Saturday’s play-in game (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC) between the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies is the rare NBA win-or-go-home contest, at least for the Grizzlies. If Memphis wins on Saturday, the rematch is Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with the winner advancing to the NBA playoffs to face the Los Angeles Lakers.
Can the Grizzlies win in single elimination to force a second game? What surprises might be coming our way?
Our experts make their predictions and share what they’ll be watching for on Saturday.
1. For the Blazers, what will you be watching most closely?
Royce Young: I’m not supposed to say Damian Lillard, because that’s too much of a cliché, but how could it really be anything else? So let’s make it specific at least: How deep will the Grizzlies be with their pickup points on Lillard? Beyond half court? Other free throw line? The lobby at Yacht Club?
Tim MacMahon: How is CJ McCollum moving? I’m guessing the Grizzlies will aggressively double-team Lillard, as the Nets did, and essentially dare McCollum and the rest of the Blazers to beat them. McCollum had 33 points on 14-of-21 shooting in Portland’s bubble-opening win over Memphis, but he hasn’t been as effective since reportedly suffering a nondisplaced fracture in his lower back that night (18 PPG on 39% shooting in the past seven games).
Chris Herring: How will McCollum, with a transverse fracture in his back, perform? He was able to maneuver to the basket in the must-win game with Brooklyn. But he has made only 18% (3-of-17) of his tries from deep the past three games — down from 45% (14-of-31) in the four games before that.
Kevin Pelton: Whether fatigue starts to set in at some point. Of the six top players in minutes during seeding games, four are Blazers (Lillard first, McCollum second, Carmelo Anthony fourth and Gary Trent Jr. sixth). They seemed to be running low on gas in the fourth quarter Thursday, when the Nets grabbed 54% of available offensive rebounds. Will that be an issue with a relatively quick turnaround?
Tim Bontemps: The team’s energy level. The Blazers have expended a ton just to get this point, including playing Lillard the whole second half in Thursday’s win over Brooklyn. Does Portland have enough to close this out on Saturday and get a critical 72 hours of rest before playing the Lakers?
2. For the Grizzlies, what will you be watching most closely?
Young: The first eight minutes for Memphis will reveal a lot. Will the young Grizzlies be shaken under the pressure of the situation, or will ignorance be bliss and they roar out of the gates? Ja Morant has already made a name for himself in fearlessness, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be timid at tipoff.
MacMahon: Likewise, I’m excited to see how Rookie of the Year lock Morant responds to the challenge. Great point guards have a competitive charisma. Lillard epitomizes that with his history of playoff walk-offs and his historic finish to this strange regular season to put Portland in this position. Morant seems to be cut from that kind of mold, and this is a huge test for an immense talent who just celebrated his 21st birthday.
Bontemps: Can Memphis hit shots? For the Grizzlies to have a chance to beat the Blazers, they will need to make 3-pointers, and they have a lot of suspect shooters from deep. To pull this off — especially without Jaren Jackson Jr. — they will need guys to play over their heads.
Herring: Can they take enough advantage of Portland’s porous defense to beat the Blazers twice? If anyone’s up to that task, it’s rookie Brandon Clarke, who had a season-high 27-point showing against Portland earlier in the year. Two of his four best scoring outputs this season came against the Blazers as he made 20-of-27 shots against Portland.
Pelton: How they decide to defend Lillard. There are no good options at this point. Trapping Lillard near half court means giving up regular 4-on-3 opportunities to the other Blazers, but letting Lillard get off any shot at this point is a risky proposition.
3. What’s the potential Saturday surprise we don’t see coming?
Herring: You never know what you’ll get from Carmelo Anthony. After his miserable 1-for-15 effort vs. Memphis on Feb. 12, he scored 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting in a victory over the Grizzlies two weeks ago. He’s a bellwether: The Blazers are 21-10 when Anthony shoots 40% or better, but 7-20 when he’s beneath that mark.
Bontemps: Carmelo has a throwback performance and drops 30 points to get one more crack at his longtime friend LeBron James in a playoff series.
Pelton: Mario Hezonja is a wild card. He gave Portland a huge lift in the seeding opener vs. Memphis, scoring eight points and adding four rebounds, three steals and two assists in 23 minutes. Hezonja later went through a two-game stretch of DNP-CDs, an indication of how widely his role and performance can vary.
MacMahon: Will Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins stick with center Jonas Valanciunas or go small? The big man is coming off a monster performance, recording his first triple-double with 26 points, 19 rebounds and 12 assists in the win over the Bucks. But Portland presents matchup problems for a traditional big who lacks mobility. Valanciunas played only 14 minutes in Memphis’ recent OT loss to the Blazers, when he got into foul trouble. He scored 16 points on 4-of-4 shooting, but the Grizzlies were outscored by 11 in those 14 minutes.
Young: Pull out the box-and-one, Grizzlies! Unlikely, considering the other weapons the Blazers have, but that could be the foundation of a strategy: try to see what other Blazer can beat you. With McCollum not 100% and some inconsistency elsewhere, bracketing and doubling Lillard everywhere could mean big shots are in the hands of Carmelo and Gary Trent Jr.
4. Your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Young: Damian Lillard feels inevitable right now. It could certainly take two games with the friskiness of the Grizzlies, but at some point, Lillard finds a way to come through. It’s what he does.
MacMahon: I’ll go with Portland in a high-scoring affair, something like 125-118. I just can’t pick against a sizzling Dame in this situation. Lillard arrived in Orlando on a mission and has been especially locked in since his clutch missed free throws against the Clippers and the beef that ensued with a couple of dudes that he has sent home before, as the Blazers’ superstar so coolly reminded everyone.
Herring: Without true home-court advantage for Portland, I think we might get to Sunday. Given how fun this restart has been, and to maximize drama, I hope we get two games. And while Portland’s defense is awful, I expect that Dame’s offense will overcome that during one of the two games.
Bontemps: Despite my concerns about their energy level, I think the Blazers are just too talented and experienced for the young Grizzlies. Portland will win by 15 points.
Pelton: Given how Portland games have gone in the bubble, I expect it will be close, neither team will be able to stop the other offense and the Blazers will narrowly pull it out in the end.
5. Play-in winner vs. Lakers: How do you think that shapes up?
Bontemps: From the Lakers’ point of view, the Blazers are the worst possible matchup among the teams who could’ve clinched the eighth seed. L.A. has no one to guard Lillard, and Portland’s size inside can give LeBron trouble at the rim. Ultimately, the Lakers should win, but they are not far from danger. A cold streak of shooting (they are the worst shooting team and worst offensive team in the bubble) or an untimely injury would put them there.
MacMahon: The Blazers are definitely dangerous enough to challenge the Lakers. But Portland is also porous enough defensively to let the Lakers cure a lot of the offensive ills that have ailed them in the bubble. I’ll predict a couple of classic Dame supernova performances in the series, so give me Lakers in six.
Herring: Though Lillard or Morant probably would frustrate the Lakers, I don’t see Portland or Memphis giving the Lakers a serious run in the first round. Memphis doesn’t have the experience, and — despite L.A.’s offensive struggles in the bubble — I don’t think the Blazers have the defense to get it done.
Pelton: While I’m sure the Lakers would rather not face Lillard and a Blazers team with deep playoff experience, I think they should be heavily favored over whichever team wins this series.
Young: The Blazers will push the Lakers in what should be a good series. But even with the Lakers’ issues in the bubble, the Blazers haven’t solved all of theirs either, notably their defensive limitations. Winning four times would require four bonkers games from Lillard, which isn’t hard to imagine. Problem is, that other side can counter with LeBron James and Anthony Davis to offset any Dame Time eruption. Lakers in six.