After a 141-day hiatus from NBA basketball, 22 teams enter the bubble fighting for 16 playoff spots. We are down to 17 that still have a chance of winning an NBA title. The eight seeding games in Orlando, Florida didn’t change the playoff picture all that much. The Lakers and Bucks still sit atop the two conferences and apart from a flip flop between the Heat and Pacers and a slide from the Utah Jazz, things are still relatively the same from where we stood when the NBA was suspended on March 11.
However, the race for the two play-in spots in the Western Conference was anything but predictable. The Memphis Grizzlies entered the bubble with a 3.5-game lead. They completely lost it in seven games. Then, in an otherwise unfortunate eight games that saw Jaren Jackson Jr. tear his meniscus, Memphis got gifted by Giannis Antetokounmpo when he headbutted Moe Wagner and got suspended for their last play-in game. Ja Morant and company beat the Bucks to secure the nine seed in their final game.
Portland made the run everyone was expecting them to make. They went 6-2 with a pair of losses by a total of nine points combined. Damian Lillard scored 51, 61 and 42 points in their last three games and they jumped all the way into the eight spot.
The Phoenix Suns went 8-0 and did it quite convincingly. The team everyone thought was given an unnecessary chance to come to the bubble showed up and put themselves in a position to get a play-in spot on the final day. The future might actually be bright for the Suns. San Antonio made a valiant effort to continue their 22-game playoff streak. Meanwhile, the Pelicans went 2-6 and quickly played themselves out of contention while Zion, for the most part, watched from the bench.
Now, we are left with two teams: the Grizzlies and Blazers. The task is simple. For Memphis, they have to win two straight if they want to take on the Lakers in round one of the Western Conference Playoffs. The job is much easier for Portland who, as the eight seed, needs just one win to continue playing.
Portland – CJ McCollum: Clouded by Lillard’s greatness has been the fact that McCollum has been largely inconsistent in the bubble. He’s only shot better than 44% twice and had just three games with over 20 points. His best game came against Memphis in the first game in Orlando when he had 33 points on 14-of-21 shooting. Since then he’s been uninspiring, largely due to a back injury that he is dealing with. However, in his career, McCollum is averaging 21.6 points per game while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from the 3-point line against Memphis. He’s a Memphis killer, the second half of one of the scariest backcourts in the NBA and a very important piece for the Blazers if they want to make a run. The play-in game is no exception to that.
Memphis – Ja Morant: This seems obvious, but the soon-to-be rookie of the year needs to be incredible for Memphis on both ends of the floor for them to win back-to-back games against a better Portland team. He’s been really good at times, but also struggled on the offensive end to put the ball in the basket. He’s had multiple sub-37% shooting nights in Orlando and without Jackson Jr., a lot of the offense will have to go through him both as a scorer and facilitator. Everyone around him, Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, is at the top of their games when Morant is at the top of his which will be crucial without the presence of JJJ.
Key Matchup: Jonas Valanciunas vs. Jusuf Nurkic
Valanciunas is coming off maybe his best performance of the regular season against the Bucks. He scored 26 points, 12 assists and 19 rebounds in a must-win game vs. Milwaukee. The Grizzlies have been at their best when they play inside out starting with Valanciunas. This young ball club can get sucked in to too many contested jump shots and stray away from playing through the middle. Without JJJ, the interior responsibilities fall largely on Valanciunas to guard, and score on, Jusuf Nurkic. The last time these two teams played on July 31, JV got into foul trouble early and played just 14 minutes. He’ll have to stay on the floor for Memphis to have any chance. Nurkic’s return from injury is the reason Portland looks like the top six Western Conference team that they actually are as he’s averaging 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds in Orlando.
Portland advances if…
They defend the 3-point line. The only way Memphis wins two games straight is if they shoot it really well. In Portland’s two losses, the Celtics and Clippers were 33-of-64 combined from beyond the arc. The triple is the ultimate equalizer and it cost the Blazers in multiple games and almost bit them again against Brooklyn who knocked down 14 triples on Aug. 13. Portland is the better basketball team, but allowing the Grizzlies to knock down 14-18 threes makes winning basketball games a lot tougher.
Memphis advances if…
Everything goes right. Memphis is up against it without Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow (who suffered a hip injury prior to the resuming of play). They need Ja Morant to be the second-best player on the floor for all 96 minutes. They need Valanciunas to stay on the floor for upwards of 35 minutes of each game and make a huge impact in both contests. They need to control Lillard to a certain extent and not let McCollum do what he’s done to Memphis for his entire career. They need to shoot the ball well so that players like Brooks and Allen actually have an impact on the game, something both players struggle to do if they aren’t shooting it well. And finally, they need to do something this young team hasn’t really had to do before: win back-to-back games with no room for error in a win-and-your-in, lose-and-you-leave environment.