MikeCheck: Amid NBA’s encouraging COVID results, Grizzlies eager for this week’s return to league play
MEMPHIS – Advanced metrics and analytics have been key components of the Grizzlies’ preparation since Taylor Jenkins took over as coach last summer.
But few sets of numbers were as essential and encouraging as the basic figures Jenkins shared with his players and staff as the Grizzlies approach their first exhibition game on the NBA’s Disney campus. According to the league’s latest round of results released Monday, zero of the 346 NBA players tested for COVID-19 since July 13 inside the Orlando bubble have returned positive for the virus.
That major development comes with the NBA set to return to action for the first time in more than four months when teams begin their scrimmage schedules on Wednesday. The Grizzlies, who are among the 22 teams gathered in Orlando for the NBA’s restart, open their three-game scrimmage slate with Friday’s matchup against the Sixers on the Disney campus.
“It’s very encouraging and the NBA is doing an unbelievable job,” Jenkins said of the health and safety measures the league has in place. “This is unprecedented and the first time something like this has been created. Everyone has taken this serious. They recognize the importance of bringing basketball back to our great fans. Speaking for our team, I think our guys have really dialed in on following the protocols. We’ve found our routine here, and the staff that’s doing the testing here has done a phenomenal job.”
Minimizing the risk and potential spread of COVID-19 has been the top priority in the NBA’s quest to resume the season this month after the global pandemic forced the suspension of play in March. Several players remain quarantined and have yet to join their respective teams inside the bubble because of previous positive COVID-19 tests. But the latest round of test results, from samples taken since teams gathered on the Disney campus two weeks ago, represent the clearest sign of progress amid the restart.
Nearly two dozen players had tested positive during the NBA’s previous two rounds of testing, which were administered in the days and weeks before teams were cleared to start practicing at Disney.
This is unprecedented and the first time something like this has been created. Everyone has taken this serious. They recognize the importance of bringing basketball back to our great fans. Speaking for our team, I think our guys have really dialed in on following the protocols. We’ve found our routine here, and the staff that’s doing the testing here has done a phenomenal job.
Jenkins said the latest results from the NBA’s COVID testing were some of “the first stats” he looked at as he gathered the team for practice this week. Until Justise Winslow's hip injury last night, Memphis had been among teams that have had their full roster available for practices since arriving in Orlando earlier this month to quarantine for the restart.
During Monday’s video conference with the media, Jenkins, point guard Ja Morant and swingman Anthony Tolliver all wore masks on the call as they spoke to reporters remotely. It was perhaps a symbolic gesture to underscore how the Grizzlies are among teams strictly following safety guidelines.
“Absolutely,” said Tolliver, a Players Association executive committee member who helped the NBA formulate guidelines for the Disney bubble. “For the most part, guys are trying to follow the rules, even though sometimes it can be an inconvenience. I’m literally here talking to a screen and I’ve got a mask on. So, it is what it is. That’s what they told me to do, so I’m doing it.”
The Grizzlies (32-33) head into their July 31 restart opener against Portland holding a 3 ½-games lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Following the scrimmage schedule, teams will play eight “seeding” games to solidify the 16-team playoff field.
For the most part, guys are trying to follow the rules, even though sometimes it can be an inconvenience. I’m literally here talking to a screen and I’ve got a mask on. So, it is what it is. That’s what they told me to do, so I’m doing it.
With the NBA on track to get back to action, our group of Southwest Division “insiders” convene one last time before the games begin to break down the top storylines from the Disney bubble. In this installment, our scouting report examines the key players and teams to keep an eye on and which Southwest Division opponents give our respective squads the biggest headaches.
In terms of scoreboard-watching, which West teams will you most closely be following during the round of seeding games?
From the Grizzlies vantage point, I’ll be keeping a very close eye on the Kings. I understand how most national NBA pundits have anointed the Pelicans as the biggest threat to Memphis for the No. 8 seed. But I don’t think many folks are giving De’Aaron Fox and the Kings enough respect for the way they’ve played, especially in the weeks before the hiatus hit. The Kings have a 3-1 record against Memphis this season, and if they can finish ahead of the Pelicans and Blazers to force a play-in series, it could get very interesting in the West’s quest for that final playoff spot. Of course, COVID issues and injury concerns with Fox and forward Marvin Bagley III could derail the Kings before they get restarted.
For the Mavs, I will be most closely watching Houston and Oklahoma City. Those two teams are 1 ½-games ahead of the Mavs. Catching one of them and moving into sixth or even catching both and moving up to five is possible. The benefit of that is probably avoiding the Clippers in the first round. As I noted before, all West playoff opponents will be tough but ideally you would like to avoid the Clippers and Lakers as long as possible. So moving up would be nice. Houston and Oklahoma City are close enough to Dallas that it could happen, especially since Dallas plays Houston in its first game on July 31.
It’s a three-way tie between Denver, Utah and Oklahoma City. Nikola Jokic’s uncertainty could hurt the Nuggets from posting a winning record in the bubble. Bojan Bogdanovic’s injury and chemistry concerns between Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert could make things very interesting for Utah. A healthy Chris Paul late in the season makes OKC a dangerous first-round opponent. The Rockets believe the No. 3 seed is well within their reach. But like most teams, the Rockets believe that seeding this year doesn’t really matter.
Memphis has a 3 ½-games lead on New Orleans, so for the Pelicans to even be eligible for the play-in round, they must win at least as many seeding games as the Grizzlies. Portland may be the next biggest short-term priority, because unlike Sacramento and San Antonio, the Trail Blazers have a tiebreaking edge on the Pelicans – which means New Orleans must win at least one more seeding game than the Blazers. Although the results from other games figure to be important to some extent, the Pelicans are fortunate that they have four head-to-head matchups against teams they’re vying with in the standings.
Just because of proximity, the Spurs will be a team to watch closely as they try to advance to the postseason for an NBA-record 23rd consecutive season without their second-leading scorer (LaMarcus Aldridge) in the fold. San Antonio’s brass says the team “will compete,” but made it sound like evaluating young talent such as Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson would be the priority in Orlando. Anybody within the Spurs organization would tell you that coach Gregg Popovich is at his best in the most chaotic situations. Well, this NBA restart sort of qualifies as that. Popovich will have to coach his butt off and hope the Spurs’ youngsters will be able to match the production of DeMar DeRozan for them to have a real shot at a 23rd straight postseason appearance.
While they won’t admit it publicly, who is the opposing player from the division your team fears/respects/struggles with the most?
Kristaps Porzingis. The Grizzlies have been at a loss trying to find an answer for the 7-3 super-versatile unicorn. And that makes Memphis just like most other NBA teams. Porzingis shoots over smaller defenders with ease and is quicker and more agile than bulkier players. His three-point range is limitless, and there’s no way to combat his length in the lane. His 29 points a game against Memphis are his most against any foe this season, and he also added 11.5 boards and three assists. There are no weaknesses in his game, especially when facing the Grizzlies.
Even though he’s had some not so good games at times in the past, I would say it is James Harden. Rick Carlisle said earlier this year that Houston’s style is maddening to play against. They are committed to their system to the highest degree and Harden’s relentless attacking style of course is a challenge defensively to keep him out of the lane and off the free-throw line. The Mavs may have their day against him in some games, but overall he’s the toughest player night in night out right now for this team to prepare for in the Southwest Division.
Like the rest of the league, Luka Doncic causes problems all over the floor for the Rockets. I feel like he is one of the few players in the league that shoots the ball as well with a hand in his face as he does when he is wide open.
Luka Doncic had one very poor game against New Orleans during his rookie season (2 of 8 FGs, eight points). But since then, he’s played at a ridiculous level, helping to lead Dallas to a 4-0 sweep over the Pelicans this season. He scored 25-plus points in all four matchups, despite logging less than 30 minutes in two of those games (both were Dallas routs). He shot 50 percent from the field and nearly averaged a triple-double (28.5 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 8.5 apg).
Well, some of you were in the Smoothie King Center the night of Jan. 22 when Zion Williamson made his debut against the Spurs. In three minutes and eight seconds of pure brilliance that included 17 straight points in the fourth quarter and a 4-of-4 performance from 3-point range, Williamson made nearly everybody in that arena forget that the Spurs actually won that game. And remember, that’s when the Spurs actually had Aldridge in the fold. I’m not sure San Antonio has answers for both Williamson and Brandon Ingram. Pop respects Jrue Holiday immensely as well. So, you could say the Pelicans have a few opposing players that San Antonio might struggle to defend.
Who’s the “under-the-radar” opposing player from the division who seems to give your team trouble?
Jrue Holiday. Looking past Zion Williamson, either of Dallas’ young anchors and either of Houston’s MVPs, the player who quietly yet absolutely gives the Grizzlies absolute fits is the Pelicans’ vet combo guard. Holiday has been a beast on both ends of the floor in two victories over the Grizzlies, averaging 27 points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. On top of that, Holiday shot 60 percent on threes and 57.6 percent overall against Memphis. He’s done it by adequately defending Ja Morant on one end and sparking offense on the other.
Not sure how under-the-radar he is since this is a fairly recent former All-Star but DeMar DeRozan gives Dallas a lot of problems historically. Many nights his mid-range shot is falling with an even higher degree of regularity against Dallas, and he’s another player who is hard to keep off the free-throw line. Be it with Toronto or now his home in the Southwest Division in San Antonio, this is a player that has had his fair share of very, very good games against Dallas over the years, including this season.
Brandon Ingram just knows how to score. With Zion now getting most of the attention, Ingram is going to have even better spacing on the floor to shoot. He’s as fluid at the basket as he is with a deep jumper. If there is anybody that could greatly improve his free agent value in Orlando, it’s Ingram.
Injured Dallas big man Dwight Powell always seems to play well against New Orleans, as evidenced by a career-high 68 percent rate from the field. This season, Mavericks guard Seth Curry is a scorching 15/22 (68 percent) on three-pointers against the Pelicans. From Houston, PJ Tucker (45 percent) and Danuel House (40 percent) have been dangerous from beyond the arc, helping the Rockets win the season series 3-1. For nearly a decade, San Antonio veteran guard Patty Mills has consistently made big shots when facing the Crescent City.
Houston’s PJ Tucker and Austin Rivers have given the Spurs some problems. Tucker is just all over the place defending, getting steals and altering shots, while Rivers has hit a few big shots on San Antonio when given the opportunity. New Orleans’ Lonzo Ball has been a difficult matchup for the Spurs in the two games I’ve seen this season. Tim Hardaway Jr. has dropped 17 and 20 on the Spurs in his last two outings against them and plays with the sort of edge that gives San Antonio fits.
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