Ja Morant tries to drive against Jrue Holiday and Nicolo Melli

Southwest Division roundtable: Rivals to watch

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Whether it’s Dallas’ quest to move out of seventh place in the Western Conference; Houston’s attempt to improve its seeding; or Memphis, New Orleans and San Antonio simply trying to secure a playoff berth, scoreboard-watching promises to be a fun activity when the NBA restarts July 30. With that in mind, we checked in for a final time pre-restart with our five-team Southwest Division panel, to get each writer’s thoughts on what they’ll be paying close attention to when their squad isn’t on the court.

Which other division teams are you most looking forward to watching resume their season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

No question for me it is New Orleans. The Mavs won’t actually play them but every person who cares at all about the NBA or who is involved in it has to be excited to see Zion on the floor and if the Pelicans are capable of making a push and reaching the eighth spot play-in tournament. Also excited to see Memphis and Ja Morant knowing that it looks like they’ll be part of that eighth place play-in tourney as well.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

It’s easy. New Orleans. Will they be able to get close enough or overtake Memphis for the final playoff position in the West? Zion made a huge splash in his limited action. He will now begin his most rigorous stretch of games that he has as a young pro. Their schedule is favorable and the league woudn’t mind a Lebron/Zion first-round matchup.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The Mavericks. It really seemed like Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and crew were just starting to find their footing and get through an initial stage of injuries just when the season halted. The combination of generational talent in Luka and KP, a budding supporting cast and one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle make the Mavs a legit dark horse to do some damage. Especially under some untraditional and unusual circumstances present in the Orlando bubble. Dallas just might be scary dangerous if that squad can build some momentum in the restart.

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Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Memphis and Dallas are a lot of fun to watch these days. Both have a dynamic backcourt player capable of doing things you don’t see very often, specifically the athleticism at point guard from Ja Morant and the explosive scoring ability of Luka Doncic. There are few things more enjoyable in the NBA than witnessing a talented young team blossom, which has been the case in 2019-20 for the Pelicans and the Grizzlies, after rough starts for both. Meanwhile, Dallas statistically has the most efficient offense in NBA history (115.8 rating), with scoring options all over the floor.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

Pretty much every team from the division. You’ve got the exciting, young, Grizzlies led by Ja Morant trying to hold off the Pelicans, Spurs and a couple teams from outside the division for that eighth spot. Can Memphis do it, or will its youth turn out to be a detriment in what should be a hotly contested run to end the regular season? I’m curious to see what a leaner James Harden does alongside Russell Westbrook for the Rockets, who have a legit chance to move up some in the standings. Then, you’ve got the Mavericks out there putting up historic numbers on offense. Rick Carlisle said the other day he’d like Dallas to improve enough defensively to crack the top 10, which would be downright scary. With New Orleans, Jrue Holiday, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram are must-watch TV as far as I’m concerned. Plus, they’ll come in there super hungry, but most importantly, healthy.

In terms of scoreboard-watching, which West teams will you most closely be following during the round of seeding games?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

For the Mavs, I will be most closely watching Houston and Oklahoma City. Those two teams are a game and a half ahead of the Mavs. Catching one of them and moving into sixth or even catching both and moving up to 5 is possible. The benefits of that are of course probably avoiding the Clippers in the first round. As I noted before, all West playoff opponents will be tough but ideally you would probably like to avoid the Clippers and Lakers as long as possible. So moving up would be nice and Houston and Oklahoma City are the teams that are close enough to Dallas that it could happen, especially since Dallas plays Houston in its first game on July 31.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Three-way tie between the Denver, Utah and Oklahoma City. Jokic’s uncertainly could hurt the Nuggets from posting a winning record in the bubble. Bogdanovic’s injury and chemistry concerns between Mitchell/Gobert could make things very interesting for Utah. A healthy Chris Paul late in the season I think makes OKC a dangerous first-round opponent. The Rockets I think believe the 3 seed is well within their reach. But like most teams, the Rockets believe that seeding this year doesn’t really matter.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

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.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Memphis has a 3.5-game 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 vs. teams they’re vying with in the standings.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

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 making that 23rd consecutive appearance in the playoffs. That’s compelling. The bench will be huge as it ranks fourth in the NBA in points per game (45.1), sixth in rebounds (18.5), fourth in assists (9.7). The reserves also rank No. 2 in blocks (2.6), fourth in field goals made (16.3) and fourth in 3-pointers made (5.5).

While they won’t admit it publicly, who is the opposing player from the division your team fears/respects/struggles with the most?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

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.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

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. 

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

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.    

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Doncic had one very poor game vs. 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).

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

Well, some of you were in the Smoothie King Center the night of Jan. 22 when Williamson made his debut against the Spurs. In 3 minutes and 8 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 Ingram. Pop respects Holiday immensely as well. So, you could say the Pelicans have a few opposing players that San Antonio might struggle to defend. As difficult as Harden is to defend, the Spurs sort of mastered it in 2018 in the Western Conference semis when they guarded him mostly with their hands up to keep him from drawing fouls. But I’d be remiss to not mention Harden gave the Spurs a 50-piece on Dec. 3 (hitting 24 free throws), a season-high in scoring for an opponent

Who’s the “under-the-radar” opposing player from the division who seems to give your team trouble?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

Not sure how under-the-radar he is since this is a fairly recent former All-Star but DeMar DeRozan of the Spurs 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. If former Rockets and Pelicans forward Trevor Ariza were still in the Southwest or Danny Green were with San Antonio I would say them but fortunately they have moved on. They were always a real X-Factor against the Mavs.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

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 during the time in Orlando, it’s Ingram.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

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.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Injured Dallas forward/center Dwight Powell always seems to play well vs. New Orleans, as evidenced by a career 68 percent rate from the field, his best against any NBA team. This season, Mavericks guard Seth Curry is a scorching 15/22 (68 percent) on three-pointers vs. 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.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

At least this season, 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. San Antonio won the last time it faced Dallas on March 10, but Hardaway hit 4 of 9 from deep.

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