2020 NBA Playoffs
2020 NBA Playoffs

Play-In Preview: Even with the hottest scorer, Trail Blazers need to get defensive

Rookie Ja Morant and young, scrappy Grizzlies could present Portland with big challenge

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Archive

Aug 14, 2020 1:14 AM ET

Ja Morant and Damian Lillard will both be looking to guide their team to a first-round matchup against the Lakers.

The appetizer for the NBA playoffs arrives with the Western Conference Play-In game featuring two teams who believe the No. 8 seed belongs to them. Memphis feels that way because it had a 3 1/2 game lead entering the season restart until it collapsed and relinquished it to Portland. Meanwhile, the Blazers were in the 2019 Western Conference finals and so, while there were legit reasons for this year’s slide, their pride says they shouldn’t even be in this position.

It’s interesting how the teams have swapped places, injury-wise. Portland was missing Jusuf Nurkic all season and Zach Collins since the first week of the season with injuries, but both are back in the lineup. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are without Jaren Jackson Jr., who injured his knee last week and is done for the season. The reversal of fortune seems to favor Portland, although the Blazers have hardly looked dominant in Orlando even against lesser teams.

Portland is bringing basketball’s hottest scorer in Damian Lillard, yet plenty depends on the pain tolerance of CJ McCollum, who’s reportedly dealing with a fractured back and isn’t 100%. Normally the Blazers would boast a stellar 1-2 backcourt punch, but now they’ll rely somewhat on backup Gary Trent Jr. to assume some of McCollum’s minutes and role.

Per Play-In rules, the Grizzlies, by virtue of being the ninth seed, must beat the Blazers twice to advance.
 

Three things to watch

1. Can Dame keep this up? The greatest August player in NBA history burned through massive minutes and assumed quite a load for the Blazers, who struggled through three victories despite Dame going scorched earth. Every night was a playoff game for Dame, the restart scoring leader, and now he needs to play one more like it, or two if necessary, in order to reach the real playoffs. Plus, he’ll need to chase Ja Morant on the other end, no easy feat.

2. How do the Grizzlies compensate for the loss of Jackson? Triple-J was an important piece of the equation and a solid pick-and-roll weapon with Morant. Now Memphis must use the big-man hybrid of Gorgui Dieng and Anthony Tolliver to plug that hole. Neither was a big factor during much of the season, but Tolliver can stretch the floor and Dieng has rim-protecting instincts.

3. What’s wrong with Portland’s defense? In five of their eight seeded games, the Blazers allowed 124 or more points and spotted Memphis 135 in an overtime win. To put it mildly, the Blazers are not going very far in the playoffs, if they get there, with such spotty play at the other end of the floor. Dame can erupt for 30 or 40 or even 50 points, yet if the Blazers get repeatedly victimized defensively, at some point his heroics will be in vain. Hassan Whiteside is Portland’s best defender but his minutes are reduced with Nurkic back in the starting lineup.

 

The number to know

8 -- All eight of the Blazers' restart games, including their July 31 overtime win over the Grizzlies, have been within five points in the last five minutes. With Lillard averaging a bubble-high 37.6 points per game, the Blazers had the No. 1 and most-improved offense in the restart. They scored 122.5 points per 100 possessions, 10.5 more than they scored before the hiatus, getting more than 16 points per game from four guys beyond Lillard. But the Blazers didn't get enough stops to make any of their games uninteresting. They ranked 20th defensively in the restart, allowing more than 120 points per 100 possessions. They protected the rim OK, but allowed their opponents to shoot 43.3% from 3-point range and they ranked 19th in opponent free throw rate (32 attempts per 100 shots from the field). Their loss to the Blazers was the Grizzlies' second best offensive performance (135 points on 114 possessions) of the restart, but their leading scorer was Jackson Jr. (33 points on 10-for-22 shooting), who was lost for the season three days later. Jackson's absence has provided an opportunity for Brandon Clarke, who averaged 24 points (his highest scoring average against any opponent) on 19-for-22 shooting against Portland.
-- John Schuhmann

 

The pick

Narrow escapes against the Sixers, Mavericks and Nets in their last three must-win games suggest the Blazers aren’t contenders by any stretch. But that’s not the point here; they only need to win one against a Grizzlies team that has also struggled. Lillard is on a career scoring roll and he appears to be on a mission, so that alone makes Portland the favorite. Still, the Grizzlies are young, scrappy, fun to watch and play loose, and Morant is desperate for the big stage. Blazers in 2.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him  here, find his archive here  and follow him on  Twitter .

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