ORLANDO — Suddenly, much like a jump ball, the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference is up for grabs. It is the only real suspense for the next few weeks as the NBA sifts through the seeded games portion of the restart to learn who wants LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the first round.
One team, the Pelicans, is bringing a maybe-sorta-kinda approach. As competitors, yes of course, the Pelicans want the playoffs. As protectors of their investment by allowing Zion Williamson to play catch-up on his conditioning program, the Pelicans are placing a higher value on the future.
Another team, the Grizzlies, currently hold that eighth spot but with a tough schedule ahead, their grip is more tenuous today. That’s because they dropped their reboot opener, and not just to any team but perhaps their biggest threat.
That’s the Trail Blazers, now revamped after adding a few missing pieces and certainly refreshed after grinding out an overtime win Friday over the Grizzlies and planting the seed of concern in Memphis.
Momentum and fate have a wicked way of shifting on a whim, and so nothing will be settled anytime soon. Especially not this weekend. Still, there’s little on the line right now for the Bucks or Clippers or Lakers or the 12 other teams currently holding playoff spots.
Meanwhile, the drama is mainly confined realistically to three teams, perhaps four if you believe in the Kings, all making their case for making a few months spent on lockdown at Disney World seem worthwhile.
Plenty of intensity and urgency was compressed into 53 minutes when the Blazers and Grizzlies engaged in a competitive and at times chippy game. There were four technical fouls called for taunting and trash talking because, without fans, the refs can hear everything now. But more than anything, the two teams knew what was at stake.
The Blazers won because this wasn’t your pre-pandemic Blazers team. They’ve since added size with center Jusuf Nurkic and power forward Zach Collins joining a starting lineup that added newcomer Carmelo Anthony last winter. Nurkic played an official game for the first time in 16 months after a gruesome leg injury, and Collins since October after a shoulder injury.
Both big men had moments, yet it was 'Melo hitting a pair of late 3-pointers in regulation to give the new and improved Blazers an opportunity to triumph in OT.
“We let our experience take over down the stretch,” said Damian Lillard. “Once it came down to it, I think we showed we were also the team that wanted it more.”
Nurkic revealed that his grandmother is battling COVID-19 and devoted the game to her, saying he’s carried that burden since arriving in Orlando.
Lillard said: “The fact that he was able to still show up and get his work done it shows how much it means to him, with everything he has going on with his family back home. To keep his mind with the team in spite of everything wearing him down makes it more impressive. Good to see him back.”
The Blazers began the game behind the eight (spot) ball. They need to either be within four games of the Grizzlies to force a mini-play-in game for the playoff spot, if they can’t overtake Memphis outright by late next week.
“We need as many wins as possible," said CJ McCollum, who led the Blazers with 33 points.
The Grizzlies’ lead is now 2 1/2 games over the Blazers, and they have a rigid schedule ahead. Their margin for error is larger than their pursuers, but any skid could allow panic to set in on a scrappy but young team.
“We’re going to take it a game at a time,” said Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins. “We’re not going to ride the highs and lows of whatever comes our way. One game, one loss isn’t going to dictate anything. We’re just gonna play and take it from there.”
Meanwhile, the Pelicans are in a bind. They must temper any urge to go heavy with Williamson's minutes, which obviously has a negative side effect. Less Williamson means less of a chance to make a serious bid for eighth.
Pelicans president David Griffin went through the unusual step of addressing the media Friday specifically about Zion, who played only 15 minutes Thursday in a two-point loss to Utah and was the best player on the floor in that span.
Griffin said because Williamson missed 13 days of practice to tend to a family matter, he fell behind the pace set by the team’s performance and conditioning staff, which placed every player on a specific schedule. Zion must therefore “ramp up” before he can play extended minutes, and unfortunately with the start of the seeded games, the amount of practice time has dwindled.
"Our performance team had a very clear plan laid out," Griffin said. "That plan included scrimmage minutes. Zion didn’t get that opportunity. He was called away. He’s 13 days removed from the group in terms of following that plan, and this is after not playing basketball after four months.
"Everyone wants him to play 40 minutes and I can promise you he’s not going to. It’s not complicated. He will not play significant minutes in the next game and may not the following game. He didn’t get the benefits that his teammates got for those 13 days.”
Griffin said he understands the precarious nature of the chase for the eighth spot, with only seven games left and almost no margin for error.
“He’s Zion," Griffin said. "The league office takes as much interest as the fans. I’m just frustrated that there has to be a conspiracy theory involved when there hasn’t been one thing done different with him than it would for every player on this roster.
"But because the stakes are raised and unfortunately we were selected for seven national TV games, we’re supposed to reinvent the wheel. It’s not fair to the kid and so on his behalf I’m frustrated for sure. We’re trying to navigate a difficult situation.”
With the Pelicans facing stiff competition for eighth place, they may not have the benefit of time. This isn’t November. This is the 2019-20 restart, where every game counts as the calendar flips to August, of all months. Eighth place is on the line. The playoffs await the winner.
Or rather, the survivor.
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