The NBA season restart in Florida includes a pivotal matchup on Friday between the Memphis Grizzlies and the team just behind them in the Western Conference standings, the Portland Trail Blazers.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA shutdown more than four months ago, the Grizzlies (32-33)occupied the eighth and final seed in the West, with three teams 3 1/2 games behind, including the Trail Blazers (29-37).
That 3 1/2 number is noteworthy, especially during the two-week sprint of seeding games. Memphis needs at least a 4 1/2-game lead over its nearest competitor in the standings to avoid a two-game play-in series for the No. 8 seed.
The Grizzlies last played a regular-season game on March 10, losing to the eight seed in the Eastern Conference, Orlando, 120-115. Memphis pulled to .500 on the season before the loss, rebounding from a five-game losing streak in late February with wins in four of five.
Memphis won its final scrimmage in the NBA bubble Tuesday, 128-110 over the Miami Heat.
"We're just getting used to each other. We haven't played together since before the hiatus," Dillon Brooks said in a postgame teleconference Tuesday. "[But] we're disciplined with the ball, we're running, just like we practiced every day, [and] shooting with confidence."
The Grizzlies' 3-point-shooting confidence is peaking, as evident in Tuesday's scrimmage. They hit 18 of 40, including 3 of 4 from Kyle Anderson. Anderson shot just 25.8 percent from long range before the hiatus, but he may be needed to pick up some of the slack lost with Tyus Jones out.
Jones will be evaluated for knee soreness in a week to determine his status going forward. Justise Winslow, acquired at the trade deadline in a deal with the Miami Heat, injured his hip during the shutdown and is out for the season.
Portland resumes competition with center Hassan Whiteside listed as day-to-day with a sore Achilles tendon. The Trail Blazers will also be without Caleb Swanigan and Trevor Ariza, both of whom opted out of the restart.
Portland went 4-6 in its final 10 games before the hiatus, and 4-8 for the final month, including a Feb. 12 loss at Memphis. That was the only meeting between the teams this season, and Friday is the sole matchup in the bubble during the two-week push for the postseason.
"We want to win," Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas said. "We want to be good. We want to be recognized on the court. ... We've got all the right tools. It's on us now."
The Trail Blazers concluded their round of scrimmages Tuesday in a 131-20 loss to Oklahoma City. Star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum sat out, yielding the floor to Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.
Simons responded with 23 points.
"Even in the other scrimmages, I think I was getting the shots that I wanted, they were just not falling," Simons said in his postgame teleconference. "I just felt like the time was going to come when the shots fell. I'm just glad they fell today."
Simons averaged 8.8 points per game before the layoff, well off the team-leading paces of 28.9 and 22.5 points per game Lillard and McCollum produced. However, the ability for teams to go into their pool of reserves is heightened with the rush of games in the next two weeks.
The 22 squads in the bubble play eight games in two weeks. Portland opens with a treacherous stretch of three games in five days including a Sunday matinee against the Boston Celtics and a meeting with the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.
Memphis draws three of the teams chasing it for the eight seed right out of the gate, following up Friday's game against Portland with matchups opposite San Antonio and New Orleans.
The date with the Pelicans puts the top two picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, Ja Morant of the Grizzlies and Zion Williamson of the Pelicans, on the court together for the first time since New Orleans demolished Memphis 139-111 on Jan. 31. Williamson had 24 points, six rebounds and three assists in that game.
New Orleans also won the previous meeting, 126-116, on Jan. 20.
Morant said he's motivated to end the season with the Grizzlies in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, noting it's on his checklist of career goals.
"We're in the eighth position right now. So going into Orlando, it's just more motivation and fuel to our fire," Morant said.
--Field Level Media