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Two Paths Converged: An Ecstatic Damian Lillard, A Humbled Morant.

Western Conference play-in preview

It’s all settled. The Damian Lillard led  Portland Trailblazers (8th) will face the Memphis Grizzlies (9th), to determine who will get into the Western Conference Playoffs of the NBA Playoffs.  It has been a dizzying two weeks. Remember the New Orleans Pelicans easy peasy schedule, the NBA’s presumptive bubble darling, and “preferred” outcome for the play-in?  Conspiratorial fever dreams fade fast.  Zion-truthers will have to find a new grassy knoll, because even the Kings twice couldn’t get this team right.  The Pelicans showed up flat, Zion showed up fat, and that was that.  As for Phoenix, the fightin’ Cameron Payne’s they did literally everything in their power to salvage an up and down season and became the sweethearts of the bubble in the process.

If the Suns were damned to fail, the Grizzlies were damned to succeed. The Suns went two of eight in Orlando, with wins against an OKC team who started ordering room service at halftime, and a Bucks team that gave Thanasis Antetokounmpo 18 minutes and Giannis none.  The Grizzlies came into Orlando knowing the difficulty of their schedule, what they could not have known was that they would lose their best player.  Jaren Jackson Jr. was averaging 25 ppg, 1.7 blks, and most importantly for a Grizzlies team struggling to shoot the ball, Jackson was a 38% three-point shooter on nine attempts per game. Almost 40% of Jackson shots in Orlando were coming from behind the arc.

Saturday’s play-in game of the NBA Playoffs will be a repeat of the Grizzlies and Blazers back and forth bubble opener. A game that saw fifteen lead changes before the Blazers finally pulled away in overtime.  The good news for the Grizzlies is that they stood toe to toe with the Blazers, taking the re-start MVP Damian Lillard down to the wire. The bad news is they owe it all to Jaren Jackson Jr.

JJJ had 33 points with 6 threes on that distant July 31st afternoon, fueling a pivotal Grizzlies third-quarter comeback.  It’s no coincidence that the Grizzlies third-quarter run came with Jackson at the 5.  After starting the game Valanciunas would play only 14 total minutes and for good reason, Jackson’s combination of size, speed, and shooting gave Portland fits.

Look at the series of moves JJJ puts on Nurkic here, the handle in traffic.

And now, the straight-line speed and euro!

Highlights like this may be few and far between for the Grizzlies in Saturday’s rematch with the Blazers.  The loss of Jackson will allow Nurkic to return comfortably to Valanciunas, and place more of a spotlight on Morant’s shooting woes.  Teams have sold out on taking driving lanes away from Morant in Orlando while giving him pretty much any three-point shot he wants. Morant for his part has responded by shooting 22.5% from three.

The Trailblazers come into the play-in off a panic-attack of a win against the Brooklyn Nets.  The Nets did everything they could to contain and frustrate Lillard in the hopes of forcing anyone else to beat them, and they did, just barely.  The Nets dug deep into the bag of tricks to force the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, even implementing the ol’ Steph Curry special; the box and one in the 4th quarter.  It’s a game the Grizzlies would be wise to learn from as they mostly guarded Damian Lillard straight up in their first meeting in Orlando splitting the majority of duty between De’Anthony Melton and Dillon Brooks. But they’ll need to get creative to pull out one win let alone two against this inspired Blazers team.

Damian Lillard’s bubble performance has been ecstatic, in the full mystical sense of the word.  It goes beyond leading by example, it’s leading as exemplar. I’m not sure a healthy Grizzlies team could face down a seemingly providential Blazers squad, let alone the current roster. But with their season on the line, the Grizzlies owe it to themselves and their surprising 2019-20 campaign to find a little inspiration of their own.

 

The play-in game schedule for the NBA Playoffs:

August 15th, 2020, 1:30(CT) on ABC

August 16th, 2020, 3:30(CT) on ESPN (if necessary)

Written by Shay Youngblood

Shay lives in New Orleans and writes about Basketball and other American arts.

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