Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Sunday's Essentials

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Game of the Night - Memphis at Oklahoma City (-9, 219), 7:05 ET, NBATV

The Grizzlies remain in last place in the Southwest Division, but it has become clear that they’re going to be one team you’re not going to want to play over the season’s final five weeks. On paper, squaring off against a team with no realistic shot at the playoffs is ideal in a league where over two-thirds of the teams remain in pursuit of a postseason berth, but new-look Memphis simply isn’t going to be any fun to play.

For starters, noted on-ball pest Avery Bradley, one of basketball’s top perimeter defenders, is now on board. He’s picked up his level offensively too, scoring in double-figures in six of eight contests since arriving from the Clippers in a deal that landed L.A. JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple. He’s averaged 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists since arriving, shooting 16-for-37 (43 percent) from 3-point range and still defends at an extremely high level.

Jonas Valanciunas, the centerpiece in the deal that sent Marc Gasol to Toronto, has averaged 18.8 points and 9.7 rebounds since arriving. The 20 points and 10 boards he racked up over 28 minutes in Memphis 111-81 win in Dallas on Saturday night gave him his fourth double-double in six games since joining the team. Since he hadn’t played since Dec. 12 due to thumb surgery, he’s extremely fresh and has been dominant. Joakim Noah, who was waived by New York in a cost-cutting move, started playing in December but needed a few months to get into a rhythm and has been exceptional over the past six weeks, truly shining with more minutes available now that Gasol is gone and prized rookie Jaren Jackson, Jr. is sitting with a quad injury. Over his last eight games, he’s averaged 13.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 blocks despite playing 30 minutes only twice. He’s playing with an infectious energy and has provided reminders over how he was once one of basketball’s top defenders.

Delon Wright, an aggressive defender in his own right, was also targeted by the Grizzlies in the Gasol deal. Together with Bradley and starting point guard Mike Conley, the Griz now have tenacious guards who will make life miserable for opposing ball handlers out of habit, which is why neither Russell Westbrook or backup Dennis Schroder can be looking forward to bouncing back from a disappointing loss in San Antonio by seeing those guys arrive in Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back for both.

Oklahoma City surrendered 38 first-quarter points against the Spurs on Saturday, losing 116-102 in a game that was never really close. While defense was the issue early, scoring just 15 in the third quarter ultimately doomed the Thunder to their fourth consecutive loss, matching their longest losing streak of the season. It’s easy to forget OKC opened 0-4. It will be a little more difficult to overlook them losing their fifth in a row if they come up empty tonight. Given the demands of the Western Conference, a skid can mean the difference between homecourt advantage in the first round and a much more difficult journey.

MVP candidate Paul George is dealing with a sore shoulder and has missed the last two games. Head coach Billy Donovan said Saturday that he doesn’t expect his small forward to participate in today’s home game against Memphis. Schroder has replaced him in the starting lineup and Abdel Nader and the newly acquired Markieff Morris have received increased minutes as a result. Schroder, a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, has shot less than 31 percent from the field, which includes shooting just 6-for-29 from 3-point range. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to slump.

The Thunder and Grizzlies will get together one last time late this month and have only played once this season. OKC held Conley to 4-for-15 shooting on the heels of Memphis dealing Gasol to Toronto and won 117-95. Noah didn’t play and Jackson, Jr., who won’t play tonight, led the Grizzlies with 27 points. This will be a much different team for the Thunder to deal with. Conversely, George led the way with 27 points while Westbrook finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists.

Guard Justin Holiday hurt his knee early in the win in Dallas and never returned, so he’s unlikely to participate. Jackson, Jr. and Kyle Anderson (shoulder), are also out.

Memphis is 2-7 SU and ATS on the second night of a back-to-back, while Oklahoma City has won five of eight outright in this situation, covering the number in four of those games. The Thunder have defeated the Griz eight straight times and have won seven in a row at home against them.

The ‘under’ has connected in seven of the last nine Oklahoma City games and has prevailed in the Grizzlies’ last three contests.

Best of the Rest

Portland at Charlotte, 1:05 p.m. ET: The Trail Blazers are putting a lot of pressure on all the teams struggling out of the All-Star break, entering Sunday’s action as the No. 4 seed in the West. They’ll get new backup center Enes Kanter back after he chose not to make the trip into Canada due to political pressure from the current regime in his native Turkey, so his “migraine” won’t be an issue in Charlotte. Evan Turner, who is dealing with a knee issue, is listed as questionable. Portland had its five-game winning streak snapped by Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater in Friday night’s 119-117 Raptors’ win, but has now covered in six consecutive games. The Hornets snapped a season-worst three-game losing streak by trouncing the Nets in Brooklyn 123-112 but are still just 3-7 over their last 10 games. The Blazers won 127-96 in the only meeting between these teams back on Jan. 11 behind C.J. McCollum’s 30 points. The ‘over’ has prevailed in five of the last six contests involving Charlotte.

Houston at Boston, 3:35 p.m. ET, ABC: The Celtics snapped a season-long four-game winning streak by dumping the Wizards 107-96 on Friday night, taking advantage of a cold shooting night from the visitors. This will be their final home game until March 14 as a four-game West Coast road trip awaits this coming week against Golden State, Sacramento and both Staples Center residents. The Rockets come off a dramatic 121-118 comeback win over the Heat in Miami behind a 58-point, 10-assist game from James Harden, who was incredible in helping his team rally from a 21-point deficit. Houston is a season-best 12 games over .500 and is looking to sweep Boston after posting a 127-113 win over the Celtics on Dec. 27 in a game where they posted a 55-37 rebound advantage, led by 19 from Clint Capela. Harden scored 45 points to fuel the win. Eric Gordon, who missed the win over Miami, is expected to return from a knee issue, while backup forward Kenneth Faried (hip) has also been upgraded to probable. Gerald Green (illness) is questionable, while wing defender Iman Shumpert, who has been trying to overcome by a calf injury, is doubtful to play.

Toronto at Detroit, 6:05 p.m. ET: Detroit’s Dwane Casey will face the Raptors for the second time after being fired despite winning Coach of the Year honors last season and can only hope for a similar outcome as the first meeting, which was undoubtedly more emotional than this one will be. The Pistons got him a 106-104 win over former assistant Nick Nurse in Toronto in the only scheduled matchup between these neighbors to be played in Canada. Blake Griffin led the way with 30 points and will look to help Detroit get the better of the Raptors’ formidable frontcourt, which has led the team to victories in nine of the last 10 games. If the playoffs were to start today, this would be the East’s 2-7 matchup, adding to the intrigue here. The ‘over’ has prevailed in seven of eight games involving Detroit.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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