The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 98-81, at the Moda Center on Tuesday, dropping Portland's record to 33-13.
On the occasion of their worst loss of the season, Portland didn't make it all the way down the highway towards Panicville, but they did hit Accountability Avenue, Frustration Farms, Soul-Search City and Trust Town. That emotional road trip was understandable and perhaps warranted, given the degree to which just about everything went opposite of the plan.
The Blazers set a new season-low for points (81), the Blazers scored under 90 points for just the second time this season (but also the second time in two games), the Blazers' bench set a new season-low for points (6), the Blazers shot below 35 percent for the second night in a row, the Blazers set a new high for margin of defeat (17), the Blazers lost by at least 15 points for just the third time this season (but also the second time in two games), the Blazers lost for the first time this season while holding an opponent to less than 100 points, the Blazers dropped to just 9-8 over the last month and, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, they dropped to No. 2 in the league for offensive efficiency, per NBA.com/stats.
"We haven't lost this many games in this fashion before, so yes it is," a curt LaMarcus Aldridge told Blazersedge, when asked if this was Portland's first real stretch of adversity this season.
This was a rough and lifeless performance from the jump, as coach Terry Stotts had to use a timeout just 110 seconds into the game after Memphis took an 8-0 lead. Portland didn't make a three-pointer until the fourth quarter, and even Timber Joey, who was at the game as part of a crossover promotion with the local MLS club, had trouble getting his t-shirt cannon to fire properly. Joey fiddled and fiddled with the trigger before flashing a thumbs down to the crowd; it was that kind of night.
"Maybe I shouldn't pick Bruce Springsteen for the warm-up song any more," Robin Lopez joked, but that bit of levity was rare in the locker room afterwards, both for the Blazers center and his teammates.
An unstoppable offense has been this team's calling card for the entire season and, for the second time in as many games, it looked mortal. Worse than mortal, really. The defense was even worse, as the Blazers conceded 61 first-half points and got down by as many as 18 before halftime, later getting buried in a 24-point deficit in the third quarter.
There were a few scattered boos from the Moda Center crowd, a number of fans headed to the exits early, Twitter outrage arguably hit a high-water mark for the season, and even two die-hard Blazermaniacs like Young Thug and Bloody Jay decided to turn off the game early in the fourth quarter so they could salvage their night by twisting one up and playing a little "FIFA 14" on the X-Box. You couldn't blame them; it was that kind of night.
No matter what your particular complaint or concern about this Blazers team, it was an issue in this game, the Grizzlies made sure of it. That list of irritants started with Portland's inability to defend the point of attack, as Mike Conley looked like the All-Star point guard in this contest, gliding his way to 19 points (on 8-for-14 shooting) and 7 assists.
"Mike Conley was absolutely fantastic tonight," Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger gushed. "He set the tone early, he ran guys into people, he set people up off the dribble, he got his jump shot going, he got to the basket, he dropped it off. I mean, I like my guy. I won't say anything about anybody else's guy, but I love our point guard."
The 26-year-old Ohio State product, in the midst of a career year, played with the quickness of a 22-year-old and the mind of a 30-year-old. He did everything Joerger mentioned, and more, helping his team shoot nearly 60 percent in the first half by prodding into danger zones, playing a half-step (or more) faster than his opposition, and starting the chain reaction passes that wind up breaking a team's defense later in the shot clock. His presence opened the door wide for Memphis's burly bigs -- Zach Randolph (23 points and 10 rebounds) and Marc Gasol (15 points and 8 rebounds) -- and that outside/inside combination was overwhelming and disorienting for Portland.
"We didn't do a very good job of controlling the ball," Stotts admitted. "We were caught scrambling sometimes when we shouldn't have been scrambling, we should have been a little more solid with our stunts, not get into rotations, that was some of it. We got off to a bad start from the jump. We had some bad execution offensively, get down 8-0. I don't know if we were quite ready. That's on me."
The coach wasn't alone in falling on his sword.
"I wasn't giving the effort I should have been," said Lopez, who posted 14 points (on 4-for-10 shooting) and 5 rebounds. "We shed a little blood, [Memphis] lunged for the jugular. Those were really self-inflicted wounds. We cut ourselves in the throat."
The defensive issues and slow starts have been recurring problems for Portland, but the impotence on offense is a new wrinkle. So many times this season, simply playing 48 minutes of offense has been sufficient to cover up warts on the other end, weak stretches of effort, and patches of slow or sloppy play. Not the last two games.
Credit due to both the Warriors, who are an excellent defensive team when both Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala are playing, and to the Grizzlies, who looked far more like the rough-and-tumble, playoff-tested menace that we've come to expect in recent years, rather than the below-average defensive unit that limped along during Marc Gasol's injury absence earlier this year.
Fatigue and schedule factors are also worth noting (and were noted in the locker room): the Memphis game marked Portland's eighth in 12 days, with little let-up from game-to-game in terms of the quality of the opposition.
Until Tuesday, though, the Blazers had exhibited a damn near pure faith in their offensive system. Rightfully so. The (formerly, for now) league-leading outfit has been fine-tuned to its players' strengths, it has been designed with contingencies upon contingencies, it has produced a seemingly never-ending supply of open shots, and it has generally found answers through a collective, rather than an individualistic approach. Against the Grizzlies, Portland registered just 18 assists, their fourth-lowest total of this season. This, after tallying just 16 against the Warriors on Sunday, their second-lowest total of the season. Assists spike when shots fall; shooting percentages spike when instinctive unselfishness is at its peak. It's a chicken and an egg thing, no doubt, but the farm has been empty these last two games.
"We've gotten away from some of the ball movement that's important for us," Stotts said, venturing out into uncharted waters for this season. "We need each other, to help each other on the offensive end. It's a hallmark of what's gotten us to this point. I think it's somewhat human nature for players -- everybody has a lot of confidence in themselves, when things are going poorly, they want to help the team. That's when you have to trust each other even more."
While a somewhat grumpy Aldridge stuck tightly to the "guys just missed shots" script, a number of his teammates reflected on Stotts' trust theme.
"That's when we're at our best, when the ball is flying around the perimeter, L.A. kicking it out, going around the horn, someone making a shot," Wesley Matthews, who finished with 8 points (on 2-for-9 shooting) and 5 assists, told Blazersedge. "But in order to do that, we've got to get stops. [These] teams can play defense, teams are loading up on us. Teams know what we can do. We've got to get stops to push our offensive tempo."
Even though he's a center, and usually last on the pecking order when it comes to both passing and shooting, Lopez understood Stotts' point, remembering a specific sequence against the Grizzlies.
"It's not out of selfishness," Lopez told Blazersedge. "It's us, in our minds, trying to help the team. One possession sticks out in my mind where I probably should have hit L.A. on a high-low [pass]. That led to me taking a left-handed jump hook. I think if we make that extra pass, we're going to be OK. We've done it all season long, we'll get back to that."
Damian Lillard, who is shooting just 38.9 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep over the last 11 games, said that while "confidence would never be a problem" for him, he does feel like the "flow of the game isn't coming for us" like it was earlier in the season. Conley handily won their match-up, but a productive fourth quarter helped Lillard finish with 16 points (on 7-for-16 shooting) and three assists, applying some lipstick to the pig.
"It's natural as a competitor to want to do something to help your team," Lillard told Blazersedge. "We catch ourselves doing that right now because it's kind of a tough situation. ... Everybody is trying to find out what they can do to help the team when things kind of get sideways."
Asked if he could think of recent plays where he, like Lopez, would have handled things differently, Lillard nodded but preferred to speak in generalities and in the second person.
"There are times when you can pass up a good shot for a great shot," he explained. "Or you just might not see [the right pass]. I [don't] think we're looking each other off, sometimes there's times we might not see each other. ... We've got to see it on film, get back to how we were playing."
Taken together, this wasn't panic, or really anything in the general genre of panic. Still, the intensity and variety of the self-critiques, combined with the fact that many of the thoughts focused on the offense, which has been the team's identity and biggest strength, left an impression unlike any other post-game setting this year. "Doubt" might be too strong a word, but there was a concern akin to an emperor who realized that he was, at least momentarily, clothes-less, or a hospital patient grasping for a crutch that was unexpectedly nowhere to be found.
The dream part of the dream season is officially in the past, and the present, everyone seemed to agree, is problematic enough that it requires addressing. "We've got to be willing to challenge each other," Lillard said. "The intensity wasn't there," Lopez added. "We've got to stop the skid, stop the bleeding," Matthews concluded.
As it turns out, the offense might not always be there for the Blazers; yes, it's impressive that it took until almost February for that to become a proven, repeated fact. Plenty of additional tests await between now and the All-Star break, though, including a number of road games, a number of games against staunch defenses, and (gulp) multiple road games against staunch defenses.
"This is going to give us a chance to focus on other areas of the game we need to improve," Lopez said finally, finishing off perhaps his most candid locker room session of the season. "Just like somebody who loses one sense, all of their other senses improve. That's hopefully what will happen to us."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19,385. Not a sellout, which was honest. The crowd never had a chance in this one.
- Game highlights are right here.
- By virtue of this Portland loss, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks has officially clinched Western Conference coaching duties for the All-Star Game.
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts didn't want to address that subject after the game, calling his position in the race for that job "not even a story or an issue."
- The NBA's All-Star reserves will be announced on Thursday. Here's Damian Lillard to Blazersedge on what he's expecting: "I've been telling myself not to worry about it, to be honest with you. I think I've done everything I can. Everything in my control, I've done, it's out of my hands. It's going to be what it's going to be."
- Asked if he felt like he had earned his first All-Star appearance, Lillard replied without hesitation: "I do feel like I earned it."
- I was a little taken aback by the number of people who replied to those quotes on Twitter suggesting that Lillard's recent play makes him an unworthy candidate.
- Last week, Forbes had a very rosy franchise valuation for the Blazers, pegging the organization as being worth an estimated $587 million (12th-best in the NBA), while also estimating that the Blazers had turned a $30 million profit. In a number of recent years, Forbes had the Blazers operating at a loss. In addition, the Forbes study noted that the 2011 lockout has provided a major boost to franchise values and profitability around the league.
- The Blazers, through a spokesperson, refused to confirm that they turned a profit during the time period covered by the Forbes valuation and refused to say whether the latest franchise valuation is accurate or in the ballpark.
- Instead, the organization provided this statement to Blazersedge: "Our reaction to the Forbes valuations is similar to what you'll find elsewhere around the NBA. Those rankings are subjective, and don't always include access to the same research from every team. The Forbes ranking of the Trail Blazers is their assessment of our value as a franchise, not our own. We continue to focus more on building a winning franchise on and off the court for the fans of Rip City rather than on our ranking in Forbes."
- The Blazers/Timbers cross-promotion included scarves (picture here) and, it seemed, a couple hundred ticket-buyers. During the National Anthem, the Timbers Army, seated in a few of the baseline sections, did their traditional "whoosh" noises and scarf spins, and they threw confetti up in the air after Portland's first basket. One fan brought a "Rip City Til I Die" sign. No tifo, though!
- This "Black Portland" album -- and Bloody Jay's unforgettable explanation of self -- might be my favorite random off-court happening since Amazon Ashley Adair.
- Unfortunately, as noted by Dusty Harrah of 1080 The Fan, the Blazers are 2-4 since the first song from the "Black Portland" mixtape dropped. We have a Bloody Jay curse!
- Yung Jordan sent along this "Welcome to Rip City" rap song that is also played at the Moda Center on occasion. Follow him on Twitter here.
- Signs: "Blazers all the way," "Blazers in Beast Mode Tonight," "This is our house," "LaMarcus is LaMan," and "Mike and Mike should call the All-Star Game" (although that last sign was held upside down at first).
- Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune has a nice piece with Toronto Raptors guard (and Jefferson High product) Terrence Ross, who randomly poured in 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.
- Great to see Marc Gasol back on the court and balling his butt off. It's been said a million times but his vision and anticipation are amazing for any player, let alone someone his size.
- Aldridge has spent most of this season on cloud nine but he seemed pretty annoyed after this game, although he didn't really specify any particular causes of his angst.
- Asked for his thoughts on Stotts' "trust each other" message, Aldridge replied: "That was his quote, not mine. Guys didn't make shots, we've got to keep playing together."
- Asked for his thoughts on the team's first-half defense, Aldridge replied: "I don't know. I haven't watched the film. You're asking me these questions that I can't answer yet."
- Here's Matthews on what makes Mike Conley so good: "He's a complete player. He can shoot outside, he can attack the basket. He can go left, he can go right, he's quick, he knows the game and his team screens for him. It makes it a tough [guy to] guard."
- Matthews on the fatigue factor: "It could be. It's not an excuse, that's just reality. We showed up defensively in the second half so we showed that we were capable, even through tired legs in the most tired part of the game, we brought our defense. We know we can do it. We've got to do it."
- One final Lopez bit: "We didn't want our first stretch of adversity to come in the playoffs. I think we'll learn a lot about ourselves in terms of how we respond to this."
- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is now out for at least the next three weeks because of a knee injury, which takes him through the All-Star break. Once he's officially an injury scratch for the All-Star Game, the league office will select a roster replacement and Brooks will choose a starting lineup replacement. Lillard is therefore likely competing for one of eight spots (seven reserve spots plus Bryant's spot) left on the team. Keep in mind that it sounds like Clippers guard Chris Paul could be healthy in time to make an appearance.
- No chance at a Chalupa/McMuffin in this one.
- Former Blazers forward Luke Babbitt apparently left Russia and his club isn't happy about it.
- I wrote about "The Following" -- a show that is heavy on knife-related gore -- on Thursday. Then, unintentionally, the very next post was all about daggers. Then, Lopez mixed in about four knife references in two sentences (see above). On top of all of that, I put two and two together and realized that longtime Blazersedge reader and super friendly emailer Kelly AuCoin was an actor in one of the episodes from the first season of "The Following." Random and great.
- I'm ready for a little breather after all these late game nights, and I don't even have to worry about my man cutting backdoor when Gasol gets the ball at the elbow.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's a disappointing game. Needless to say. We got off to a slow start, we caught a team that's starting to put it together. They're on a roll. They're playing very well. They showed that in the first half. Defensively in the second half we did an excellent job but the offense couldn't quite catch up with it. The hole was too big. Give credit to Memphis, they're playing really well. They made their perimeter shots, penetrated, we could have done a better job defensively in the first half. They're playing very well.
Anything different they were doing?
Not particularly, no.
Third quarter scoring
I don't know, twice in two games, I don't think that's enough sample size to say that there's a theme there. We've been a very good third quarter team all year. Things have a tendency to work themselves out.
I think we can move the ball better. I think we've gotten away from some of the ball movement that's important for us. We need each other, to help each other on the offensive end. It's a hallmark of what's gotten us to this point. I think it's somewhat human nature for players -- everybody has a lot of confidence in themselves, when things are going poorly, they want to help the team. That's when you have to trust each other even more.
I'm always worried about the psyche. The NBA is a long season. You're going to go through rough patches. You can't get too high or too low. We've done a great job with that throughout the year. We have to continue to do that.
Concerned about the shooting?
I'm concerned in that I'd like to be making shots, but we have too many good shooters for it to continue. We'll get back on a hot streak. Percentages kind of work themselves out.
Whatever the definition of a slump is, we've played a lot of games lately. We've done a lot of traveling. No one likes to use fatigue or the schedule as an excuse. But it is a reality. We need to catch our breath, get our minds and bodies right, and be ready to play on Saturday.
Eliminated from coaching All-Star
I was eliminated when we lost to Oklahoma City.
Can you talk about being in contention this late?
No. That's not even a story or an issue.
We didn't do a very good job of controlling the ball. They had five offensive rebounds to our five defensive rebounds in the first quarter. They made their perimeter shots. Memphis -- for us to be even at halftime at points in the paint, against a team that thrives in the paint, was a good thing for us, but they made their perimeter shots. They made their threes, they're not necessarily a three-point shooting team, they made their threes.
We were caught scrambling sometimes when we shouldn't have been scrambling, we should have been a little more solid with our stunts, not get into rotations, that was some of it. We got off to a bad start from the jump. We had some bad execution offensively, get down 8-0. I don't know if we were quite ready. That's on me.
LaMarcus was really the only guy we had going early. After the poor start offensively, LaMarcus really kept us afloat.
Damian Lillard, last few games
He's not making shots. He's competing, he's playing hard. He's trying to do whatever he can to help us win. I don't think you define a guy, how he's playing, by whether he makes or misses shots.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter