The Memphis Grizzlies will be first on the tee when the Western Conference holds a glorified elimination day Thursday in the NBA bubble near Orlando.
The Grizzlies (33-39) will take the court in the early afternoon against the Milwaukee Bucks in the regular-season finale holding ninth place in the West, a half-game behind Portland (34-39), technically tied with -- but holding a tie-breaker advantage over -- Phoenix (33-39), and percentage points up on San Antonio (32-38).
Seeking to end a two-year playoff drought, Memphis can move ahead of Portland with a win over the Bucks and a Trail Blazers loss to Brooklyn in a late-night game.
The eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West will battle this weekend in a one- or two-game play-in series on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday. The eighth-place finisher must win only one game, while the ninth-place finisher must win both. The winner of the play-in will face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the traditional first round of the playoffs.
The Grizzlies can earn an invitation to the play-in series in the ninth position even with a loss, if both the Suns and Spurs also lose on Thursday. Phoenix plays Dallas at the same time as the Memphis-Milwaukee contest, while San Antonio will face Utah in the early evening.
Milwaukee (56-16), meanwhile, has clinched the No. 1 seed in the East and will meet Orlando in the first round of the playoffs, which start on Monday.
The Bucks beat the Grizzlies 127-114 at Memphis in December in their only previous meeting this season. Antetokounmpo had 37 points in the win, but was outscored by the Grizzlies' Jaren Jackson Jr., who exploded for 43.
Jackson tore meniscus in his left knee earlier in the bubble and is out for the season.
The Grizzlies have not responded well, going 1-6 in Florida to fall out of the coveted eighth playoff position.
Grayson Allen, who has picked up the scoring slack in Jackson's absence with 14.3 points per game in the bubble, knows the six losses mean nothing if Memphis can beat the Bucks.
"You know you're in the now-or-never, do-or-die mindset," Allen told reporters. "There's not much that you can say about it. Everyone understands it; everyone will feel it."
It's unlikely the Grizzlies will see Antetokounmpo in the must-win game.
The Bucks were walking on eggshells Wednesday, awaiting word on a possible suspension that could result from Antetokounmpo having head-butted Washington's Moe Wagner following an offensive foul and verbal exchange in Tuesday's 126-113 win.
The Most Valuable Player candidate was ejected from the game. A suspension could keep him out of Thursday's game and/or the start of the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo was apologetic after the game.
"If I could go back, turn back time and go back to that play, I wouldn't do it," he said of making physical contact with Wagner. "But at the end of the day, we're all human; we all make mistakes. At the end of the day, you learn from it, keep playing good basketball and keep moving forward."
Even without a suspension, the Bucks could choose to rest their star in a meaningless game (for them) on the eve of the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo has missed nine games this season, with the Bucks going 5-4 in those contests.
Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins knows Milwaukee well, having worked as an assistant to Mike Budenholzer for the Bucks last season.
--Field Level Media