Blazers Rally to clinch final playoff spot

Raphielle Johnson
·9 min read

There was just one game on schedule for Saturday and a lot was riding on the outcome. As the 8-seed Portland had some margin for error, as a loss to 9-seed Memphis would have meant a winner-take-all rematch on Sunday. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, needed two wins in order to reach the postseason. Portland rallied in the fourth quarter, winning 126-122 thanks in large part to the efforts of C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic. The reward: a first-round matchup with the Lakers, and the series is scheduled to begin Tuesday night.

While it was McCollum who played the role of closer down the stretch, the play of Nurkic was especially noteworthy. Just hours after finding out that his grandmother had passed away due to COVID-19 he put forth one of the best performances of his career, finishing with 22 points (8-of-14 FGs, 4-of-9 FTs), 21 rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocks and two 3-pointers in 41 minutes. After the game Nurkic said that he did not want to play, but he felt that his grandmother made him do so. McCollum (29/3/1/2/1 with three 3-pointers), who's playing with a fracture in his back, was lights out down the stretch while Lillard led the way with 31 points to go along with two rebounds, 10 assists, one steal and five 3-pointers.

All three played at least 41 minutes, with Carmelo Anthony (21/3/1/1 block and one 3-pointer) playing 38 minutes and Gary Trent Jr. (8/3/1/5/2 with one 3-pointer) 35. Anthony’s lone 3-pointer was a shot that extended Portland’s lead to six with less than a minute remaining. The good news for Terry Stotts is that the win not only keeps the Blazers out of a winner-take-all scenario, but it also gets the team an extra day’s rest before the playoffs. And that’s critical, both for the workloads that Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic have taken on but also the health of Zach Collins. He played just seven minutes due to left ankle inflammation, with all of those minutes coming in the first quarter.

Collins’ absence freed up seven minutes for Wenyen Gabriel, who finished with three points, one rebound, one assist and one 3-pointer. While he wasn't a liability when in the game, that’s not enough to make him a factor in any fantasy format. Hassan Whiteside played 14 minutes, with about half of them coming alongside Nurkic. The tandem had a plus/minus of plus-2, with the first quarter stint (plus-6) going better than the third (minus-4). Overall, Portland was a minus-13 in Whiteside's time on the court. I’m not expecting to see much of Whiteside and Nurkic on the court at the same time against the Lakers, due to in large part to Whiteside’s overall ineffectiveness in those spots.

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Memphis’ starting center also had a big day, with Jonas Valanciunas posting a line of 22 points (8-of-16 FGs, 6-of-6 FTs), 17 rebounds and six assists in 34 minutes. The double-double was his sixth in eight games in Orlando, which includes a run of four straight games from August 2-7. Valanciunas has played the best basketball of his NBA career in Memphis, and he’ll be a key member of the frontcourt next season as well. With he, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies have some good pieces to work with as they look to build a playoff contender.

Morant got off to a slow start but was outstanding in the second half, scoring 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting while also dishing out seven assists. His line for the game: a career-high 35 points (13-of-28 FGs, 6-of-8 FTs), four rebounds, eight assists and three 3-pointers in 42 minutes. Morant also turned the ball over eight times, but there were many occasions in which Portland was unable to keep him from getting into the paint. He wasn’t content to simply take the perimeter looks that he was given, and an offseason of work on the 3-point shot could make Morant an absolutely lethal guard for opposing teams to deal with.

And the offseason will give him some time to heal, as Morant disclosed following the loss that he played Memphis’ last four games with a fractured right thumb. There’s little doubt that he should be the Rookie of the Year, and if that happens Morant will be the first Grizzly to win the honor since Pau Gasol in 2002. Brooks (20/2/2/1 with four 3-pointers) and Clarke (20/4/3/2 blocks and four 3-pointers) added 20 points apiece, with the latter shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.

The four 3-pointers represent a career-high for Clarke, who entered Saturday shooting a combined 2-of-12 from deep in the bubble. Becoming a dependable perimeter shooter should be Clarke’s biggest focus in the offseason, as strides made in that area will not only increase his value to Memphis’ rotation but his fantasy value as well. He finishes the season with an overall field goal percentage of 61.8 percent, breaking the NBA record for highest percentage for a rookie. Kyle Anderson added 10 points, six rebounds, nine assists, two steals, one block and one 3-pointers in 27 minutes shooting 4-of-6 from the field in his 27 minutes of action. The biggest decision for Memphis’ front office this fall will likely be what they do with De’Anthony Melton.

Melton didn’t play particularly well in the bubble, but his work before the season came to a halt in March may have been enough to cement a spot for himself in the Grizzlies’ rotation moving forward. He’ll be a restricted free agent in October, while Anthony Tolliver (seven points, three rebounds, one block and one 3-pointer in 23 minutes) and Josh Jackson (DNP-CD) will be unrestricted free agents.

New Orleans makes a head coaching change

After five seasons in the Crescent City Alvin Gentry will be moving on, as it was announced by team president David Griffin that the Pelicans will be moving in another direction. While Zion Williamson having to leave the bubble for 13 days due to a family medical emergency didn’t help matters, there’s no escaping the fact that New Orleans was very disappointing in Orlando. And in Gentry’s five seasons, a period that included four with Anthony Davis as the franchise player, the Pelicans won more than 35 games just once.

While there are some veterans on the roster, the most important building blocks in New Orleans are young. Williamson, Brandon Ingram (who will be a restricted free agent this fall), Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Jaxson Hayes are among the youngsters that the next head coach will get to work with, and veterans such as Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick will be under contract for next season. Player development will be critical for whoever Griffin hires, and for his part the Pelicans’ top executive said on Saturday that he will not rush the process of hiring the team’s next head coach.

Fournier, Ross full participants in practice

Orlando opens its first-round series with Milwaukee on Tuesday, and it’s looking likely that at least two of the team’s key rotation players will be available. Evan Fournier (illness) and Terrence Ross (illness) were full participants in Saturday’s practice, which bodes well for their availability on Monday. Aaron Gordon (hamstring) is still limited, as he only took part in the walkthrough portion of practice, and Michael Carter-Williams (foot) is still in a walking boot. Magic coach Steve Clifford said that Gordon was “close” when asked about a timeline, and his availability will be key when it comes to how Orlando goes about defending Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The returns of Fournier and Ross would impact Wesley Iwundu the most, as he filled in for the former in the starting lineup. Iwundu hasn’t offered much in the way of fantasy value, so even if Fournier needs another game he isn’t worth using in any DFS format. Melvin Frazier Jr. picked up some minutes in Orlando’s final seeding games, but his fantasy outlook is similar to that of Iwundu.

Chiozza, Hall practice without any limitations

Brooklyn has been one of the surprises of the bubble, as the Nets performed well despite having the longest injury report of any team in the league. Point guard Chris Chiozza (groin) and reserve center Donta Hall (ankle) are both on track to return to action Monday when the Nets open their series against Toronto, as both were full participants in Saturday’s practice. Chiozza was moved out of the starting lineup but he remains a low-end player worth considering due to the assist numbers.

He’s accounted for at least four in five of the seven games he’s appeared in down in Orlando, including a 10-assist effort in Brooklyn’s win over Milwaukee on August 4. As for Hall he doesn’t offer much from a statistical standpoint, so his impact fantasy-wise will be minimal. And with Toronto employing a second-unit center in Serge Ibaka who’s willing to play on the perimeter, that may allow Jacque Vaughn to give Rodions Kurucs some backup center minutes as he did in the seeding games. Jamal Crawford (hamstring) did not practice Saturday.

NBA announces all-bubble teams, individual awards

The individual awards were won by Portland’s Damian Lillard, who was named Player of the Seeding Games, and Phoenix coach Monty Williams. Williams, whose Suns went 8-0 in the bubble, was named Coach of the Seeding Games. Lillard was the unanimous choice for his individual award, with Phoenix’s Devin Booker finishing second and Indiana’s T.J. Warren third. Williams received 20 of the 21 first-place votes for Coach of the Seeding Games, with Portland’s Terry Stotts receiving the other. Stotts and Brooklyn’s Jacque Vaughn finished second and third, respectively.

First Team
Damian Lillard (MVP)
Devin Booker
Luka Doncic
James Harden
T.J. Warren

Second Team
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Kawhi Leonard
Kristaps Porzingis
Caris LeVert
Michael Porter Jr.

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