Long Story Short: After a horrific first half in which the Blazers let the Grizzlies do anything they wanted Portland shut down the middle, the boards, and the Grizz running game, staging a strong second-half comeback and hanging on through a chaotic final few minutes to preserve the victory and a 4-1 road trip.
How bad was the first half of this game for the Blazers? It was so sloppy the Manwich people called and wanted to use Portland's likenesses on their labels. It was so listless that the Serta sheep are filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Star Trek movies 5 and 8-12 called and chastised the Blazers for providing such bad entertainment. It was ugly and unfunny enough to make Carrot Top shake in his boots.
Basically the Blazers put on a clinic on how to lose to the Grizzlies. They turned the ball over repeatedly in the first quarter, letting Memphis run out. They gave up easy outlet passes off of missed jumpers and failed to shadow Memphis players who cheated out on the break, leading to more easy buckets. They gave up offensive rebounds galore. They single-covered Zach Randolph and yet still missed Memphis' jump shooters. Both starting guards for the Blazers were absent for long stretches of the half, looking more like zombies than anything. Attempted plays finished in contested shots or more turnovers. It was putrid. Had it not been for the European Union providing some timely three-pointers plus Bayless, Cunningham, Aldridge, and eventually Miller scoring off of drives to key several mini-runs Portland would have had nothing at all. The Blazers trailed by a dozen at the half and my headline for this recap was already written: "Wake up, Blazers!" There was absolutely no indication that the Blazers realized they were playing the Grizzlies, a team that needs to score in specific ways in order to win...ways that the Blazers were granting them freely. There was even less (than absolutely no) indication that the Blazers understood that this game had playoff implications for both teams.
Fortunately somebody must have cribbed my headline for the halftime locker-room speech because Portland came out reformed in the third period. The main catalyst was Andre Miller, who started poking away steals instead of giving them up. He also drove. He also posted up the smaller Mike Conley, first scoring and then drawing double teams (sometimes more) and passing to open men. Brandon Roy also came alive, snaking his way into the lane and finishing again and again. Like Miller he created pressure even when he didn't finish. The beneficiary of the sudden uptick in guard offense was Nicolas Batum, who always looked ready to receive the ball for the sideline jumper or basket-ward cut. On the other end the Blazers finally figured out that if you took away the three favorite ways Memphis likes to dominate the game they've got nothing. Without the turnovers and with fewer missed perimeter shots leading to long rebounds the Blazers contained the Memphis break. They still let a few layups leak through but not nearly as many. More importantly they packed multiple players into the lane defensively. No matter who was manning the post defense--Camby, Howard, and Aldridge all took turns--they looked far more effective with 2 or 3 friends in there too. Zach Randolph's points dried up. Unopposed drives to the rim slowed. Memphis offensive rebounds evaporated. Now the Grizzlies were depending on made threes and mini-runs while the Blazers scored consistently and dependably. Memphis scored only 21 in the quarter. The running, jumping, stealing, dealing (and oh-so-appealing) Blazers scored 41, exactly the amount they totaled in the first two periods combined. Pasting a +20 on the Grizz defense left Portland up 8 at the end of three.
Of course you know it couldn't be easy in the fourth. That's just not the Portland way this year. And to be fair, the Blazer bigs had been stretched pretty far at that point, especially since they had run all night, had to watch the boards constantly, and were responsible for taking the heart out of the Memphis attack. Juwan Howard had trouble scoring against quicker Memphis players. LaMarcus Aldridge picked up his 5th foul halfway through the period. Marcus Camby played well as his replacement but was getting run ragged. The stress in the middle occupied the attention of all the Blazer defenders, gradually sapping their energy and will as the quarter progressed. (Don't forget we're at the end of a 5-game road trip too.) Portland settled into the Brandon Roy iso offense. It gave everybody except Brandon a break but Roy wasn't converting and wasn't getting whistles. Meanwhile the Grizzlies, sensing a chance to pull this game out, redoubled their efforts. They started getting quicker. Zach started scoring again and drawing fouls to boot. Gasol rebounded. Mayo and Gay stretched the defense with jumpers when they could. All of this didn't amount to as many points as it did anxious moments for the road team. But Memphis chipped away at the lead bit by bit until two Randolph free throws brought them within 2 with 3:00 left. Then it was Roy time for the Blazers. He opened up with a nifty drive for a layup. Then Zach returned the favor and converted an and-one, cutting the lead to 1. Roy drove again, got disrupted, but tipped the loose ball to a prescient Nicolas Batum who had started to drive down the baseline when he saw Roy in trouble. Nic converted the layup as stopping Roy's drive had taken the interior defenders out of the picture, then hit the free throw they gave him trying to get back in said picture. The next time down the court Roy wormed his way in close again, missed the jumper, but again he had drawn enough defenders to leave Camby a chance at the tip, which he converted. On the other end O.J. Mayo missed a long jumper then missed 1 of 2 free throws. Nicolas Batum made a steal on one possession and blocked a shot on another, even as the Blazers were turning the ball right back to the Grizzlies again. The frenzied finish involved copious running, reaching, and even a little diving but few actual points scored until a couple of Roy free throws and a last-second obligatory three from Batum pushed the margin back to 10 and the Blazers came out with the win.
The Blazers and Grizzlies shot similar percentages overall and made exactly the same number of free throws, though the Grizz had more attempts. (The Blazers, as it turned out, finished a perfect 19-19 from the line.) Offensive rebounds also ended close to even. The Blazers shot much better than Memphis from the three-point arc, doubling the number of shots made from range (8 to 4). But the biggest numbers of the evening all come from the ancillary area of the boxscore and are only meaningful if you understand how bad that first half was. After turning over nearly anything orange that touched their hands in the first half Portland finished with only 13 T.O.'s to 21 for Memphis, leading to a 30-14 points off turnovers advantage. After letting the Grizzlies run out during the first half the Blazers overtook them, finishing ahead in fast break points 23-17. After getting obliterated in the paint early the Blazers closed the gap to a 42-50 deficit...near miraculous given the initial trend. Looking for all the world like they would give away this game while remaining clueless about its implications the Blazers instead took it, shook it, reversed it, and wrestled it away from the Grizzlies. They now have a bit more breathing room in a playoff race where they might end up needing exactly that.
As mentioned above, credit Andre Miller for the initial turn-around. He was the first Blazer to impose his will on this game and he did it on both ends of the court. He pretty much bullied the smaller Conley into submission and created all kinds of problems against a team that has trouble compensating for any difficulty. 12 points, 11 assists, 5 rebounds.
Brandon Roy awoke alongside Miller. If they weren't exactly feeding each other at least they were feeding off of each other, or rather off of the disruptions each caused. After getting spanked on the defensive end in the first half Roy looked like a serious playoff guard on offense, exactly complete revenge and then some against any defender who came against him. He ended up with a game-high 25 points plus 5 assists, 7 rebounds, and 3 steals.
Some guys are big, two-handed swords or battle axes, smashing opponents when they get swinging but swinging fairly seldom. Nicolas Batum is like a fencing sword. Hit! Hit-hit-hit! Dodge...hit! No single one of his buckets seems as devastating as, say, a Rudy three or Brandon's and-one drives. But you look up and you're all full of holes from about 20 things he did to you in what seemed like the blink of an eye. Tonight he went 7-11 overall, 4-7 from distance, grabbed a steal late, blocked a layup late (both of which came on plays that could have given Memphis hope), and gave the Blazers 21 points. Zach Randolph led the Grizzlies with 22, so that's not bad.
LaMarcus Aldridge showed up early as usual and had some nice moments throughout the game, though foul trouble limited him somewhat in the fourth quarter. He had 4 steals but only 2 rebounds to go with his 13 points on 6-11 shooting.
Marcus Camby started the game but had trouble containing Gasol. Eventually the Blazers just decided to go with a scorer, Aldridge, in the middle. But Camby came back in the second half and caused some damage including 7 rebounds, some good interior defense, and that sweet tip off of the Roy miss highlighted in the game review.
Juwan Howard got pressed into 23 minutes tonight as nobody could stop the Grizz interior attack and he filled in with some chucks and fouls. He ended up with 5 rebounds, 5 fouls, and a nice late jumper off of an inbounds pass to keep the Blazers afloat. You can tell when Juwan is disgusted with either a turn of events or his teammates' effort. He simply collars a guy around the neck. Tonight it was Gasol. The rest of the Blazers are collectively nice enough to make up for it, so fine by me.
Jerryd Bayless had an interesting night, getting a couple of nice drives including a last-second layup that saved the first quarter from looking as ugly as it was. But he also made some mistakes and looked to be dead in the water when Miller took off in the third period. But the Grizz eventually cooled Andre down and when Miller started missing jumpers in the late fourth and became somewhat of a handicap Nate called on Bayless to come in and defend, perhaps also hitting emergency jumpers. In the end Jerryd delivered a nice night, picking his spots to score 9 points on 4-8 shooting with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block in 18 minutes.
Rudy Fernandez hit a three but couldn't stem the Grizz attack and didn't play that long. He ended up with 5 points on 2-7 shooting, 1-6 from distance, in 17 minutes.
Speaking of not playing long, Martell Webster missed 3 of 4 shots in 6 minutes and got pulled for his last one, an abysmal near-three-but-not-quite attempt that was both covered and on the move away from the basket. He never saw the floor again. 3 points and a block.
Speaking of not playing long again, Dante Cunningham got only 3 minutes. But he packed a breakaway layup and the extra free throw plus an offensive rebound putback into those three minutes, scoring 5 points and hustling on defense as well.
Ups and downs aside, the Blazers did what they needed to do. They pulled themselves out of the fire and kept the playoff target firmly in sight against a team that wanted badly to do the same themselves. That's plenty good for the evening.
Check out the impressions over at StraightOuttaVancouver.