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Three Thoughts on Portland Winning NBA's Inaugural Play-In Game

Portland advanced to the playoffs by virtue of a 126–122 win over the Grizzlies on Saturday. The Blazers will face the Lakers in the first round beginning Wednesday.

The Trail Blazers, after multiple heroic efforts from Damian Lillard, are officially in the playoffs. Portland won the NBA’s inaugural play-in game Saturday, toppling the Grizzlies 126–122 to enter the postseason. Damian Lillard, the bubble MVP, scored 31 points while dishing out 10 assists, including a kickout pass to Carmelo Anthony for the game-clinching three. Jusuf Nurkic added 22 points and 21 rebounds just hours after learning of his grandmother's death from COVID-19, while rookie Ja Morant had 35 points in a losing effort for Memphis. 

Here are three thoughts on a historic(!) day for the NBA.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts after making a three point basket against the Dallas Mavericks during the second half of a NBA game at The Field House.

Portland’s Defense is Now on Notice

The Blazers went on an incredible run to claw back into the playoffs, and their reward is a Lakers team that has practically been the No. 1 seed in the West all season long. Though Los Angeles’s offense has struggled in Orlando, its attack was 11th-best in the regular season. And Anthony Davis and LeBron James are two of the toughest matchups (to say the least!) in the Association.

Meanwhile, Portland’s defense has been more of a suggestion than a cohesive unit in the restart. In the seeding games plus Saturday’s play-in, here are the point totals put up by Blazers opponents: 135, 128, 102, 115, 122, 121, 131, 133, 122. As great as Lillard has been, the team has been equally bad trying to slow down opponents. And Portland is weakest at the positions needed to slow down James and Davis. Who matches up with LeBron—Melo? Gary Trent? Is Zach Collins supposed to check AD?

If the Blazers have any hope, it’s that they’re comfortable playing in shootouts. That seems to be their only chance to beat the Lakers. It sounds counterintuitive to get into an offensive tit-for-tat with LeBron and AD, but Portland is going to have to lean heavily on its scoring if they want any chance against a Lakers team that finished with the third-best defense in the NBA. If the Blazers have any advantage, it’s what they can do from outside the arc. Portland finished the regular season with the third-best three-point shooting percentage as a team; Los Angeles finished 21st.

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The Grizzlies Deserved a Shot at Full Strength

Morant was sensational in his first taste of pseudo-postseason action. In a must-win game, he shot 46% from the field and hit three of his six three-point attempts as Portland dared him to shoot from the outside. It’s remarkable that the Grizzlies made it this far to begin with, and even more praiseworthy considering how decimated the team was by the end of Saturday’s game.

Jaren Jackson Jr. tore the meniscus in his left knee during the seeding games, Justise Winslow was hurt in practice before the games began, and Tyus Jones also never saw a minute of action in Orlando due to a knee injury. On top of all that, Morant revealed after the game that he played through a fractured thumb during his team's last four games. The Grizz were a young team with a somewhat patchwork rotation giving a veteran, playoff-experienced Blazers squad all they could handle.

Hopefully this roster gets healthy before next season. Ja is already proving himself to be a fearless, big-game player. The future is incredibly bright in Memphis. The deck was just stacked against the Grizz on Saturday.

You Can’t Manufacture Drama

So what does the NBA do with the play-in format? I don’t know that it’s an obvious home run. Saturday’s game was entertaining, but it definitely lacked the excitement of the thriller between the Blazers and Nets on Thursday, which somehow felt even higher stakes. A true one-off play-in likely would have been much more tense, but also unfair to the team who finished with the eighth seed. There’s also the matter of the Suns, who went 8–0 in the bubble in and still had to go home. (The people who feel bad about that probably didn’t watch enough of Phoenix before the restart.)

I don’t think the NBA can create drama by simply adding a play-in for future seasons. The scenario in which Portland found themselves in happens every now and then. (There was a natural play-in for the No. 8 seed between the Wolves and Nuggets in Game 82 two years ago.) 

If the NBA really wants to do something drastic, the seeding games have largely been exciting because so many bad teams were left behind. If the league can find a way to create more seeding games in the future—basically excising lottery teams and forcing competition between playoff-bound squads—that could have more potential than an arbitrary play-in game based on a silly cutoff. Then again, competition between playoff teams already happens in the, uh, playoffs. Maybe the league can stick to what already works so well.