The biggest questions ahead of Sunday’s showdown between the Warriors and Grizzlies

This is what the NBA was hoping for when it debuted the play-in tournament for this pandemic-condensed season. Sunday’s season finale between the Warriors and Grizzlies is a primetime event pitting generational star Stephen Curry against next-gen stunner Ja Morant in a winner-take-all duel for the No. 8 seed in the West playoffs.

“In effect, tomorrow is a playoff game,” coach Steve Kerr said after Saturday’s practice.

Remember when the second half of the schedule wasn’t released until the All-Star break? At that point, Golden State was 19-18 and Memphis was 16-16. They hadn’t played each other yet, and Sunday’s game will be the tie-breaker after both teams took one of the first two meetings in March. The league, somehow predicting these teams would be jockeying for playoff position, manufactured this showdown. Shout out to that algorithm.

Here are the biggest questions for both teams heading into Sunday’s game.

What’s at stake?

The motivation for winning Sunday is clear: The winner will move on to the play-in tournament as the No. 8 seed and have two chances to win one game and advance to the playoffs. The loser drops to the No. 9 seed and will have to win two straight games to advance, the first against the 10th-seed Spurs.

The play-in tournament matches the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds, with the winner claiming the No. 7 seed in the playoffs. The loser of that game plays the winner of the 9-10 matchup, with the winner taking the No. 8 seed. The play-in begins next week with Eastern Conference teams playing Tuesday and Thursday and Western Conference teams playing Wednesday and Friday. The playoffs start May 22.

In preparation for this game, both teams rested several starters in meaningless games Friday. For Golden State (38-33), Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins got a night off. For Memphis (38-33), Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and others took a break.

What did they learn from the first two meetings?

This is the third and final meeting against the Grizzlies this season. The teams split the first two, with the Warriors winning the first on March 19 and the Grizzlies winning the next night. Curry did not play in either of those games after bruising his tailbone in a March 17 win in Houston. Had Curry played, this game might not matter. Golden State went 1-6 without him.

Jordan Poole started for Curry in both games. On the first night, he scored 25 points on 10 for 15 shooting while Wiggins poured in a season-high 40. The Warriors assisted on 31 of 44 made baskets and kept the rebounding margin close.

On the second night, Poole scored 26 and Wiggins had 20, but six Grizzlies scored in double-digits and Golden State was out-rebounded by 14 and gave up 21 second-chance points.

Although it’s hard to draw conclusions since the Warriors were without Curry and the Grizzlies were without Jackson — probably their second-best player who is now finding his form after missing most of the season with a meniscus injury — but both games provided the blueprint for how each of these teams can win. For the Warriors, get contributions from Curry’s supporting cast. For the Grizzlies, dominate the glass.

Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas (17) struggles for control of the ball with Golden State Warriors guards Damion Lee (1) and Brad Wanamaker (10) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Do the Warriors have an answer for Jonas Valanciunas?

The key to the Grizzlies winning will be by pounding the offensive glass, a strength of theirs and a weakness of Golden State’s. The Grizzlies rank fifth in offensive rebounding percentage (28.4) and first in second-chance points (15 per game). The Warriors give up the fourth-most offensive rebounds per game (10.7).

Driving that is Valanciunas — their bruising, 6-foot-11 cinder block of a human. Valanciunas is second in the league averaging four offensive rebounds a game and has scored 314 second-chance points this season, behind only Portland’s Enes Kanter. Like Kanter, Valanciunas is relentless on the offensive glass. He’s big, has great timing and uses his strong hands to vacuum in rebounds and bully his way into a bucket. Last season, he dominated Golden State for 31 points and 19 rebounds.

The Warriors are small. Kevon Looney is 6-foot-9 and Draymond Green and Juan Toscano-Anderson are 6-foot-6. The front office just added Jordan Bell, but he’s just 6-foot-8 and is a low-percentage rebounder. It will take a group effort to corral Valanciunas. Crashing the glass and boxing out will be important, something Kerr lamented after his team was out-rebounded by 23 in a loss to Minnesota last month. However, in back-to-back wins over Utah and Phoenix, Golden State combined for 21 offensive rebounds and kept the overall margin close.

“Just having all five guys engaged at all times. When we’ve done that recently, we rebounded pretty well,” Kerr said. “But it can’t just be two or three or even four guys thinking about it — it has to be all five. And if we’re alert and attentive, then I think we’ll be fine.”

Can the Grizzlies limit Curry?

Because Curry did not play in the first two meetings, the Grizzlies don’t have the benefit of film when it comes to drawing up a gameplan. Nor do they have experience. This will be the first-ever meeting between Morant and Curry. Guards Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen are pests and rookie Desmond Bane is already one of their best perimeter defenders. All will see time on Curry, maybe at the same time in the form of double and triple-teams, but all are young.

Curry is the league’s scoring leader because he has regularly found ways to exploit defenders — if they lean a little too much one way, Curry will send them tumbling with a head fake before darting the other way to the basket. His long-range accuracy is the first thing on the scouting report, but that’s just how he draws a defender in. He’s never been savvier.

The only thing that has slowed Curry this season has been his own body. His worst shooting nights have come at the end of a long trip (18 points on 7 for 25 in Washington on April 21, the final game of a five-city trip) and on the second night of back-to-backs (13 for 31 shooting against the Pelicans on May 4, 7 for 22 against the Suns Tuesday).

After getting four days off, he will be rested. The Warriors had a light shootaround Saturday before Sunday’s afternoon tip.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, left, drives against Golden State Warriors guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Who is the X-factor?

Morant is the kind of wiggly guard who has given the Warriors fits this season. Utah’s Jordan Clarkson just dropped 41 against them on Monday, including 24 in the fourth quarter. Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox scored his career-high of 44 against them in March. In the first two meetings, the Warriors contained Morant to a combined 28 points on 34.4% shooting (1 for 7 from 3-point range), but they will be without his primary defender in those games, Kelly Oubre Jr., because of a lingering left wrist injury.

On the season, Morant is averaging 19.2 points on 45.2% shooting and 30.6% from 3-point range. He’s streaky but, if he gets going, he’s dangerous. Over his last 15 games, Morant is averaging 20.7 points on 47.6% shooting and 39% from 3-point range to go along with 7.6 assists. His drive-and-kick game opens the floor for a middling 3-point shooting Grizzlies team. Without Oubre, expect the Warriors to defend Morant with Kent Bazemore and Wiggins.

Who wins?

These teams are evenly matched and playing their best basketball heading into Sunday’s showdown. Both are 7-3 in their last 10 games. During that span, the Warriors and Grizzlies rank in the top eight in defensive rating and 10th and 13th in offensive rating, respectively. They are rested and ready.

This is a playoff game for all intents and purposes. Unlike these Grizzlies, the Warriors have playoff experience. Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins has done a great job building the infrastructure and getting the most of a young group. But for Kerr, Curry, Green and Looney, this is their comfort zone. Dialing in on the details of the gameplan, executing in the clutch and tempering the nerves are learned skills.

“We want to play in games that matter and this is the beginning of it, where there are consequences for a win or a loss,” Curry said Saturday. “For a lot of guys who haven’t been in this experience, the message is it’s just basketball. You might feel more intense. You might feel a different burst of adrenaline. You might learn something about yourself and how you respond in moments like that. But it’s the same game we’ve been playing all year.”

The prediction here is that the Warriors will take care of business at Chase Center, end the regular season with a six-game win streak and take on the No. 7 seed on Wednesday.

Contributed by local news sources

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