LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The first team to clinch a spot in the NBA’s first-ever play-in tournament is the Memphis Grizzlies.
After dropping six of their first seven games here inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort to fall out of eighth place in the Western Conference, Memphis rode a massive performance from Jonas Valanciunas — 26 points, 19 rebounds and 12 assists for his first career triple-double — to pull away from the Milwaukee Bucks and claim a 119-106 victory.
The win gave the Grizzlies one of the two spots in the league’s first-ever play-in tournament, which will kick off Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC. The second team in the tournament will either be the Phoenix Suns, who routed the Dallas Mavericks Thursday afternoon, or the Portland Trail Blazers, who play in one of the last games of the day here against the Brooklyn Nets at 9 p.m..
If Portland wins, it will be the eighth seed — meaning it would only have to win either Saturday’s game or, if the ninth-seeded Grizzlies beat the Blazers, Sunday afternoon’s rematch. If Portland loses, then Memphis would become the eighth seed, and the Suns — which have gone undefeated here inside the bubble — will be the ninth seed.
It’s been a roller coaster ride here for Memphis, as the Grizzlies lost their first two games here in brutal fashion — an overtime loss to the Blazers (which looms awfully large now), and a two-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs thanks to a pair of DeMar DeRozan free throws with a second remaining — and then saw star big man Jaren Jackson Jr. be lost for the remainder of the season after injuring his meniscus in his left knee the team’s third game, a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Grizzlies, who were already without backup point guard Tyus Jones (knee), have struggled without Jackson, managing to win one game — a blowout win over the Thunder last Friday — but otherwise has needed every bit of the 3.5 game advantage they had on the five teams behind them in the Western Conference standings that entered the bubble.
Portland passed Memphis when the Grizzlies lost Tuesday to the Boston Celtics and Damian Lillard scored 61 points to lead the Blazers past the Dallas Mavericks. That left the Grizzlies in ninth for the first time since arriving in Orlando, but still left them in control of their own destiny with a win against the Bucks.
The league-leading Bucks, who were without Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was suspended after headbutting Wizards forward Moritz Wagner in their game Wednesday, as well as Wesley Matthews and George Hill, played their remaining regulars — Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Pat Connaughton and Brook Lopez — each about 20 minutes, but otherwise left the game in the hands of the players at the end of their bench. Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins was on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Milwaukee last season, and with him with the Atlanta Hawks for the prior five seasons, before being hired to coach the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies slowly took control of the game as it wore on, increasing a one-point advantage after the first quarter to 10 points after two and 19 points after three, leaving the final 12 minutes of the game in doubt.
Still, Jenkins took no chances — particularly after several teams have seen massive leads slip away in rapid fashion in the fourth quarters of games recently, including the Miami Heat on this very same court Wednesday night. Jenkins returned his starters — including presumptive rookie of the year Ja Morant — to the game with eight minutes to go and the Grizzlies leading by 19 points, only removing them with a few minutes left in the game with the game still well in hand.
Valanciunas — who never had more than five assists in a game before Thursday — wasn’t the only Grizzly to have a big game Thursday. Dillon Brooks had 31 points in 33 minutes, and Morant finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists — making he and Valanciunas the 12th combination of teammates to register a triple-double in the same game, according to ESPN’s Stats and Information Group, with the last being Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo last December.
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