Game Time: 5:00 p.m. TV: Comcast
Let's get into the Way Back Machine and dial it to Tuesday, January 5th, 2010. A fatigued Portland team met the Memphis Grizzlies in the Rose Garden. The Blazers had gone 8-3 in their last 11 but had run up a win against the Golden State Warriors three days prior before losing to the Clippers on the road the night before. Portland jumped out of the gate with energy, wilted big-time in the third period, then came on strong to take a small margin as the fourth quarter dwindled. Inexplicably instead of pushing the energetic game that brought them back the team went into prevent mode far too early, watched their slim lead slip away, and bowed to the Grizzlies 109-105. It ranked among the more disappointing losses of the season specifically because the Blazers were in position to take it and let the game slip away.
It's Monday, March 1st now. It's time to get that game back.
Portland walks into Memphis with a 35-27 record, good for 8th in the Western Conference. Memphis' record sits at 30-29, good for 10th. Though they are ostensibly 3.5 games behind Portland in the standings they're only 2 back in the all-important loss column. This is a conference game. This is a game against one of the three teams intent on chasing Portland out of that final playoff spot. The only other chance the Blazers will have to push any of those teams back down personally will be March 27th in New Orleans. This is an opportunity the Blazers cannot miss. This is another moment where they prove that they're committed to taking a playoff spot instead of backing into one. If Portland can't get up for this game, well, that would be a sad state of affairs.
The Grizzlies haven't had an easy time of it lately. They went 5-9 in February, losing 5 straight after besting the L*kers at the beginning of the month then doing the "win one, lose one" shuffle thereafter. Though they've allowed fewer 100-point games than normal during this stretch they've also been struggling to score. They've faced plenty of good defensive teams and all of them pretty much locked them up. Their most recent wins have come against Toronto, New Jersey, Washington, and New York. You wouldn't trust those teams to guard a T-bone at a vegan convention.
Memphis' secret to success is pretty clear: Easy Buckets. Their at or near the top of the league in both points in the paint and fastbreak points. Letting them run is suicidal. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have added a credible halfcourt scoring presence as well, especially since both are masterful offensive rebounders. On the dash or off the glass they're going to get their gimme points. Most of their big-time scorers are also good at drawing and hitting foul shots, more simple points for the collection. If you do not make the Grizzlies work hard for their buckets you will not win.
Fortunately when they do have to work they tend to devolve into difficult one-on-one shooting. They're flush with talented athletes but sometimes that same ability to get off shots sane folks would pass on contributes to them attempting same. Watching Memphis quick-shoot leaning jumpers from 20 feet is a thing of ugliness. Watching them carry on a silent argument about who should be shooting the ball in the halfcourt is even worse. The clanking of leather on rim is the only sound.
Neither can the Grizzlies save themselves from poor offensive choices with sterling defense. Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph...these names inspire fear when the ball is in their hands and impolite giggles when the ball is in yours. Mayo, Conley, and Gasol aren't exactly Battier-Bowen types either. Ranking 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency is nothing to write home about. Allowing more fast-break points than everybody but Minnesota and Golden State is cringe-worthy. Allowing more points in the paint than anybody period is just wrong. All of that combined takes a serious bite out of all of that scoring advantage Memphis generates. Having Randolph and Gay average 20 and Mayo 18 doesn't seem as devastating when you can probably pick three random players off of the opponent's team on a given night and watch them do the same.
The keys to the game, then, are pretty basic. Do not for any reason allow this team to run. You'd be better off playing 4-on-5 offensively and leaving a guy back at the defensive rim permanently than letting Memphis free in the open court. Control your defensive boards so they can't generate extra points. Realize that they have no interior defense outside of Marc Gasol maybe, so go at Gasol hard, foul him to the bench, and then drive at will. Unless you're up against their point guard always bet that the guy with the ball will eventually shoot it and defend accordingly. If you have to make this game ugly to win, so be it. Portland is probably better at grinding than the Grizzlies are and an ugly win is still a win.
Most of all the Blazers have to realize that it's time to take care of business. This is about taking the air out of a team that's gunning specifically for you. Only one team is going to walk out of this arena confident and happy. The other will walk out wondering if their playoff hopes just got jeopardized. Make life easy on yourself. Make sure you're the first team, not the second. Portland has the talent and experience to get this win. They'll probably have to withstand a bunch of Memphis energy to do it. But if the Grizzlies are expending energy and enthusiasm and still getting only contest halfcourt looks they're going to bog down. Just don't let them translate that energy into layups and dunks because it will feed on itself and your workload will quadruple.
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