The Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight after a 2-3 road trip to face the Memphis Grizzlies, winners of nine games in their last twelve.
The Grizzlies lost center Marc Gasol to a knee injury just three weeks into the season. Sitting out almost two months, he returned to the the team in mid-January when Memphis was 18-19. With Gasol back in the Grizzlies' lineup now for 36 games, they've gone 26-10 and now reside a half game up on the Mavericks for the eighth playoff seed out West.
Memphis has played Portland twice this season, once at home and once on the road. In those two games, the Blazers have been demoralized by the Grizzlies' tough defense, hitting just 37.6 percent of their field-goals and 26.8 percent of their three-pointers. Meanwhile, Memphis has picked up two easy wins over Portland, averaging 53.9 percent shooting from the floor and 48 percent from outside.
Power forward Zach Randolph continues to lead his team offensively, scoring 20.6 points a night on 53 percent field-goal shooting the last five games. A third of his shots are mid-range jumpers, the rest coming inside the key where he's a reliable shooter. Randolph scores over half his shots unassisted, a creative scorer down low who gets by with technique instead of athleticism.
Point guard Mike Conley often attacks the basket off the dribble, able to finish inside consistently. He's hitting 52.9 percent of his shots the last several games, an impressive number for a point guard who takes about 14 attempts a night. Conley's good for about six assists per game and has added a serviceable outside shot to his arsenal this season, hitting 35 percent of his three-pointers the last five games. In two wins over Portland this year, Conley has ratcheted up his three-point shooting, hitting two of his 3.5 long-range attempts per game for a 57.1 percent conversion rate.
Gasol takes about half his shots from the mid-range and stays down low the rest of the time, an excellent finisher near the rim. The further he gets from the basket, though, the less reliable his shot is, as Gasol is an average jump-shooter. Still, he's been good for about 15 points a night in his last five outings, connecting on half his shots.
Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger gets far fewer contributions from the rest of his 10-man rotation after Randolph, Conley and Gasol have gotten their shots in the offense, though guard Courtney Lee and forward Mike Miller have increased their field-goal attempts and shooting percentages against the Blazers this year, hitting 57.1 and 66.7 percent of their field-goals, respectively, when facing Portland. Lee is struggling from the field right now, but Miller is still solid and has made 60 percent of his three-pointers the last five games, easily the best outside shooter for Memphis all season.
Forward Tayshaun Prince has averaged five points a game his last five on about 41 percent shooting. Center Kosta Koufos and guard Nick Calathes have contributed about 5-6 points each in that span, both hitting about half their field-goals. Forward James Johnson and guard Tony Allen have been cold from the floor the last couple weeks; Johnson is shooting 37.5 percent since mid-March and Allen has made less than 21 percent of his attempts in that span.
Overall, the Grizzlies feature the slowest-paced offense in the NBA, according to basketball-reference.com. Over the last five games, Memphis has gone 3-2, scoring 92.2 points per outing and shooting a hot 47.9 percent from the floor. The Grizzlies have only gotten up about a dozen three-pointers a night the last five games, probably a good thing because they've made only a third of them. Memphis doesn't turn the ball over often, they rarely get to the free-throw line and have fairly pedestrian assist numbers.
Like the Bulls -- a team Portland handled Friday night in a 17-point victory -- the Grizzlies rely on their "grit and grind" defense, which has held opponents to 43.2 percent field-goal shooting and 33.3 percent from deep the last five contests. Memphis severely restricts ball movement, prevents points in the paint and doesn't foul often. The Blazers have, however, managed to draw a decent amount of foul shots against the Grizzlies this year, averaging 25 attempts from the line in two games.
Portland coach Terry Stotts saw his team's offensive efficiency plummet the last five games before forward LaMarcus Aldridge's return to the lineup two games ago against the Hawks. In a win Friday night over the Bulls -- and against one of the most feared defenses in the league -- the Blazers had six players score in double-figures while connecting on about 44 percent of their shots and 45.5 percent of their threes, both up from some pretty poor offensive numbers on the 2-3 road trip.
Aldridge went 2-of-10 from the field in Chicago, one night after a 25-point performance in Atlanta. In two losses against Memphis this season, Aldridge has averaged 23 points on 23 shots, good for about 41 percent shooting, slightly under his season average. He and Randolph seem to go at each other when these two teams face, but Aldridge has been on the losing end of that exchange twice. Expect him to look for his shot tonight against the Grizzlies, as Randolph is not exactly known for his defensive acumen.
Point guard Damian Lillard has had the weight of the offense lifted off his shoulders with Aldridge back, opening up the floor. Lillard took 15 shots in Atlanta and 14 against the Bulls, about five fewer than he'd been attempting with Aldridge out. He's hit about a third of all his shots the last five outings, including threes. Though Lillard's assists are slightly down lately, he's gotten to the line often and has rarely turned the ball over considering how much he handles the ball in Stotts' offense.
Guard Wesley Matthews got up 12 shots against the Bulls, hitting only four of them and going 1-5 from deep. He's been slightly below average from the field the last five games, making about 40 percent of his shots and a third of his threes. Sixth man Mo Williams practically mirrors Matthews' shooting numbers, but he attempts fewer threes and he went for 18 points against Chicago, making seven of his 12 shots.
Forward Nicolas Batum is finding ways to contribute to Portland's offense lately, making about 43 percent of his shots, 41 percent of his threes and chipping in almost 10 points a night on the recent road trip. Center Robin Lopez has seen his usage shrink with Aldridge back on the floor, but still connects on almost two-thirds of his shots.
For the second straight game, Stotts stuck with the same nine-man rotation Friday night, leaving forward Victor Claver, center Meyers Leonard and guard C.J. McCollum on the bench until garbage time. Forward Dorell Wright picked up 20 minutes in a reserve role, Big man Thomas Robinson played a dozen and guard Will Barton registered 10. Wright and Barton struggled from the field the entire trip, neither player converting on more than a third of his attempts. Robinson contributed two solid, consecutive games at the end of the road trip, totaling 10 points each night and contributing to the team's effort, hustle and energy in familiar fashion.
Aside from an uncharacteristic 124-point outburst from the Bobcats to start the recent five-game road trip, no opponent has scored more than 95 points against the Blazers since. Although both teams employ inconsistent offenses, Atlanta and Chicago were held by Portland to about 40 percent shooting from the field and 18 percent shooting from deep. On the entire trip, the Blazers allowed 44.1 percent field-goal shooting and an impressive 28.9 percent from outside.
The Grizzlies are a top-10 rebounding team on both ends of the floor, thanks in large part to Randolph and Gasol. Portland is better on the offensive glass but slightly worse on the defensive end, with Lopez, Robinson and Batum putting up solid rebounding percentages while Aldridge has led the Blazers in total rebounds both nights since coming back from injury.
Memphis shellacked Portland in mid-January, 98-81, in what was the worst loss of the season for the Blazers at the time. About three weeks ago, the Grizzlies again throttled Portland, this time scoring almost 15 points over their season average and comfortably winning the game, 109-99. A loss tonight would put Memphis in a tie with the Mavericks for the last Western Conference playoff spot -- though Dallas owns the tie-breaker -- so expect to see a motivated Grizzlies squad.
The Blazers are still just a game up on the Warriors for the No. 5 seed in the West, and Golden State plays a winnable game against the Knicks tonight, likely creating less breathing room in the playoff standings for Portland. If they can carry over the momentum from consecutive victories against the Hawks and Bulls, the Blazers should be able to keep tonight's game more competitive than the last two against Memphis. All things considered, a win over the Grizzlies doesn't seem as impossible as it did just a week ago, either.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter