What to watch for in today's NBA action

Two days left in this wildly entertaining seeding round

Time in quarantine flows strangely, where we’re somehow halfway through August yet it still feels like March 58th. We’re also two days away from the end of the NBA’s seeding round, and these final moments should provide a ton of intrigue on a busy Thursday.

Here are several storylines to monitor today in what should be a wonderful day of basketball.

Memphis Grizzlies: holding on for dear life

When the NBA season stopped back in March, the upstart Memphis Grizzlies held sole possession of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Memphis’s rookies came to play—Ja Morant likely ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, while Brandon Clarke produced efficiently all year long. Improvements from their young core of players like Jaren Jackson, Jr, Dillon Brooks, and De’Anthony Melton brought Memphis to unexpected success.

Their surprising playoff berth—and inevitably quick loss to the Lakers—would be free low-stakes basketball for a fanbase thrilled by the quick rebuild.

Enter, the bubble.

The NBA decided to invite 22 teams to Orlando for the season restart, giving teams like the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, and New Orleans Pelicans a chance to catch Memphis and slip into the playoffs.

I’m sure that 22 teams idea had nothing to do with a potential LeBron vs Zion Williamson round one matchup in the playoffs. Just look at how they promoted these games! (Hat tip to Reddit user GiveMeSomeIhedigbo for finding this).

While Zion and his Pelicans ended up missing the playoffs, Memphis hasn’t solidified their spot just yet.

A forced play-in round between the eighth and ninth seeds added yet another potential roadblock to the Grizzlies, and the team stumbled into every single divot. Memphis lost six of their first seven games, turning at minimum a fantastic shot at the play-in round into potentially missing the playoffs entirely.

They lost Jaren Jackson, Jr. to a knee injury, and tonight need a win over the Milwaukee Bucks to ensure they’re in the play-in game. Milwaukee will be without league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who just got suspended for headbutting poor Mo Wagner, but still pose a huge threat for an undermanned Grizzlies squad.

What’s at stake for the Grizzlies? Tom Ziller outlined it well here.

The Grizzlies are now at risk of missing the play-in — they either have to win on Thursday vs. the Bucks or they need to rely on the Suns and Spurs both losing. The Grizzlies and Suns play the earliest games of the set on Thursday, so they won’t have the benefit of knowing where the Spurs and Blazers end up.

Tune in at 4:00PM EST to see if they avoid the worst case scenario.

Just like me in Warzone, Damian Lillard’s carrying the squad

On Tuesday night, Damian Lillard scored 61 points to beat the Dallas Mavericks and drag his Portland team one game closer to the playoffs. He told Chris Haynes exactly why he came to Orlando.

“I didn’t come here to waste my time”.

He certainly hasn’t. Prior to his career-high night against Dallas, Lillard dropped 51 on the 76ers. Only twelve players in NBA history scored fifty or more points in consecutive games, per Basketball Reference. Bradley Beal did it most recently in February 2020, while Kobe Bryant posted the last streak of more than two games above 50, with a truly bonkers 65/50/60/50 in 2007.

For the season, Lillard posted a 33.5% usage, 12th highest in the league per Cleaning the Glass. Usage tracks the share of the team’s offense and helps track the workload for each player.

Lillard’s usage skyrocketed in the bubble. He’s up to 43.5% and 45.5% in his last two games, both vital wins in their playoff push. Lillard takes nearly half of his teams’ possessions, producing points, assists, or turnovers on every other trip down the court.

With CJ McCollum fighting a back fracture, Lillard might need to drop another fifty-burger on the Nets tonight to clinch a playoff spot.

Bogdan Bogdanović, thanks for reading

Last week, we highlighted the miserable night at the office for Bogdan Bogdanović, who missed his first fourteen field goal attempts and barely avoided joining a list of NBA infamy.

In his very next game, Bogdanović posted a career high 35 points, shooting 65% from the field and dropping six three pointers in a 140-125 Sacramento Kings victory. Incensed by the comparisons to 1940s legend Howie Dallmar, Bogdanović led his team to their first win in the bubble.

Bogdanović enters the offseason as a restricted free agent, and with the Kings eliminated, he and his teammates will be playing out the string and auditioning for next season against the Lakers this afternoon.

I promise to write vaguely critical articles any time you need inspiration, Bogdan!

Toil and trouble in the Wizards’ Bubble, but the Suns’ still bright

With Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans, and John Wall all sitting out Orlando, the Washington Wizards knew wins would be rare. Yet, they’re one game away from exiting the bubble as the only team without a single victory.

This seven-game losing streak stands as Washington’s worst of the season, with an average deficit of 11.9. Their most memorable moment in Orlando may be providing a skull for Giannis to attack.

No one expected the shorthanded Wizards to contend, but an 0-for-8 trip to Disney certainly isn’t magical. Washington faces a Boston team locked in the third seed and unlikely to take this game seriously. If they’re ever going to cobble together a win, tomorrow at noon might be their best bet. Take a long lunch break and watch Isaac Bonga go to work.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix Suns have yet to lose in Orlando and now sit tied with Memphis for the nine seed. They face a Dallas team already committed to the seventh seed, and with a win and either of Portland or Memphis losing, Phoenix shocks the world and gets into the play-in round.

If you’re looking for more details on the upstart Suns, I loved this analysis by Ben Falk.

Weekend plans

The NBA’s seeding games end this Friday, but the most interesting sporting event might be happening late Saturday night at UFC 252. In the main event, Stipe Miocic defends his heavyweight title against Daniel Cormier, a conclusion to their epic trilogy of fights.

This title fight offers a rare opportunity for two of the best ever to end a rivalry in style. Cormier’s hinted that this fight will be his last, regardless of result, while Miocic—already owning the UFC record for heavyweight title defenses—might also walk away if he wins.

MMA fandom forces you into strange mental knots, where two athletes you admire and enjoy immensely lock themselves in a cage and aim to do grievous bodily harm to each other. I might have a hard time rooting between Jimmy Butler and Giannis, but the losing side won’t end up bloodied and unconscious—Mo Wagner excluded.

I will say that, for anyone looking for more information on the fighters, there’s no better resource than Shaheen Al-Shatti’s piece on Cormier. Al-Shatti interviewed a variety of teammates, coaches, opponents, and friends of the former champ to better understand what makes him great and what it feels like to face him in the cage.

He’s done similar profiles of Jose Aldo and Michael Bisping, and for my money there’s no better way to appreciate and understand a fighter. Check out his profile of Cormier, and tune in Saturday to see what will hopefully cap off the best heavyweight trilogy of all-time.

Thanks for reading! Hoping you and yours are staying safe and healthy out there.