Predicting the outcome of a single, winner-take-all game without any prior precedent hasn’t been done by this website or any other website in basketball history.
It seems silly to pick who’s going to win a single game without watching one or two games between the two teams first. But for Trail Blazers and Grizzlies, there isn’t that option. They haven’t played six games in a series prior to this one, even though it has the same implications as a Game 7 for one team. Any of the two matchups they had in the regular season are subject to some flaws – February’s meeting featured a Portland team that looks nothing like is does now, and even though the two played just 15 days ago in Orlando, it was the first game back for either after nearly five months off. How much stock can we really put into it?
This serves as a buffer and warning for what’s below. Take all the analysis and predictions with a grain of salt, because this is uncharted territory. To think deeply about a single game in this sport is not how things are typically done, but it is what sells, and there’s no doubting that eyes will be on it.
Play-In Game: No.8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.9 Memphis Grizzlies
Ultimately, the deep analysis mentioned above may not totally be needed for this game(s). The outcome might be based on a single simple factor.
Damian Lillard is about as hot as a basketball player can be right now. He’s averaging 51.3 points per game over his last three, has sinked 21 threes, is forcing teams to blitz him over the half court line and is still sticking it in their face by pulling up from the logo and making those shots as well.
It feels like Lillard has reached an unprecedented level of individual play each of the last three years. He had a six game stretch back in late January where he averaged 48.8 points a game and hit a sickening 57 percent of his threes while taking 14.3 a game. In the bubble thus far, Lillard is averaging 37.6 points a game with 9.6 assists and is shooting 43.6 percent from deep. During the 2018-19 season, he had back-to-back 40 point games early in the year and led Portland over Oklahoma City in the playoffs while just cooking the rest of the league. Lillard’s now the guy where it’s just mind-boggling that he hasn’t made the Finals yet, because he’s performed like someone who’d be the best player on the court in them the past three years.
“Dame Time” has inflicted itself on multiple teams thus far in Orlando. Memphis seems to be next up. As long as Lillard doesn’t fall apart, the Grizzlies are likely screwed in this matchup. The Trail Blazers point guard has taken it upon himself to make sure Portland doesn’t lose lately – he’s performed in such a way that makes losing virtually impossible, no matter how close they come to it. When players ascend to this level, there’s just nothing an opponent can do. It’s the Stephen Curry/LeBron James/Kevin Durant level, where nothing a team tries works. Those guys’ impact just outweighs everything else.
Memphis doesn’t exactly have the feisty defensive guards that have given Lillard trouble in the past, a la the Elfrid Payton’s and Rajon Rondo’s of the 2017-2018 playoffs. Ja Morant is incredible on one end, however he isn’t going to get up in Lillard’s grill and bother him. De’Anthony Melton is a good player who’s had an underrated season, but we’re kidding ourselves if he’s going to stop Lillard. Memphis has the ability to try and swallow Lillard with the likes of the longer Brandon Clarke, but the Bubble MVP has proved that the only strategy that semi-works against him is the heavy blitzing and trapping schemes, and doing that leaves the likes of Gary Trent Jr. (A revelation) and CJ McCollum open for threes.
Regardless of what Lillard does, Memphis just doesn’t have the firepower to get a single win against Portland. That was likely the case even if this game was played pre-bubble. Now, after watching the Grizzlies offense completely sputter thanks to what seems to be the effect of high stakes games on young players, it feels like they don’t have a chance. It would take a special effort from Morant, and some lights out shooting from Anthony Tolliver for them to keep up. For now, “Dame Time” is still what the clock is showing, and who knows when its hands will come back around.
Prediction: Portland in 1