MikeCheck: Growth opportunities await Grizzlies every step on Disney journey to playoffs
MEMPHIS – Eight more games, eight more opportunities to grit, grind and grow.
That’s the very least the Grizzlies can count on when they depart for Orlando next week to continue preparations for the NBA’s restart of the 2019-20 season. But to know these Grizzlies is to easily comprehend they’re gearing up for so much more than the bare minimum experience among 22 teams that will gather at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex.
The stage is set for the NBA to rekindle its sprint to the postseason with an eight-game “seeding” schedule that commences in late July. The purpose of those eight games is to lock in the 16-team Eastern and Western conference playoff field.
But make no mistake about it. The NBA’s return is far less a priority than combating the ongoing Coronavirus crisis as our nation also grapples with systemic racism and social injustice. Which, to me, is why leveraging the league’s platform to raise awareness and shine meaningful light on the country’s powerful and pressing issues is every bit as important as crowning a NBA champ.
For the Grizzlies and other teams, this months-long campus/bubble experience at Disney’s resorts will be far from a joyride. But if nothing else, this carnation of NBA hoops can and should offer a sense of hope on multiple fronts.
For these Grizzlies, on the simplest level, it serves as a chance to finish the encouraging season they started. They head to Orlando sitting eighth in the West standings and with a 3 ½-games lead for the conference’s final playoff spot, with eight games to play to solidify their place.
Just behind the Grizzlies (32-33) are three teams essentially tied for ninth-place in the Blazers (29-37), Pelicans (28-36) and Kings (28-36). Memphis was a combined 2-5 against those teams before the seasons was suspended in March. And positioned ahead of the Grizzlies is a shot to make the postseason for the first time in three years.
To secure the No. 8 seed and advance directly to the playoffs, the Grizzlies must finish more than four games ahead of the ninth-place team in the West. If those teams finish separated by four or fewer games in the standings, they would face each other in a play-in series that requires just one victory by the No. 8 team but two by the No. 9 team to advance.
Regardless how this plays out, the Grizzlies are ahead of schedule as the youngest squad in the 22-team Orlando field. A franchise that repositioned its front-office, rebuilt its coaching staff and roster and rebranded its mantra wasn’t supposed to get to this point this soon with first-year coach Taylor Jenkins, rookie of the year frontrunner Ja Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. leading the way. In other words, this group carries house money to Disney.
And amid this kind of growth spurt, it’s okay to get a bit greedy. There are expectations with this expedition for the Grizzlies to hold their position and finish what they started this season.
So forget the “seeding games” distinction of their initial contests in Orlando. The postseason essentially starts now for the up-and-coming Grizzlies, and here’s why each of their first eight games at Disney are vital for their development on the way to snagging a playoff berth:
July 31, 3pm: Grizzlies vs Blazers
It’s only fitting the first game back is against the last team the Grizzlies were set to face before the season was suspended in March. This is both a statement game and a nationally televised tilt for the Grizzlies and Blazers, currently positioned eighth and ninth in the West, respectively. A Memphis win over Damian Lillard and the Blazers at the outset in Orlando pushes Portland 4 ½ games back and outside the “play-in” threshold. The Grizzlies already notched a confidence-boosting home win over the Blazers heading into the All-Star break, and will catch a Portland team that will be without Trevor Ariza and possibly another player opting out of Orlando.
Aug. 2, 3pm: Grizzlies vs Spurs
The Grizzlies catch a second opponent in as many games that will be missing a key contributor. This time it’s the Spurs, who are without their second most productive player in veteran All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge because of shoulder surgery. The Grizzlies are 2-1 against the Spurs this season, a series that featured Memphis’ worst defensive effort in surrendering 145 points in a December loss and one of its best offensive outputs in a 134-point outburst in a January win. The combination of Aldridge’s absence and the Spurs already being four games back of the Grizzlies just might render Orlando as a de facto summer league for Gregg Popovich’s team.
Aug. 3, 5:30pm: Grizzlies vs Pelicans
Once again in the national spotlight, the Grizzlies can quiet some skeptics who insist Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are destined to overtake them for the eighth seed. New Orleans won both meetings this season against Memphis, spoiling the MLK Celebration game in January with a three-point barrage and then pounding the Grizzlies inside the paint at Smoothie King Center a month later. The Pelicans first face solid playoff teams in the Jazz and Clippers before the Grizzlies, who could deliver a staggering blow to their Mississippi River rival. But the Grizzlies will be playing the second end of a back-to-back set, while the Pelicans will be rested.
Aug. 5, 1:30pm: Grizzlies vs Jazz
The trend continues as the Grizzlies go against a team that won’t be at full strength from the outset in Orlando. The Jazz won’t have the services of sharp-shooting swingman Bojan Bogdanovic because of wrist surgery as Utah scrambles to replace his 20.2 points per game. In addition to that, NBA defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert reportedly still is dealing with lingering complications from his COVID-19 diagnosis in March that led to the NBA shutdown. The Grizzlies dropped two of three against the Jazz this season, with all three of those matchups coming before the start of 2020 and before Memphis reloaded at the trade deadline.
Aug. 7, 3pm: Grizzlies vs Thunder
The Grizzlies faced one of the toughest closing schedules before play was halted. In addition to preserving their standing in the playoff picture, the NBA made sure the Grizzlies maintained the same level of difficulty in the eight-game slate. The Thunder were quietly one of the most dangerous teams in the league, having won 17 of their last 22 games. Their rotation of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder is arguably the NBA’s most lethal three-guard lineup. But the Grizzlies avenged their biggest collapse after squandering a 24-point, second-half lead at OKC by knocking off the Thunder a week later to underscore their growth.
Aug. 9, 1pm: Grizzlies vs Raptors
One of the bright spots of the original schedule was a March 28 home game against the Raptors, when Memphis was to welcome back franchise stalwart Marc Gasol on his first trip to FedExForum since last year’s trade. That homecoming will have to wait until next season, but the Grizzlies instead get the defending NBA champs at Disney. By this point in the “seeding” schedule, the Grizzlies and Raptors may have locked in their positions in the standings in their respective conferences. And the Grizzlies only have four players left who even played with Gasol. The absence of fans will also take away from the moment, but it’ll still have meaning.
Aug. 11, 5:30pm: Grizzlies vs Celtics
The Celtics are gaining momentum as a legit threat to make noise down in Orlando on the East side. That makes them another significant measuring stick for the Grizzlies as they close out the final “seeding” games against another East juggernaut. If the Grizzlies maintain the eighth spot and line up a first-round matchup against LeBron and the Lakers, this is the type of sparring partner they’ll need to help get them ready. Since homecourt advantage doesn’t really apply in Orlando, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics might play it safe and rest up at this point. But Memphis won’t forget that January massacre suffered in Boston, where it trailed by as much as 38 points.
Aug. 13, TBD: Grizzlies vs Bucks
Already up 6 ½ games for the No. 1 seed in the East entering the restart, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks won’t need to accomplish much other than staying healthy and regaining rhythm in these tune-ups. In fact, if the Grizzlies face any of the Bucks’ top players, something has gone terribly wrong for the favorites to come out of the East. Of course, by now, the Grizzlies should have their work done heading into this “seeding” finale, too. So if all goes according to plan, expect a low-stakes, friendly chess match between Jenkins, his former team and closest mentor in Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer as all involved get ready for the playoffs.
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