The resurgent Memphis Grizzles pay a visit to the Moda Center tonight to challenge the Blazers at home.
Memphis center Marc Gasol was reinserted into the starting lineup six games ago after spraining an MCL in late November, and his effect on the Grizzlies' defense cannot be overstated.
In the last five games, Memphis is allowing opponents to attempt just 80 shots on 40.3 percent shooting, for an average of 86 points a game. With Gasol out, opponents were shooting much more accurately and scoring about 10 points more per night.
With their All-Star center back in the lineup, the Grizzlies have also pumped the brakes on their own offensive pace, attempting fewer shots but also playing more efficiently.
The starting backcourt of point Mike Conley and guard Courtney Lee is setting the tone for Memphis' offense lately, both pouring in about 16 points a night in their last five games. Conley has been hitting 46.2 percent of his shots and 45.8 percent of his threes in that span, making him the most accurate deep-shooter on the roster right now besides his backup Nick Calathes, who only shoots from outside about once a game compared to Conley's five attempts. He can get himself to the rim and score pretty efficiently, and Conley is also solid in the mid-range.
Lee is willing to engage opposing defenders from behind the arc, with mid-range jumpers and also by taking it to the hoop occasionally, a reliable scorer from just about everywhere. Lately he's torching the net with a 57.4 field-goal percentage, also hitting 41.2 percent of his three-pointers.
Power forward Zach Randolph is struggling from the floor the last several games, only making about 40 percent of his team-leading 14.8 shots a night. Still, he's a great low-post scorer with good touch around the basket, also able to spread the defense with his jump-shot. Randolph will also be trying to take sole possession of the Grizzlies' No. 1 spot on the list for career double-doubles tonight, as he's currently tied with former Memphis center Pau Gasol with 189.
The rest of Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger's current 10-man rotation distributes shots pretty evenly, everyone taking between four and about nine shots a night. D-League call-up forward James Johnson contributes well off the bench, hitting almost 45 percent from the field and leading the team in assists the last couple weeks with 4.6 a game.
Forward Ed Davis and backup center Kosta Koufos both have recently hit about 60 percent of their field-goals, forming a solid frontcourt duo off the bench. Veteran forwards Mike Miller and Tayshaun Prince have lost their way a bit recently, neither one managing to cash in on over 30 percent of his shots. Miller is a 41.5 percent three-point shooter for the season, but he's going through a rough stretch and making under 20 percent of his outside shots. Prince is a bit more respectable from deep, hitting a third of his tries. Gasol is still rounding into form offensively, registering 9.5 points a game on 38.8 percent shooting since his reinsertion into the starting lineup.
Memphis is a great rebounding team, top-five in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages for the season. Randolph and Davis are great individual rebounders, both doing a ton of damage on the offensive glass. The rest of Joerger's frontcourt rotation is also capable of contributing decent numbers on the boards, as Gasol, Koufos and Johnson all rebound effectively.
The Blazers are led on the glass by the recent efforts from power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who's pulling down over 13 rebounds per contest over his last five. Portland's frontcourt should be able to fight down low with Memphis' big men, as center Robin Lopez seems to make things much easier for his teammates with his hustle and backup bigs Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland maintain a sense of scrappiness on the boards while their starting counterparts rest. Tonight's match-up will likely be a battle for rebounds, because both teams have feature great individual rebounders but also possess a number of secondary contributors on the glass.
Portland point guard Damian Lillard is currently going through his roughest stretch of the season, attempting 15 shots a night while converting just 37.3 percent of them and going 21.4 percent from beyond the arc his last several games. Lillard's points, assists and rebounds are all down from his season averages while his turnovers are up recently.
Aldridge had a tough outing in the loss to Golden State Saturday night, scoring 10 points on 2-14 shooting. The Blazers and Grizzlies haven't met so far this season, but in three games against Memphis last year, Aldridge struggled with his offense, only making 36.7 percent of his field-goals. He did, however, earn several trips to line, a strategy that has served him well this season and would help supplement his scoring tonight. Even though Memphis employs a pretty suffocating defense, Aldridge was riding a several-week stretch of great play leading up to the debacle against the Warriors last game and he'll certainly be trying to get himself back on track tonight against Randolph, not an intimidating defensive power forward by any stretch.
Guard Wesley Matthews has shot pretty well within the arc lately, hitting almost half his attempts. Unfortunately, his outside shooting percentage is sitting in the low 30s the last few weeks. With defensive maestro and starting shooting guard Tony Allen likely out for the Grizzlies, Matthews should find some open outside shots tonight. Memphis has allowed teams to hit almost 37 percent of their three-pointers the last five games, so tonight might be a good opening for Matthews to realign his deep-shot.
The perpetually knicked-up small forward Nicolas Batum -- currently nursing an injured finger and a sore ankle -- could also benefit from a solid shooting night or two, as he's been slumping worse than Lillard lately, going 34.5 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from outside. Batum contributes over five rebounds and assists per game, but his scoring has been cut in half recently and he's usually a much better shooter than he's displayed the last several games. Prince and Miller are pretty long defenders, but both have lost a step in recent years and Batum should look to attack them and either find open shots for himself or use his ball-distributing ability to find teammates against a Memphis perimeter defense that is missing its best individual defender in Allen and relies on a small forward duo that's a few years past its prime.
Rookie combo-guard C.J. McCollum continues to impress Blazers coach Terry Stotts off the bench, earning more playing time recently while hitting 38.5 percent of his three-point tries. McCollum isn't quite as reliable inside the arc, but he has the confidence of a shooter off the bench and has poise beyond that of an average rookie scorer. Guard Mo Williams displays that same confidence, hitting half his three-point tries lately. Williams' shooting percentage closer to the hoop is also up a few percentage points, though Blazers fans are well-acquainted with his streakiness as a shooter by now.
Lopez continues to impress with solid shooting down low and earning second-chance opportunities for himself and his teammates by banging on the offensive glass. Robinson has displayed similar hustle, but his finishing near the rim has fallen off a bit lately and he's still prone to trying a little too hard with the ball at times. Freeland doesn't shoot much, but when he does, he's reliable and had a nice 4-4 outing against the Warriors a few nights ago.
Portland's defense is in the tank right now. In the Blazers' last five games -- two wins and three losses -- they've given up averages of 108.6 points, 46.8 percent shooting from the field and an alarming 46.6 percent shooting from outside. Though the Grizzlies aren't known for their three-point prowess, they have a few capable, consistent outside shooters in Conley, Lee and Calathes. Miller is a bit of a sleeping giant -- at least from deep -- a career 40.6 percent shooter from downtown who only needs to knock down a couple threes to flip the switch and get himself back on track.
One distinct advantage for the Blazers tonight should be at the free-throw line. The Grizzlies hardly earn themselves free-throws, while Portland is the best free-throw shooting team in the league and they've gone to the line almost 26 times per contest the last five games. On a night when the opponent will try to slow the game down to a crawl, the Blazers would be wise to generate extra points by drawing fouls on Memphis' defenders. Gasol, in particular, is aggressive enough defensively that he's a bit prone to fouling, especially as he gets back into game-shape. The less Gasol is on the court, the easier it will likely be for Portland to score near the rim, so attacking him early and attempting to get him into foul trouble might prove beneficial for the Blazers tonight.
If the recent play of both teams is any indication, don't expect an explosive offensive display tonight. Memphis attempts to slow the game way down, forcing opponents into a plodding, halfcourt style of play. Portland, on the other hand, is still the highest scoring team in the NBA and gets up almost 10 more shots a game than the Grizzlies since Gasol's return to the lineup. This match-up is a clash of opposing philosophies, and the winner of tonight's game will likely be the team most able to impose its style of play on the other.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter