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Breaking Down the Play-In Game(s)

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Who has the upper hand?

Milwaukee Bucks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, it all comes down to this. Neither team has a realistic chance at competing with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, so this is really the climax for their seasons. To set the stage, Memphis was able to hang onto a play-in spot by beating a half-trying Milwaukee Bucks team on Thursday, while Portland rode the insane performance of Damian Lillard all the way to the 8th seed. Now, Memphis needs to win both Saturday and Sunday to get into the playoffs, while Portland just needs to win once.

The easy matchup to highlight is Ja Morant vs Damian Lillard, and for good reason. Ja is the likely Rookie of the Year, and Dame has been the best player in the league inside the bubble, showing that there really isn’t any scheme he can’t beat. Dame is the much better player right now, but Ja is fearless and will no doubt talk plenty of sh*t to Dame throughout.

Frankly, I expect each guy to light the other up, as both are phenomenal offensive players who struggle to be as valuable on the defensive end. It would be a surprise to see the two guard each other anyways, but still. I’m not sure who Portland would put on Ja, as they really don’t have any good guard or wing defenders on their team outside of (occasionally) Gary Trent, Jr.. Dame will more likely than not see a steady diet of Dillon Brooks, but ultimately that’s kind of pointless because Memphis is almost surely going to double/trap Lillard as soon as he gets across half-court, or even earlier.

If I’m Taylor Jenkins, I commit two guys to Lillard immediately. I am not going to get sent home because I let Dame drop 45+ in an elimination game. I live with C.J. McCollum going for 30, or Gary Trent, Jr. hitting 5+ threes. I just cannot live with guarding Dame one-on-one when I know I don’t have anyone capable of keeping him under control.

On that note, pick-and-roll coverage is going to be interesting to watch. Jonas Valancuinas is a traditional “drop” big, in that he doesn’t have quick enough feet to meet the ball-handler an the level of the screen. If Memphis plays primarily drop, we might as well save ourselves the time and just pencil Portland in as the 8-seed right now.

Like I said, the guards will get most of the headlines, but the front court battle is really intriguing. Valancuinas is really good, as is Jusuf Nurkic. They’re both behemoths that have hulk-like strength and are tough to move in the paint. They probably will roughly cancel each other out, but a battle between a rookie and a future Hall of Famer might be the swing matchup.

Of course, that would be the battle at Power Forward between Brandon Clarke and Carmelo Anthony. Clarke is an exceptional basketball player on both ends of the floor with great instincts, while Melo is on the tail end of his career but seems to have finally accepted that at this point in his career, he’s a role-player. Can Anthony give Portland a boost, like he has in some big moments in Orlando? Or will Clarke’s youth and athleticism frustrate him into some poor decision making? That’s a matchup I’ll be watching with a close eye.

Prediction

As much as I would love the story of Memphis grinding their way into the postseason without Jaren Jackson, I just don’t think it’s going to happen. Maybe they’re able to steal the first game on Saturday, but in a do or die moment, I’m taking Damian Lillard every time. Lillard isn’t without flaws on his postseason resume, but he was basically playing in elimination games this entire time in Orlando, and he practically averaged 50ppg when it mattered most. I think I’ll go with Portland clinching their postseason spot on Sunday, before they get the joyous prize of facing off with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers.

Memphis time is coming, but it’s more likely to be Dame Time this weekend.