Every Game Counts: The race between Memphis, Portland and San Antonio for the 8th seed is heating up

The Portland Trailblazers have become the lovable “Cinderella story” in the bubble.

The return of Nurkic and Zach Collins, who missed most or all of the season due to surgeries, have given the Blazers a new sense of life. Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ coach, spoke about the difference in the Blazers with those two on the floor, calling it “night and day”

He said having “elite screeners” on the floor at all times for Lillard and McCollum, makes the Blazers a dangerous offensive threat for every minute of the game.

The greatness of Damian Lillard was on full display against the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon. He lit up the Celtics with his shooting and playmaking ability, for game totals of 30 points and 16 assists.

Their presence also allows Carmelo Anthony, or “Skinny Melo” as he’s been dubbed in the Bubble, to slide back to the small forward position. So far it has been a success as he’s shown how efficient and lethal he can be even at his age.

Another hidden gem on the Blazers during the bubble has been Gary Trent Jr. He emerged from the Dame-CJ McCollum shadows with not one, not two, but seven 3s.

For much of the second half Sunday, Portland looked, as Boston coach Brad Stevens predicted, not like “the ninth-place Portland team,” but “the Western Conference finalists from last year.”

But the Blazers lost, anyway, and because of what happened in another gym, about 300 feet away at Disney World, they’re now tied for 9th in the West, with the an unlikely team.

The San Antonio Spurs, whom many discounted headed into this restart, beat the Memphis Grizzlies Sunday, withstanding a late rally. Nothing about the current Spurs is electric or fun, but that has been the Spurs way for years now. They simply win basketball games under Coach Popovich.

“Obviously a lot of people counted us out, from us not having all our guys,” said the Spurs’ DeJounte Murray, their leading scorer with 21 points on Sunday.

Not only is LaMarcus Aldridge gone for the season due to shoulder surgery, but also Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes could not play due to injury.

The Grizzlies entered the bubble in eighth place, with a three-game lead over the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings, and 3-½ games better than the Spurs. Where it stands in the West now, thanks to losses by those Grizzlies to the Spurs Sunday and, yes, the Blazers on Friday, is the Spurs had passed the Blazers for sole possession of the 9th seed. But a heart breaking loss on Monday against Philly has the Spurs and Blazers tied for the 9th seed.

Both teams are just 2 games back of the Grizzlies, with the Pelicans just a half game behind them. The race for the 8th, and 9th seeds will be intense with every loss being potentially season ending. The players and coaches second that opinion.

“This is the playoffs for us,” said Lillard, whose 30 points and 16 assists were awesome, just not quite enough in a 128-124 loss to the Celtics.

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins compared the 8 game bubble season to the last month of the baseball season, calling it “a pennant race.”

“The talk of the bubble, or whatever, really doesn’t matter,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after the loss to Boston. “What I like about the way we approach this is a pretty singular focus on how important each game is.”

When you’re one of three teams battling for two spots it is a tough mental game within the actual physical games. Should you worry about the team you’re trying to catch — the Grizzlies — or the team that is on your heels fighting for that 9th spot? It is a tough philosophy to pick between.

If you finish with the 8th seed, would only have to beat the ninth-place team once in a play-in round, whereas the 9th seed must beat No. 8 twice. So the upside is in snagging the 8th spot, but while at 9 you can’t completely ignore the teams behind you. The Blazers and Spurs are the living example.

The Spurs under Popovich have reached the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons. The streak was in jeopardy before the hiatus and still is, although things are obviously looking better for San Antonio through its three games of the restart. They’re 2-1, and a possession away from being a perfect 3-0 if it weren’t for 76ers guard Shake Milton hitting a game winner.

The Spurs have leaned heavily on their star player DeMar DeRozan. He has been the featured player throughout the 4th quarters.

“Most people go to their best players in the fourth quarter,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich deadpanned, when asked about DeRozan’s late touches.

Popovich gave a more in-depth answer when asked about the level of play in the few games played in the bubble.

“It’s been better than I expected,” Popovich said. “Everybody’s been much crisper, whether it’s the best team and the highest seeds, or teams like us just trying to get in.”

For Popovich’s Spurs, the opportunity of making the playoffs is just that, an opportunity. They, like the Grizzlies are not a threat to the 1 seeded Lakers. But the experience will be good for the young guys, and it keeps one of the best streaks in sports history alive. So the Lakers fan is rooting hard for Popovich to work his magic and land the Spurs a playoff birth.

Currently it is a 3 team race for 2 spots, but if the Pelicans unleash Zion Williamson, look out because this will only get more interesting.

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