The tables have turned as the Trail Blazers enter Saturday’s play-in game as the eighth seed to face the ninth-seeded Grizzlies. At the start of the seeding games, the two were flipped—Memphis had a comfortable lead on Portland for eighth and the real battle appeared to be for the ninth spot.
Even though the initial top two teams eventually qualified for the play-in game, the swapped seeding makes all the difference. The Blazers only have to win one contest to advance—opposed to two for the Grizzlies.
The Blazers and Grizzlies have met twice this season, one of which came in the bubble. Not to mention this Memphis team looks markedly different than it has for the past decade. Therefore, not much film is available for Portland to analyze prior to the win-or-try-again-or-win-or-go-home competition this weekend.
Nonetheless, here are a few key stats from those two matchups that could dictate the outcome of the NBA’s first ever play-in game.
That’s the number of minutes Hassan Whiteside played in the first matchup of the season in February. It was the fewest minutes of any Portland starter. Due to a myriad of injuries, Terry Stotts ran a playoff-esque eight-man lineup that featured the youthful bench unit of Caleb Swanigan, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons.
Stotts will again run a shortened lineup—because it’s actually the playoffs now—but the players coming off the bench should make more of a positive impact. Outside of arguably Simons’ best offensive game of the season, Trent Jr. and Swanigan contributed little on either end in that February matchup. Now, Trent, Whiteside and one of Hezonja or Simons can provide solid minutes to give guys like Jusuf Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony enough time to rest on the sidelines.
That’s how well Brandon Clarke shot against the Blazers this year. He set a career-high in February by tallying 27 points on ridiculous 12-of-14 shooting, then followed it up with 7-of-8 shooting in the first seeding game.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. out for the season, Clarke will be asked to do more.
Portland needs to stop him in transition as well as out of the pick and roll. Letting him run in the open floor and get easy looks at the rim is not only a guaranteed two points, but also an energy boost for a young and momentum-reliant Memphis team.
He’s not a reliable shot creator or jump shooter yet (he’s only a rookie), so if the Blazers stop the assisted opportunities, he’ll have a harder time impacting the offensive end.
That’s Anthony’s field goal shooting in Portland’s first game against Memphis this year. Only four of those were three-pointers, too. He forced post ups and couldn’t circumvent Memphis’ bigs in the paint, leading to forced miss after forced miss.
In the second contest, however, Anthony shot 7-of-10 including 2-of-4 from deep. He posted up sparingly and assumed the spot up role he’s been more successful in. As a stationary corner wing, Anthony knocked down both his triples in the final 90 seconds to help the Blazers force overtime.
The Grizzlies will sell out defensively to get the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, so there will be open shots to go around. Anthony must recognize this like he did in the second matchup to efficiently boost the offense.
THAT’S HOW MANY FREE THROWS MEMPHIS TOOK IN THE SEEDING GAME.
Sure, the refs called some tacky fouls, but at some point, it’s on the players to stop fouling so much. The Grizzlies made 38 of the 50 free throw attempts (76%), which created a nine-point advantage for them at the charity stripe.
The Blazers don’t have a deep lineup without Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood—having to playing Hezonja or Simons as the eighth man isn’t ideal. Running into foul trouble could force Stotts to look farther down the bench, where he’ll find a lot of inexperienced faces.
That’s Ja Morant’s conversion rate from beyond the arc against Portland this season (1/12).
The Blazers have struggled in pick-and-roll coverage. Switches don’t work because the big has to defend on an island. Going over screens doesn’t work because the big drops and the guard can’t defend from behind.
Against Morant, who runs the majority of Memphis’ pick and rolls, Portland’s guards can go under screens to take away the drive and bait him into shooting a three. Other teams have already tried this against Morant in the bubble, so he’s adapted to use the screen once more, closer to the hoop to get downhill. That at least limits the space for him to use against Nurkic or Collins if the Blazers switch on the second screen.