in several areas. But when it comes to the Pelicans in particular, three point barrages came early and often. 21 for 48 from three in one contest, 15 of 34 in another. 36 for 82 total - or 43.9%. That’s a heck of a lot better than their 37.9% average, but that number makes NOLA one of the top three point shooting teams in the NBA.
Which Memphis has struggled with a good bit so far in the Bubble. It must be a priority in this one, or the Grizzlies will fall - and fall hard.
According to FanDuel New Jersey the Pelicans are a four point favorite to win this game tonight. To be honest, it probably could be higher. New Orleans didn’t just beat Memphis twice this season - they obliterated them. The Grizzlies were outclassed on both occasions, and both teams had injury claims in both games. In this game it is Memphis that is less healthy than NOLA, and that could very well make all the difference.
This is a crossroads for these Grizzlies in the bubble. A loss puts them at 0-3 heading in to five more games they most likely will not be favored in, and probably by larger margins than four. The “winnable” games have passed and they lost them in the closing moments while older players made the most of opportunities for the opposition. The good news? The Pelicans are young too. If Memphis can attack a weak New Orleans defense inside (a strength of the Grizzlies) and contain their perimeter might, they have a fighting chance.
Perhaps tonight is the night their resilience is rewarded. That’s why it’s called “Believe Memphis”, right?
Memphis 120, New Orleans 118