Play-In Weigh In: How the Grizzlies and Blazers Stack Up

by August 14, 2020
Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers

The Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers will take part in the NBA’s first postseason play-in tournament this weekend. The winner will lay claim to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and get the chance to try their luck in the official playoff bracket.

We’ve broken down how the two teams line up against one another now and how they’ve fared previously this season.

How the NBA’s New Play-In Tournament Works

The Blazers will have the upperhand in the unprecedented battle given that they’ve now settled into the eighth-seed that had alluded them prior to the shutdown thanks to a sluggish start.

The Grizzlies, in contrast, have emerged from a cutthroat battle for the No. 9 seed and will need to steal not just one but two victories in order to advance.

The first game of the play-in tournament will take place on Saturday at 2:30 pm EST. If the Blazers win the tilt, they secure their spot in the bracket. If the Grizzlies win the first matchup, the clubs will play again on Sunday with the victor of that game earning the chance to move on.

Feb. 12, 2020: Grizzlies 111, Blazers 104

Despite the teams both hailing from the West, they only lined up once in the 60-plus games before the shutdown. Memphis won their lone battle, a February 12th affair immediately before the All-Star break.

Rookie Brandon Clarke paced the Grizz in the victory but the Jusuf Nurkic-less Blazers weren’t as healthy then as they are now. It was actually in this pre-Valentine’s Day matchup that Damian Lillard suffered the groin injury that took him out of the forthcoming All-Star Game.

July 31, 2020: Blazers 140, Grizzlies 135 (OT)

The Blazers and Grizzlies connected again in their first taste of bubble action after the four-month hiatus. Here Portland, now at close to full strength, outpaced Memphis in overtime thanks to big games from not only their star backcourt but veritable X-Factors like Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr.

Leading the way for Memphis in the loss was Jaren Jackson Jr. The unicorn chipped in 33 points, connecting on 6-of-15 threes but it wasn’t quite enough. Jackson Jr. played two more games before he was shelved for the remainder of the season with a torn meniscus.

Status Check

The Grizzlies will be without Jackson Jr. in the play-in tournament and won’t get the opportunity to debut trade deadline acquisition Justise Winslow on account of a hip injury either. It’s unlikely that reserve guard Tyus Jones sees action as well, given that knee issues have kept him out of all the bubble games thus far.

The Blazers will continue to play without swingman Rodney Hood, who suffered a torn Achilles in the regular season and is nowhere close to returning to game action.

Heating Up (Memphis)

  • Ja Morant appears to have made the incremental improvements one would expect from a standout rookie between his first and sophomore seasons. Scary. Morant, still very much a rookie, is scoring more in Orlando, flirting with double digit assists on a nightly basis and has generally put a Western Conference playoff contender on his 21-year-old shoulders.
  • Dillon Brooks, who has never been one to float passively through an offensive possession, has stepped up admirably in the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. The 24-year-old is averaging 20.1 points per game in the bubble and can lead the team in that column any night out.
  • Grayson Allen has thrived in the bubble, especially considering that it wasn’t even a sure thing that he’d even suit up given the hip injury he suffered in late January. Allen’s 13.6 points per game, including a .480 mark from beyond the arc, has fortified a rotation that will welcome all the help it can get in its first real taste of meaningful basketball.

Heating Up (Portland)

  • Damian Lillard is averaging a herculean 37.6 and 9.6 in the bubble and he’s not just padding his stats either. Lillard has been unstoppable in must-win game after must-win game. He’s scored 41, 61 and 51 points in his last three games.
  • Jusuf Nurkic was ready to return to action in the spring so the fact that he gained an additional four months of recovery time made his comeback that much more impressive. The big man has been better than ever at Disney World, averaging 17.6, 10.3 and 4.0.
  • Gary Trent Jr. has evolved from a fringe rotation piece to an outright scary second-tier scoring option. Don’t expect Trent Jr. to lead the way on offense every time out but he’s averaged 16.9 points per game in the bubble and can hurt an opponent that focuses too much on shutting down his teammates.

Why Root For The Grizzlies?

The Grizzlies have transitioned from their beloved Grit-n-Grind squad to one of the league’s most enviable young rosters in the blink of an eye and they’ve done so without fluke luck or any abnormally bold home run swings. Taylor Jenkins has built a winner out of a well-drafted, thoughtfully constructed roster in his first big league head coaching gig.

While the Grizzlies represent a responsibly executed rebuild, Morant deserves no shortage of attention for his role in dragging the Grizzlies into the playoff conversation. When future hoops fans look back on perennial All-Star Morant’s legacy, this campaign will be a major part of his origin story.

Why Root For The Blazers?

The beautiful thing about sports is that everything is earned and nothing given. Still, the mere concept of the Blazers not making into the playoffs just feels wrong. It’s hard to make a case that Portland isn’t a top-eight team in the West given that they made it to the conference finals last year. (Seriously, try it). It gets even harder when you consider the return of Nurkic to the lineup.

Portland’s arguably higher ceiling, then, could make for a more compelling first-round matchup with the Lakers. Throw in the side narrative of Anthony squaring off against long-time friend LeBron James in his bounce back campaign after years in hoops purgatory and it’s hard to resist.