Damian Lillard, Blazers to Face Lakers After Epic Win vs. Ja Morant, GrizzliesAugust 15, 2020
The red-hot Portland Trail Blazers are officially in the playoffs thanks to their 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in Saturday's play-in game.
Portland came into this matchup as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference thanks to a 6-2 record in the eight seeding games. A loss Saturday would have forced the team into a winner-take-all showdown against the Grizzlies on Sunday.
Instead, the Trail Blazers will have two days off before they open their first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Notable Player Stats
- Damian Lillard: 31 PTS (6-of-15 FG, 14-of-14 FT), 10 AST, 2 REB
- CJ McCollum: 29 PTS (11-of-19 FG), 3 REB
- Jusuf Nurkic: 22 PTS (8-of-14 FG), 21 REB, 6 AST
- Ja Morant: 35 PTS (13-of-28 FG), 8 AST, 4 REB
- Brandon Clarke: 20 PTS (8-of-11 FG, 4-of-5 3PT), 4 REB, 3 AST
- Jonas Valanciunas: 22 PTS (8-of-16 FG), 17 REB, 6 AST
Nurkic, McCollum Lift Blazers
One reason there was optimism around the Blazers coming into the restart was the return of Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian Bear didn't appear in any games before the season was suspended as he continued to rehab from the compound fracture in his left leg suffered in March 2019.
Per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, Portland's plus-10.5 net rating with Nurkic last season would have been the best in the NBA if he had played enough games.
As the Blazers were making their run during the seeding games, all eyes were understandably on Damian Lillard. The five-time All-Star was scoring at an astounding rate, averaging 37.6 points and shooting 43.6 percent from three on 12.6 attempts per game.
But while Lillard was dazzling the world with his scoring proficiency, Nurkic was quietly rounding into form. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds in the eight games played on the NBA campus.
Late in the fourth quarter on Saturday with the score tied at 111, Nurkic put the Blazers up by three when he converted a three-point play after grabbing an offensive rebound off a Carmelo Anthony miss.
After the Grizzlies got a basket to cut the deficit to one, McCollum did his best Lillard impression with a step-back three to extend Portland's lead.
Anthony had a poor shooting game (5-of-15 overall), but he got involved during that late fourth-quarter stretch with a dagger three to put the Blazers up 122-116 with 20 seconds remaining.
The Blazers aren't going to win any awards for their defense, but the number of scorers they have on the floor at any given moment is enough to at least cause the Lakers some problems in a series.
Disappointing Finish Doesn't Diminish Grizzlies' Bright Future
The Grizzlies aren't yet a championship-caliber team—or even a playoff team, based on Saturday's result—but they are on their way to becoming one because of Ja Morant.
Every organization hopes to draft and develop their own superstar. Very few are able to do it for any number of reasons, not the least of which is because it's incredibly difficult.
Morant hasn't joined the top tier of superstars in the NBA yet, but he's been 21 years old for all of five days. Saturday's must-win game was an indication of why the Murray State product has all the tools to become a potential MVP candidate in the not-too-distant future.
While Morant was busy showing the world why he's the heavy Rookie of the Year favorite, his fellow first-year teammate, Brandon Clarke, provided the Grizzlies with an offensive spark off the bench.
Clarke had run hot and cold since the season restarted, shooting under 50 percent in three games and only attempting 12 threes in the previous eight games. He found a groove early and often against Portland's leaky defense.
The Grizzlies had to adapt on the fly one week into the restart when Jaren Jackson Jr. was injured. Things didn't look great much of the way, but head coach Taylor Jenkins was able to keep his team focused heading into their biggest game of the season.
Memphis' hopes coming into 2019-20 were all about developing Morant, Clarke and Jackson into significant contributors. That trio came together much faster than anyone could have predicted.
Despite Jackson's absence now, Morant and Clarke stepped up in the most important game of their NBA careers to show Grizzlies fans and the rest of the NBA what this franchise has in store for the future after all of the valuable experience they gained this season.
The Trail Blazers will play the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.