NBA

NBA campus intel: Memphis needs a win to stay ahead of the bubble teams

Ja Morant takes great pride in his supreme vision, often celebrating especially sweet assists by pretending to put on goggles, forming rings with his fingers and putting them over his eyes, a move mimicked by fans ecstatically surprised by the young, fun Memphis Grizzlies’ success this season.

But there’s one thing Morant doesn’t want to see right now: the Western Conference standings, specifically the section of the teams fighting for the West’s final playoff bid. He’s also tired of hearing about it, as the Grizzlies’ grip on the No. 8 spot has slipped significantly during the NBA’s restart.

The Walt Disney World Resort definitely hasn’t been the most magical place on earth for the Grizzlies to this point. They’ve lost their first four games — the first three to a few of the teams on their tail, the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans — and have been depleted by injuries to small forward Justise Winslow (hip), point guard Tyus Jones (knee) and franchise cornerstone power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee).

“Media’s going to [say], ‘Oh well, they had this lead. Now they have this lead. Somebody’s coming to take it,'” Morant said. “We can’t pay attention to that, because that will lead to us trying to put pressure on us, which we don’t have to. We’re learning from everything we’re going through right now. We still have four games to play, and we’re just going to attack those four games.”

Those four opponents: the Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.

Suddenly, the biggest bubble question about the Grizzlies isn’t which team they might face in the play-in scenario that Morant described as unfair to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. It’s whether the Grizzlies will be able to keep the advantage of being the eighth-place team — which needs to just get a split of two games to punch its playoff ticket — or participate at all.

Entering Friday, Memphis’ lead over Portland had shrunk to half a game.

But the big picture remains bright for the Grizzlies. After all, the big question entering the season in Memphis was whether a team in the early stages of a rebuild would be bad enough to keep the top-six-protected pick owed to the Boston Celtics.

Not that exceeding expectations eases the ache of the growing pains the Grizzlies have experienced during the season restart.

“All of us want to make it to somewhere we’ve never been,” Memphis shooting guard Dillon Brooks said. “That’s going to take a lot of heart, a lot of grit. We’ve got to grind it out, but like everyone says, it’s hard to make it to the playoffs. We’re seeing that now.” — Tim MacMahon

PAST BUBBLE INTEL: July 30 | July 31 | Aug. 1 | Aug. 2 | Aug. 3 | Aug. 4 | Aug. 5 | Aug. 6

Latest buzz

Zion (rest) out tonight vs. Wizards

With the New Orleans Pelicans on the second day of a back-to-back, No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson will sit out tonight’s game against the Washington Wizards for rest purposes. Williamson has averaged 19.1 minutes per game in the Pelicans’ four seeding games, three of which have resulted in losses. The rookie is putting up 16.8 PPG on 58.3% shooting in that stretch.

Jordan Clarkson gets ridiculous lay-up to drop

The Utah Jazz are playing without four starters today against the San Antonio Spurs, which has meant backup guard Jordan Clarkson has been the driving force of the Jazz offense. In his first 14 minutes of action, he’s put up 15 points on 11 shots, including this must-see twisting lay-up.

Friday’s must-see games

Utah Jazz vs. San Antonio Spurs | 1 p.m. ET

After such a strong start, time is starting to run out on the Spurs. The margin of error gets thinner by the game, and they face a Jazz team desperate to start rebuilding rhythm and chemistry. Seeding isn’t necessarily a maximum priority for Utah. Figuring things out is. — Royce Young

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies | 4 p.m. ET

Things are starting to get pretty must-win-ish for the Grizzlies. Not only are they at risk of flipping from eighth to ninth, thereby needing two wins in the play-in tourney rather than just one, but they might fall out of it altogether. The Blazers are just half a game back; the Suns and Spurs just two. And the Thunder aren’t exactly an ideal matchup with their size, length and depth. — Young

Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors | 9 p.m. ET

With these teams having a chance to match up in the second round of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see how both coaches approach it. The Raptors have been extremely impressive in the bubble, and the Celtics bounced back from a tough loss to Miami by dropping a cool 149 on the Nets. — Young

Additional games

  • Sacramento Kings vs. Brooklyn Nets | 5 p.m. ET

  • Orlando Magic vs. Philadelphia 76ers | 6:30 p.m. ET

  • Washington Wizards vs. New Orleans Pelicans | 8 p.m. ET

Full scoreboard for Friday

Play-in watch

Big moves could be made in both conferences Friday.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards are all in action. Wins by the Nets and Magic or just a Wizards loss will formally eliminate the need for an Eastern Conference play-in weekend.

In the West, all eyes are on the Grizzlies as they could be tied with Portland for the 8-seed. The Kings and Pelicans are also in action for the second day in a row, and the Spurs look to keep up in the matinee game.

Eastern Conference

7. Brooklyn Nets | 32-36 (.471) |
8. Orlando Magic | 32-37 (.464) |
9. Washington Wizards | 24-44 (.353) | 7.5 GB

Western Conference

8. Memphis Grizzlies | 32-37 (.464) | —
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 32-38 (.457) | 0.5 GB
10. Phoenix Suns | 30-39 (.435) | 2.0 GB
11. San Antonio Spurs | 29-38 (.433) | 2.0 GB
12. Sacramento Kings | 29-39 (.426) | 2.5 GB
13. New Orleans Pelicans | 29-39 (.426) | 2.5 GB

Full standings | Playoff matchups

Saturday’s must-see games

LA Clippers vs. Portland Trail Blazers | 1 p.m. ET

After losing to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, the Clippers got back on track by beating the Dallas Mavericks — their likely quarterfinals opponent — on Thursday behind 29 points from Kawhi Leonard. Portland, meanwhile, will be looking to knock off yet another surefire playoff team in the West after beating the Houston Rockets on Tuesday and the Denver Nuggets on Thursday. The Trail Blazers continue their push for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Utah Jazz vs. Denver Nuggets | 3:30 p.m. ET

Denver will be hoping to get closer to full strength, as the Nuggets have played each of their first four games — which they split — with starters Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton all sitting out because of injuries. Utah, on the other hand, will be playing the second half of a back-to-back after it opens Friday’s slate of games with a matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.

Additional games

  • Los Angeles Lakers vs. Indiana Pacers | 6 p.m. ET

  • Phoenix Suns vs. Miami Heat | 7:30 p.m. ET

  • Milwaukee Bucks vs. Dallas Mavericks | 8:30 p.m. ET

Full scoreboard for Saturday

Analysis and intel

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This week’s spotlight lands on a very real surprise contender, two Suns doing things and the best socks in the bubble.

Picking the NBA all-bubble team: The five best stars so far

Kirk Goldsberry takes a look at the players who are thriving in an unprecedented environment.

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