September 18, 2021

‘Blazers, Suns surging in race for eighth’

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The six-team battle for eighth place in the Western Conference has become even tighter after a week of seeding games – will we see a play-in series and who will be in it?

Friday night’s NBA games live on Sky Sports

  • Jazz @ Spurs | Sky Sports Arena | Friday 6pm
  • Kings @ Nets | Sky Sports Arena | Friday 10pm
  • Wizards @ Pelicans | Sky Sports Action | Saturday 1am
  • Celtics @ Raptors | Sky Sports Arena | Saturday 2am

Memphis’ four-game losing streak has made the race for the eighth seed in the West so exciting. After a week of games, all six teams in the race are within two-and-a-half games of each other. Some teams are surging, some are fading. Some teams you thought would be surging are not and a team no one thought would be surging is doing just that.

CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies 2:26
Highlights of the Memphis Grizzlies’ doube-overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers

The Grizzlies have had a rough 0-4 start in the bubble. It began with a tough double-overtime loss in their opening bubble game against Portland and defeats against San Antonio, New Orleans and Utah followed. Jaren Jackson Jr was great in that opening game but they lost him to a season-ending injury just days later. There has just not been an easy night for them.

That game against the Blazers looks like a pivotal loss. Memphis are a young team and they have not recovered. That defeat has carried over into their subsequent games. With a couple of veterans on the roster, maybe they would have pulled through. Now they still have to play the Thunder and the top three teams in the East.

Morant dunks on Miami in a win for the Grizzlies 2:37
The Memphis Grizzlies are under pressure for the West’s eighth seed, says NBA analyst Kevin McHale

Whatever happens, do not forget the Grizzlies were projected to finish dead last in the West at the start of the season. For now at least, they are sitting in that eighth spot and you could not have asked for any more than that. Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year, he is their leader and he has them way ahead of schedule in terms of their long-term development.

Will they hold on to eighth place? I do not know, it seems like they may have hit their ceiling. But the experience they have gained this season is money in the bank for years to come.

The Grizzlies’ slump has created a tight six-team battle over this final week of seeding games. The Blazers are my No 1 team in this fight. They are 3-1 since entering the bubble and are now just half-a-game behind Memphis.

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Portland beating the Grizzlies in their opening restart game was huge and really set the tone. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have all looked good.

The Portland Trail Blazers kept their NBA playoff hopes alive with a 110-102 victory over the Houston Rockets. 2:40
Highlights of the seeding match between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers from Orlando

The Blazers handed a huge ‘L’ to the Rockets with Dame taking over the game down the stretch and Carmelo Anthony also hitting big shots.

I expect Portland to move past Memphis over the final seeding games. Who do I think they will face in a play-in scenario? I am going to go with the Phoenix Suns, just because of the ride they are on right now. The Grizzlies or the Spurs are more realistic choices but the Suns are just so much fun!

DeAndre Ayton and Devin Booker in action for Phoenix against Milwaukee
Image: Ayton and Booker in action for Phoenix against Milwaukee

The Spurs are a team that you can never cross off. With the franchise’s record-equalling 22-year playoff streak on the line, it is do-or-die time. They have made the line-up change of switching DeMar DeRozan to the four-spot (power forward) and that has done wonders for the team.

They have put their primary scorer (DeRozan) who is a slasher at the four and surrounding him a screener/rebounder and three guys who can knock down catch-and-shoot shots. Any time you have a slasher surrounded by outside shooters, it always helps.

The one thing that hurts the Spurs is their strength of schedule going forward. It is pretty tough with the Jazz (twice), Nuggets and Pelicans ahead. So I’m sticking with the Suns to surprise everyone and finish ninth, earning a place in the play-in game.

But back to the Suns. Devin Booker’s game-winner at the buzzer to beat the Clippers was phenomenal. When you have two of the best defenders in the NBA – Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – flying at you and you hit that shot over them to win the game, that’s unbelievable. We got that great camera shot of him lying there on the court with his team-mates rushing towards him to celebrate.

Relive Devin Booker's epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers. 0:25
Relive Devin Booker’s epic game-winning buzzer beater as the Phoenix Suns upset the Los Angeles Clippers

I think Booker is one of the most underrated guards in the league. The problem is he is down there on ‘Suns Island’ – it’s tough when you are the best player on a team that routinely struggles. No matter what you do, everyone just looks at the win-loss record and labels you accordingly.

Booker has led the way as the Suns have reeled off four straight victories since the restart. He has had 35-, 30- and a 27-point games so far and he is willing them to wins. If ever there were a set of circumstances where the Suns could shock everyone and sneak into the play-in game, it is right now.

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns attempts a three point basket as Aaron Holiday #3 of the Indiana Pacers defends at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 06, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. 2:21
Highlights of the seeding match between the Indiana Pacers and the Phoenix Suns from Orlando

I can see the Suns picking up more wins in their remaining games. They beat Indiana on Thursday night and have Philly, Dallas, OKC and Miami to come. Those are winnable games in my eyes. It’s not like they are running a gauntlet of the LA teams, Toronto and Milwaukee.

Overall, I would love to see the Blazers take that eighth spot via the play-in scenario to set up a Blazers-Lakers series in the first round of the playoffs. What a match-up! Portland have a lot of different pieces and, now with Nurkic back, could give the Lakers some problems.

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