The Portland Trail Blazers played one really good half of basketball tonight. Unfortunately that wasn't quite enough to overcome the Memphis Grizzlies, their killer defense, and their inside attack...both of which were made to look better than they are by Portland's shortcomings in the non-good half of basketball.
The first half of this game saw a stunning role reversal. The Blazers moved the ball on offense as usual but they used that motion to attack the lane instead of set up jumpers. Playing inside out they found dunks or ridiculously easy looks from the perimeter, causing Portland fans to say, "So that's what they look like when they score in the paint!" Damian Lillard was the instigator of the rim assault but everybody got involved in one way or another. Memphis, meanwhile, played outside in, all but ignoring Marc Gasol on most possessions in favor of jumpers. Considering Gasol was guarded by some combination of J.J. Hickson and Meyers Leonard, this made about as much sense as a real Grizzly taking up needles and crocheting himself a pair of ear warmers. Marc Gasol was the only lifeline for the Memphis offense and he couldn't score enough to matter. The Blazers gave up way too many offensive rebounds but they shot 55% in the first half, hustled back on defense, and pressured the Grizzlies into an awful performance. The score was 50-38 at the break and Portland was looking great. It was everything you could want as a Blazers fan.
The 85-91 final score tells you everything you need to know about how the second half went. Portland played credibly through the initial stages of the third period but Gasol and Mike Conley got hot as the Grizzlies finally went inside-out to put pressure on the Blazers' defense. Adding to the misery: Portland's absolute ineptitude every time the Grizzlies pulled a point guard-center combo into screen and roll defense. Dribblers love to split the defense in such situations but honestly there was no defense to split. The Grizz didn't defend the pick and roll well themselves but at least they were in the same area code as the dribbler after the screen. When Jerryd Bayless got hot in the late third and early fourth Portland was in trouble. The Blazers response involved falling into old, bad habits of outside shooting first. The late game involved a series of desperation heaves. Memphis didn't execute perfectly but at least they got credible shots off. The Blazers needed a miracle hit in order to change the outcome and they never got it. Most NBA miracles have to be made and the Blazers just didn't have the poise to hold it together in the face of the Grizzlies defense. In the end Portland managed only 35 points in the second half while Memphis scored 53. That was the ballgame.
Pick and roll defense and rebounding remained problems for the Blazers all night. Memphis got 16 offensive rebounds and outscored the Blazers in second-chance points 20-6. On the other hand Portland tied Memphis with 44 points in the paint, a considerable achievement. They also held the Grizz to 7 fast break points, scoring 12 themselves. A 28-18 free throw attempt advantage almost put the icing on the cake...could have, really, except for 3 key misses late in the fourth. But the Blazers shot only 30% from distance thanks to those late-game heaves and their execution on the final few plays was poor. Once this game started slipping south they just couldn't salvage it.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a HARD time solving Memphis' defense, which consisted of copious doses of Marc Gasol plus swift double teams when he caught in the post. It was a clinic on how to defend him. Aldridge shot 2-13 from the field and scored only 10 points. To his credit he grabbed 10 rebounds and dished 6 assists. He stayed in the game at least.
Nicolas Batum showed up in fits and starts but never got far off the launching pad. His most discouraging moment was likely when Tony Allen capped his miracle three-point attempt with 19 seconds left but the most indicative moment for him came with 4:05 left in the third. Memphis had just made a mini-run following a timeout, scoring 5 unanswered points to cut a 17-point lead down to 12. Eric Maynor had just been forced into a shot-clock three which missed and LaMarcus Aldridge had also missed in a tough attempt off of an offensive rebound. The Blazers needed a calm-down possession, a good look to stop the bleeding. Batum took the ball to the three-point arc left side and fired a casual-looking 26-footer with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. It missed. The palm slap to my forehead did not. At least Batum could guard a screen when he faced one though. 4-10 shooting, 10 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists.
Both Batum and Aldridge struggled but the award for worst...game...ever went to Wesley Matthews. He started out the game getting toasted like a marshmallow on defense, never really upped his defensive game, and couldn't hit a shot. 4-11 shooting, 1-6 from distance, 11 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds. Icing on the cake: he missed 2 of those 3 late-game free throws that could have made a difference. This is about the third off-kilter game for Matthews in a row.
On the up side J.J. Hickson did his usual rim-diving routine and grabbed plenty of boards, scoring 12 on 6-12 shooting with 13 rebounds. He got used when he matched up with Gasol one-on-one but that's expected.
Damian Lillard had a great offensive game until the final quarter. As mentioned above, he championed the aggressive attack and he also hit his shake-and-bake jumpers. 8-16, 2-6 from deep, 20 points, 4 assists. His screen defense makes me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spatula.
Meyers Leonard actually had a couple moments of good one-on-one defense tonight and a couple more nice recoveries when helping from the perimeter. It wasn't a work of art but maybe it's progress. He played 16 with 5 points and 4 boards.
Eric Maynor looks confident with his shot, more than expected anyway. He shot 3-5 from the field, 4-6 from the line for 12 points with 4 assists and 4 rebounds in 25 minutes. Coach Stotts finally has a player he can play more than 20 minutes off the bench.
Victor Claver had about an average night for him: a few good defensive sets, a couple where he got lost, hit a shot, miss a couple more...4 points, a steal, and a block in 18 minutes.
Nobody else played except Will Barton in an unproductive 5 minutes.
San Antonio comes Friday night. Another day, another defense to solve.
Grizzly Bear Blues will give you the Memphis P.O.V.