When the NBA announced its plans for the eight-game seeding round prior to the playoffs, with a play-in series for the eight seed in each conference if the ninth place team is within four games, the focus of most went to the Western Conference race. The Grizzlies had a 3.5 game edge on Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento, while the Spurs and Suns were also lurking, but with little expectation of leapfrogging their way into contention.
However, a slow start for the Grizzlies, Kings, Blazers, and Pelicans, has suddenly allowed San Antonio, despite the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge, to move into ninth just two games behind Memphis for eighth after back-to-back wins over Sacramento and, on Sunday evening, Memphis. The Spurs beat Memphis 108-106 in a game in which they lead for most of the game, but did see the Grizzlies claw their way back to tie it with 10 seconds to go.
Jaren Jackson Jr., who has emerged as one of the league’s best shooting big men in his second year, hit a ridiculous three-pointer from the corner on an inbounds play to tie things, but on the ensuing possession, DeMar DeRozan used his wily veteran tricks to get Dillon Brooks in the air on a pumpfake to earn two free throws with just a second to play.
Jaren Jackson Jr hits the three to tie the game at 106-106 but Demar gets fouled on the other end pic.twitter.com/La8VU6YtRt
— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) August 2, 2020
DeRozan made his two free throws — after having just missed a pair to give Memphis a chance to tie — and a Jackson deep three from the top of the key bounced harmlessly off the backboard on the Grizzlies last gasp attempt. The loss moved Memphis to 0-2 in the restart, having also lost to Portland in the opener, and the four teams who came in eighth and ninth in the West are now 1-6 in their opening games (with Sacramento on down 21 to Orlando in the first half at the time of writing).
That’s opened the door for San Antonio to suddenly take control of their destiny in the bubble, which has to be the nightmare situation for the NBA. The Spurs are solid, if unspectacular, and in a West race filled with young budding stars, the league was surely hoping to see those players take center stage. Instead, it’s the team with the league’s longest playoff streak that is threatening to extend it, behind the play of DeRozan, who was dismal for much of Sunday’s game before coming to life late with some huge baskets, and a mixture of young talent in Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, and veterans like Rudy Gay.
Murray paced the Spurs on Sunday with 21 points and 10 assists, while white filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, seven rebounds, and six dimes. DeRozan had just 14 points, but they came when it counted most, including this preposterous shot over a textbook contest from Jaren Jackson Jr.
It maybe shouldn’t be a surprise that the Spurs and Blazers, two teams with the biggest leading veteran presences in the West race, have looked the most solid out of the gates. The Pelicans, Kings, and Grizzlies all fed off of the energy, momentum, and confidence they gained during regular season runs and now have to find a way to manufacture that again. San Antonio, meanwhile, plods along steadily and the Blazers look solid, even with a loss to Boston on Sunday that was not for a lack of effort in coming back from 24 down to take a late lead.
There was plenty of fascination entering the seeding round with the race for eighth in the West, but now it’s only become more of a jumbled mess, with the Spurs and Blazers separated by just a half game and New Orleans and Sacramento desperate to stop the bleeding and get back into the mix, 1.5 back of Sacramento.