As Memphis’ Grizzlies head into a pandemic-forced play-in game for a shot at the NBA Playoffs, they do so with odds makers and other observers pinning them with the underdog label.
“Being the underdog, don’t matter to us,” said Ja Morant, Memphis’ star point guard and the league’s presumptive Rookie of the Year.
“We love being the underdog. That is just extra motivation and fuel for the fire. That just makes our success even better.
On Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. CDT), Morant and the Grizzlies take on Portland and the blazing hot Damien Lillard. The Grizzlies will have to defeat the Trailblazers twice to receive the last playoffs spot in the Western Conference. Portland has only to beat Memphis once to advance.
The two teams met in the first game in the NBA’s bubble-environment in Florida. Portland won that game in overtime, 140-135. If necessary, the two teams will play on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on ABC.
Memphis earned its way into the play-in scenario with a 119-106 victory over Milwaukee on Wednesday. The Bucks, who played without suspended superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, had five players to score in double figures but that was not nearly enough to derail the Grizzlies.
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the Grizzlies had two players rack triple-doubles in the same game. Jonas Valanciunas recorded his first ever triple-double with 26 points, 19 rebounds and 12 assists, a career high. Morant’s second career triple-double produced 12 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
“We played together. It is fun to play that way,” said Valanciunas. “It is fun to see your teammates make some shots, having fun playing basketball. That was the biggest key for us today.”
Morant put his career-high rebound night in perspective.
“When I am able to rebound, I am able to push the break quicker,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that can be a playmaker all over the floor. Tonight you witnessed JV’s (Jonas Valanciunas’ )play making ability.”
With the regular season complete, Morant said it means a lot for the Grizzlies (33-39) to have exceeded expectations, with 27 the number of games many analysts predicted they would win. He also reflected on his first year in the league
“It is hard coming in as a rookie,” he said. “I am still learning. One of my goals this year was to be better than I was at the beginning of the season.”
Memphis played its best game since the NBA restart following the league’s decision to halt play because of the COVID-19 pandemic and never trailed.
The often-maligned Dillon Brooks had his best game in the bubble. He scored 31 points, making 12 of 18 of his shots. Criticized for his shot selection of late, he made 4 of 7 baskets from three-point range. Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke had 10 points each in the winning effort.
“I am so proud of them,” said head coach Taylor Jenkins, an assistant with the Bucks last season. “They recognized the moment and opportunity. They came out with the appropriate focus and edge. We got to play our pace, Grizzlies basketball.”
The Grizzlies turned in a stellar defensive performance, forcing one of the league’s best three-point shooting teams into a number of uncomfortable shots. The Bucks only shot 39 percent from the field. Memphis also won the rebounding battle, grabbing 55 boards compared to 46 by Milwaukee.
Memphis had 36 assists on 45 made baskets and shot 50 percent from the field.