In an incredible come from behind finish to the NBA regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers took the eighth seed in their 126-122 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Blazers entered the seeding games three and a half games back from the Grizzlies with just eight games to make the jump. They went 6-2 over that stretch to give them the advantage in the NBA’s first ever play-in game.
Saturday’s game was exciting, giving fans the first taste of a playoff atmosphere with real stakes in the bubble. Both teams put up an offensive virtuoso, led by the scoring of each team’s point guards. After the last game before the highly anticipated playoffs, here are five takeaways from the match.
1. The Trail Blazers Need Nurk More Than Expected
Before the bubble, it had been 16 months since Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic had played in an NBA game. Most people knew he was a valuable piece of the team, but not to the extent that he actually is. The Blazers went 29-37 without him this season, only to dramatically improve once he came back, averaging a 18-11-4 over his last nine games.
Nurk completes so much of the team, giving them range at the center position, great defense, scoring in the post and high I.Q. playmaking. The stark contrast between him and backup center Hassan Whiteside on the court against the Grizzlies was astonishing. Whiteside gives the deception of being a great defender with his league-leading 2.9 blocks per game, but when watching him in-game, he’s terrible.
Whiteside takes his duty as a rim protector to heart, and on multiple occasions against the Grizzlies left his assignment open on the corner from three. He entered the game for a few minutes, only to leave 0-2 with three fouls in such a short period of time. If Nurkic had not played till his visible exhaustion at the end of the game, there’s a good chance we’d be seeing the two teams playing again on Sunday.
Whiteside offers no shooting, infrequent scoring from the post and is a liability on defense from the perimeter. He’s good for blocking shots in the paint and grabbing rebounds, but his big-body presence is one dimensional once you see the versatility of Nurkic.
Once the dust settled at the end of the game, Jusuf Nurkic had played 41 minutes and put up 22 points and 21 rebounds. Hassan Whiteside played 14 minutes with 4 points, 4 rebounds and 4 fouls. Nurk’s +/- was +18, the highest on the team, even over Lillard, and Whiteside’s was a dismal -13.
If the team you beat outscored you by 13 when a certain player was on the court, that guy’s probably not the best option for your team.
2. The West Should Be On Notice for the Future of the Grizzlies
Even though they choked their position as the eighth seed by going 2-6 in seeding games, Memphis put on a show in the play-in, regardless of their loss.
In the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr., several Grizzlies stepped up to give the Trail Blazers a run for their money. Kyle Anderson had nine assists, Dillon Brooks played lockdown D and added 20 points on 4-5 shooting from 3 and Brandon Clarke added more of the same with 20 points on 4-5 shooting from 3 as well.
Jonas Valanciunas looked like a top 10 center in the league with his 22-17-6 stat line, including 14 points in the second quarter alone. Memphis shot an incredible 56 percent from three and outrebounded the Blazers by 10. They did so many things right in the game, and hammered the Blazers inside and out (outscoring them by 28 points in the paint and shooting nearly 20% more efficiently from 3).
When JJJ comes back next year, the young Grizzlies will be a fringe playoff team in an all-time stacked Western Conference. Ja Morant is clearly the future of the league, and proved that tonight with his 35 points including his dominant 4th quarter where it seemed like he could drive to the hoop and score at will.
Morant’s speed and aggressiveness makes him one of the premier slashing point guards in the league at just 21 years old, Once he improves his 3-point shot a bit and makes the defense respect him a little bit more from out there, he’ll be a top-five point guard in the league easily.
3. CJ McCollum is a Genuine Closer
With Dame Lillard’s historic streak he’s gone on to will the Portland Trail Blazers into the playoffs, not a lot of attention has been on CJ McCollum. CJ has been playing with an injured vertebrae in his back since the beginning of the restart, but that hasn’t stopped him from averaging 21 PPG in the bubble.
The end of the play-in game gave fans a taste of CJ’s potential as a closing scorer, where he scored eight points in under two minutes towards the end of the game to pull the Blazers ahead. CJ hit two contested step-back threes that had a very high difficulty level on them to the point where it seemed Lillard-like.
McCollum has never been a slashing guard who can drive in and initiate contact to score, he averaged just 2.6 free throw attempts per game this year. His jump-shot, however, and his ability to create space and shoot with the smallest of room makes him a special player, especially as the number two option on a team.
It has yet to be seen if his back injury nags on his level of play this postseason, but if he keeps playing like he did today, he ranks among the best second bananas in the playoffs, and one of the rare ones that has the ability to close out a game.
4. The Blazers are a Legitimate Threat to the Lakers
This isn’t so much a takeaway as a reaffirmation, but Dame and CJ McCollum’s play today cemented the fact that the duo will be extremely difficult for the Lakers to contain.
The absence of Avery Bradley really hurt LA due to his perimeter defense, now they only have Danny Green that can guard them. Quick guards have burned the Lakers this bubble season, and Lillard and McCollum are the worst-case scenario for their defense.
The Portland Trail Blazers can also go big to match the size of the Lakers by playing Nurkic and Whiteside together. Nurkic is a formidable presence against Anthony Davis, and Whiteside should have no problem with Dwight Howard or Javale McGee given their inability to score from beyond five feet from the hoop.
Given LeBron’s disappointing bubble season thus far (not that that’s a good indication of his condition for the playoffs), the Trail Blazers may have a shot at pulling off a historic upset.
Still, Portland has been giving it their all for the past few games, and it’s unlikely that they can keep playing at this intensity. The Lakers have had the luxury of being in a position to rest LeBron and AD for the playoffs, so fans will have to expect to see a weakened Portland Trail Blazers team and a heightened Lakers offense.
Featured image courtesy of Yahoo! Sports.