The Portland Trail Blazers have been fantastic since the season restart, and all their hard work in the bubble finally paid off on Thursday following a hard-fought victory over the Brooklyn Nets, 134-133. This win locked in the Blazers for the eighth spot in the West, as they now face off against the ninth-placed Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA play-in round series to determine who among them clinches a playoffs berth.
Aside from the undeniable momentum they have going for them, Portland also has Damian Lillard, who has emerged as the best player in the bubble thus far. Moreover, the Blazers hold a twice-to-beat advantage over the Grizzlies, so obviously, they are the clear favorites here, right?
Grizzlies Blazers Play-In Breakdown
Well, yes, but also, no — at least not so fast. Below are three key factors that might just lead to Memphis upsetting the Blazers in this unprecedented NBA play-in round series.
Grizzlies Defense is Key
There’s no denying that the Blazers own one of the most potent offensive weapons in the league right now in Lillard. However, when you look at the other side of the spectrum, their defense leaves a lot to be desired — and that’s putting it nicely.
In eight games inside the bubble, the Blazers have allowed their opponents to score an average of 125.6 points on them. The most points they’ve allowed thus far is notably, the 135 points the Grizzlies themselves dropped on them in an opening night win for Portland (they scored 140).
This is not something new for the Blazers. Over the course of the entire season, Portland ranks 26th in the entire league with 116.1 points allowed. For a little bit of perspective, even the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Golden State Warriors hold their opponents to fewer points on average as compared to the Blazers.
The Grizzlies can take advantage of this huge chink in Portland’s armor. They have a tremendous scorer in Ja Morant, and with Memphis playing like they have nothing to lose, the pressure will definitely be on the Blazers.
Much has been made about how Lillard has been so dominant since the restart. He has become the front-runner for the seeding games MVP, and for good reason. The 30-year-old has averaged 37.6 points (on 49.7 percent shooting), 4.3 rebounds, 9.6 assists, and 1.4 steals in 41.7 minutes per contest. Simply put, he has undeniably carried the weight of the franchise on his broad shoulders over the past couple of weeks.
The big question now is how much gas he has left in his tank. Even Lillard himself admitted how tired he is.
“I’ll always be fine mentally. I’m never concerned about that. I think physically we’ll all be a little bit fatigued. But it wont be what it usually is,” Lillard said, via Mark Medina of USA Today. “Every year we go into the playoffs there is fatigue coming off of 82 games. Right now, we basically had a four month break and a short training camp and these eight games. So even though we will be fatigued because of how fast the turnaround is, it won’t be nowhere near what it usually is when you get to the playoffs.”
When they face the Grizzlies, he will be tasked with defending a 21-year-old rookie in Morant, which is not going to be an easy task. Being the competitor that he is, Lillard will surely do everything he can from trying to prevent an explosion from the young rookie, which will further deplete whatever energy he has in his engine.
We’re not even going to get into how the Blazers will fare against a rested Los Angeles Lakers side in the first round of the playoffs should they manage a win against the Grizzlies.
NBA Play-In Round Injury Concerns
In relation to Lillard’s fatigue factor, another thing that needs to be considered are Portland’s injury woes. As a matter of fact, the Blazers being banged up is yet another reason why Lillard has had to carry this team more than he is usually required to.
It was recently reported that CJ McCollum has been playing through a bad back, and the effects of the same has shown in his recent shooting slump. Over the past three contests, the 28-year-old is shooting just 34.6 percent from the field and a miserable 17.6 percent from distance. The usually reliable McCollum has gone 3-of-17 from distance in their previous three outings, and surely, his fractured back has been a huge factor in his poor shooting of late.
Likewise, Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic isn’t a hundred percent. Coming off a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to a broken leg , it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that the 7-foot center made his season debut for the Blazers. His foot is fine, but he had ice packs on his knees and ankle during the post-game presser. He has been productive, but there’s no denying that he hasn’t reached prime form just yet.
Portland head coach Terry Stots himself admitted that the injuries have taken their toll:
“We were happy, and we’re excited to be in the play-in round. But it’s not like we were jumping up and down. We were hurt,” Stotts said. “We’re where we wanted to be. I don’t think anybody is over the moon right now. We just know we have a tough opponent in Memphis so there is no time to really celebrate.”
When you factor all of this in, a young and scrappy Memphis side who are playing with something to prove might just be able to use this to their advantage. Again, there’s not much pressure on the Grizzlies coming in, so the Blazers might just be in for a surprise.