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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Memphis Grizzlies Preview

The Blazers resume their pursuit of the 8-seed in a crucial matchup with the Grizzlies.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (29-37) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)

Friday, July 31 - 1:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Rodney Hood (out)
Grizzlies injuries: Tyus Jones (out); Justise Winslow (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA TV (outside of Portland)
How to stream: Blazer’s Edge Streaming Guide
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear Blues

I originally wrote a preview for this game back in March before the NBA suspended play. It was an important game for Portland’s playoff run then, but now with the condensed eight-game schedule, it is as close to a must-win scenario as any non-elimination game can be. The Blazers sit 3.5 games behind Memphis, and they need to stay within at least 4 games of them (while staying ahead of New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix) to force a play-in tournament.

Portland enters the NBA restart in Orlando a much different team than the one scheduled to play on March 12. Both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are back healthy, Trevor Ariza and Caleb Swanigan elected to not play, and Carmelo Anthony has reinvented himself as “Skinny Melo”. Memphis will get a few players back from injury as well: Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, who were both out in March, are back fully healthy. The Grizzlies will also have Grayson Allen and Jontay Porter to add to their rotation.

What to watch for

  • The point guard matchup. Friday’s point guard matchup will likely end up being a showdown between Rookie of the Year winners. Ja Morant is the front runner for this year’s award — partly because Zion Williamson missed most of the season, but also because Morant has played well enough to earn it. The former Murray State standout is averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game (similar to Damian Lillard’s rookie year stats of 19 points and 6.5 assists per game). The Blazers hope Lillard will return to MVP-caliber level he had been playing at. Portland’s All-Star point guard was averaging a career-best 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game before the season was suspended.
  • The big man rotation. The return of Nurkic and Collins gives coach Terry Stotts lots of options in the front court. The Blazers could go big with two of their three big men (including Hassan Whiteside) on the court at all times or go smaller with Anthony at forward. Portland’s size could be beneficial against Memphis. Center Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds (sixth in the NBA; Whiteside’s 14.2 is 2nd) this season. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr., the team’s second leading scorer, is a 6’11” big man who can hit from deep (39.7 percent on 6.3 attempts).
  • Shaking off the rust. It’s been 144 days since either Portland or Memphis played a meaningful basketball game. That’s close to the same length of the NBA offseason depending on how deep of a playoff run a team makes (there were 157 days between Portland’s final playoff game in 2019 and their 2019-20 season opener). The circumstances surrounding this break have been drastically different than a typical offseason for a lot of reasons. Some players had no access to basketball courts or hoops for several months; teams have also had less training camp time. The team that comes out crisper and better prepared will have a big advantage.

What they’re saying

Joe Mullinax of Grizzly Bear Blues wrote about how the Grizzlies’ younger players — Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — could have used the break to develop their games:

While Ja, Brandon, and Jaren are already quite good in specific areas there is certainly room for improvement. Any exquisite work of art takes time to create, mature, and have its vision maximized. Between their time away working on their bodies and their time together with teammates and coaches growing their relationships and skill sets, we may very well see those steps forward become leaps sooner than expected.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe put Ja Morant first and listed Brandon Clarke third on his Rookie of the Year ballot:

Morant is not some winner-by-default. He is one of the transcendent rookie guards of the past 20 years — combining craft, athleticism, and bravado at a position that overwhelms most rookies. He drives winning now. He lifts teammates now.

Clarke is nimble on defense, and a malleable fit on offense. He inflicts damage diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls with dunks and silky floaters — his signature shot, and perhaps already the league’s signature floater. He was money spotting up around the arc. (Clarke is a sneaky Sixth Man of the Year candidate.)

EricTweetsNBA of Grizzly Bear Blues provided an in-depth analysis of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s three-point shooting:

Even if Jaren Jackson Jr. doesn’t get the shot that the play is designed for him to get, his shooting ability opens up the rest of the floor for his teammates to get open shots. Defenses know that they have to stay attached to him at all times and the attention that he draws running off screens can open up cutting lanes for a guy like Brandon Clarke or may open up a passing lane for Ja Morant to find Jonas Valanciunas under the basket. Two defenders may miscommunicate and chase Jaren off a screen, leaving the screener open for a shot. While Jaren may not have the gravity of the best shooters in the league, his presence is certainly enough to put stress on even some of the best defenses in the league.