The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, 105-98, at the Moda Center on Sunday night, improving their record to 48-27.
The Grizzlies' famed death grip defense came up with a rare hand cramp in this one.
Instead of grabbing Portland's offense by the neck and choking out the excitement possession by possession, as we've seen twice this season, Memphis's pinky finger was contorted back towards its own wrist and its thumb was askew in the other direction, rendering the whole mitt pretty useless. Portland's 105 points were the most conceded by Memphis since Oklahoma City ran up 113 more than a month ago, and the buckets really starting coming once the Blazers manufactured a little pace during a key second-quarter push.
"We actually thought the whole game was going to be them trying to slow us down," Thomas Robinson told Blazersedge. "Once we got out and started running, we knew we could keep doing this. We ended up making them play our game tonight."
If briefly surprised by their opponent's lack of might, the Blazers went about making quick, definitive work of the Grizzlies, finding ways to generate opportunities in transition while also preventing Memphis from finding a comfort zone or cheap points on offense. Beating a top defense like Memphis or Chicago requires a willingness to match the dirty work that they do every night, but also a level of trust in your own principles and personnel, lest you set yourself up for a squeeze.
"They're a good defensive team but we have to pay them the respect by attacking them," Wesley Matthews said, and that was exactly how it played out. Portland broke out to a double-digit lead with a 16-4 run in the second quarter, exhibiting the type of scoring balance and "don't think twice" approach that made the Blazers one of the league's most feared attacks earlier this season.
"I'm a big believer in taking what the game gives you," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
What was available during this deciding push? High-percentage shots in the basket area, opportunities that are rarely there for the taking against the disciplined Grizzlies. The Blazers smartly got them while the getting was good. Mo Williams -- 17 points (on 7-for-9 shooting and four assists -- pushed the tempo and beat the defense all the way to the rim for a bucket. Robinson ran with Williams on another play, cashing in a layup. Nicolas Batum perfectly timed a backdoor cut in transition for a dunk.
These scores were keyed -- time and again -- by defensive rebounds against one of the league's biggest and best offensive rebounding teams. As Portland was cashing in easy looks on one end, Memphis was struggling through one-and-done possessions on the other; the Grizzlies went more than eight minutes in the second quarter without an offensive rebound during a stretch that almost perfectly overlapped with the Blazers' run. Dorell Wright pulled down a whopping seven defensive rebounds -- every rebound he registered on the night -- during a five-minute stretch early in the second quarter. Six of those boards preceded Blazers possessions that produced points on the other end.
"We knew that if we got the rebounds and didn't give them second chance points, we could run," LaMarcus Aldridge told Blazersedge. "They have [Zach Randolph] and Marc [Gasol], who are bigger, slower guys, they don't want to run. I thought Mo did a really good job of pushing the ball, finding guys open, looking for his shot in the second unit."
Portland finished with a modest total of nine fast break points, but that push bent Memphis enough that the second half was mostly a formality.
"The easy ones were demoralizing," Grizzlies coach David Joerger admitted.
This was a regulating effort that would bring a smile to the face of Warren G, a third consecutive clean win for Portland and its best showing in more than two months against a Western Conference team that matters. This was also a return to normalcy that would make Warren G. Harding proud, a continued reestablishment of the role balance that's come together over the last few nights, a jigsaw puzzle of responsibility that's been shaken up by various injuries since the All-Star break.
Aldridge's 28 points (on 10-for-20 shooting), four rebounds and two-way presence were pivotal to both developments. He began with seven consecutive jumpers but he mixed things up as the night unfolded, remaining "unspectacular but dependable" throughout: six points in the first quarter, then eight, then eight, then six. There were eight trips to the foul line along the way, plus sufficient paint play to provide the necessary interior threat.
During his absences, the Blazers have often looked like a class of elementary school students taking swimming lessons, straining to keep their heads above the pool water as their new-found responsibilities exceeded their comfort zone. Aldridge's return has, over the last few contests, drained the pool of a few feet of water, and now the kids are smiling rather than struggling. Damian Lillard -- who finished with 13 points (on 4-for-10 shooting), five assists and four rebounds -- can afford an off night and enjoy a little less defensive attention. Portland's reserves can settle back into their roles rather than trying to do too much. Robin Lopez isn't tasked with stopping onslaughts from every direction by himself. And so on.
"L.A. being back makes a big differences for everybody, as far as the rotation, the minutes," Stotts said. "When L.A. was out, we had to patch things together ... a lot of guys got minutes during that time, and now we can go forward with it."
To say consecutive wins against the Bulls and Grizzlies have buoyed spirits would be an understatement. The post-game locker room appeared as stress-free as any point since perhaps December. As word of losses by the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns spread -- Stotts was watching both games in between the end of Portland's victory and the beginning of his post-game press conference -- you could sense Portland moving quickly to firmer mental ground.
Now up four full games on the No. 9 seed with just seven left to play -- and four remaining games against lottery teams -- the Blazers wore the smiles of a team that had simultaneously outrun the Grizzlies' defensive grasp and buried the unthinkable worst-case scenario of missing the playoffs.
"That's what makes us a top team in the West, that guy right there," said Matthews, gesturing towards Aldridge's locker, as he returned to the direct, puffy-chested language that was commonplace back before Aldridge's groin injury. "Everyone is playing well, stepping it up. Our energy is back, you see our energy on the bench. The excitement, our urgency is where it needs to be."
Robinson added: "[Aldridge is] a leader. Any flaws we have, any area we lacked in, he came back and it's all changed."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19,994 (a sellout). A little generous. The fans who stayed to the very end -- through a few late, fruitless timeouts by Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger -- delivered a well-earned standing ovation.
- Here are the game highlights via NBA.com.
- LaMarcus Aldridge took a hard fall with just under two minutes remaining in the game as he crashed to the court while trying to put up a turnaround jumper in traffic. Blazers coach Terry Stotts joked that his first thought on the play was simply that Aldridge was fouled, not that he might have re-injured his back.
- Regarding the fall, Aldridge said: "I'm a little sore. It definitely woke up my little contusion but I'm OK." He told reporters that he was late in conducting his post-game comments because he was taking care of his back.
- When it comes to injuries, Aldridge is usually pretty easy to read. If he's hurt or bothered, you can see it on his face, hear it in his tone, and he generally becomes more reluctant to talk. (I think most of us would probably act the same way if in a similar position.) He seemed fairly upbeat overall about how things have progressed with his back, saying: "We've done great [managing it]. We've had some people in that's helped a lot. To show me things to do, they've done little light flushes on different muscles, I've been good so far. [We've been doing] a little bit of everything. [Stretching, ice], it's a whole lot of things."
- Aldridge played 33 minutes -- his most in almost three weeks -- and he said he could have gone more if it was necessary: "I could play more tonight but luckily guys played good, [Thomas Robinson] played good. Guys are just playing well so I don't have to do."
- Wesley Matthews on what it means to have Aldridge back: "At any point in time you can throw it to the block and he's going to make something happen, even if he misses the shot, we can have an offensive rebounding opportunity, he might command a double team, get an open shot on the back side. If they play him one-on-one, we like those odds. On the defensive end, he knows the game, he talks. He's a rebounder and he can block, he's a rim protector."
- Robin Lopez on what it means to have Aldridge back: "Having that length back there is big for us. It gives me a lot of confidence to go for more block shots, more contests, just having a big body to box out, occupy somebody, it frees up a lot of rebounds for us."
- Matthews dropped a minor bombshell in the post-game locker room, telling reporters that he hadn't been feeling well since Saturday night and that his bug required him to receive four liters worth of saline through an IV prior to the game. He added that he had second thoughts once he was in the game about whether he would be able to finish it out, given how fast things seemed to be moving around him. He still managed to tally 15 points (on 4-for-9 shooting), five assists and three rebounds.
- Aldridge on Matthews: "That's just who Wes is. He's not going to sit out a game if he doesn't have to. He knows the importance of every game. His mindset is 'I'm not going to sit out.' [Him playing on Sunday], I think it's a little bit of him knowing the urgency and him just being a tough guy."
- Memphis's coach and players made mention of how much harder Portland played and the disadvantage they faced when it came to energy. It's worth pointing out that the Grizzlies were "Stephen Curry'ed" on Friday night at Golden State. Curry hit a go-ahead three-pointer to break a tie game with a little more than a minute to go and then he hit a beautiful, running off-the-glass scoop shot to seal the deal. "It was obviously a disappointing loss at Golden State," Joerger said. "Maybe there's a hangover effect."
- Remember, Portland played like a group of passed out sailors against the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this month, two days after Curry went off to deliver a victory in Portland.
- Damian Lillard on the pick-up of intensity, especially on the defensive end: "After the tough start to the road trip, we all took it as a challenge, that we needed to be better as a team defensively. Having [Aldridge] back makes our team a lot better but as far as the defensive end, it's been a collective effort. ...We defended really well, we took away the easy points, the offensive rebounds, the transition points, all the easy points that they can get and then we ran. We got out, ran the floor, got some good looks, made them foul, we just played with a lot of energy and had a good pace. ... I think our team has completely gone in the right direction in terms of what you need to do to win games."
- Mo Williams on the team's improved play over the last three games and the bench's strong play: "Guys have been going into games, knowing when they're going to go in, knowing when they're going to come out. For the most part, that gives guys off the bench a comfort level also. One thing about it: guys are coming in, locked in, focused, doing what we've got to do on the defensive end. Offensively we're unselfish. ... [Our approach is] being one. Not getting caught up in yourself. Do it for one ultimate goal, and that's for the team. ... We're playing playoff basketball right now."
- Aldridge tipped his hat to Dorell Wright's rebounding effort: "They're a big offensive rebounding team, myself and [Robin Lopez] have our hands full trying to box out Z-Bo, the other guys have to come in and rebound. D. Wright did great tonight."
- Thomas Robinson on the job Williams has been doing running the second unit: "He's making my life a lot easier. I'm getting a lot of easy buckets off of him and I think everybody else who's on the floor with him can say the same thing. ... [My comfort level is] because of Mo and [Damian Lillard] and guys finding me. I'm staying more consistent running the floor."
- Robinson, like Aldridge above, remarked on the Grizzlies' age and lack of speed: "I knew watching tape on them that they're older guys, for me to try to find any advantage I [can] against them, I've got to use it. Tonight it was speed and running the floor and I got a few little easy buckets off of that."
- The Blazers seemed keen to get all of the stupid mistakes out of the way early, committing three terrible turnovers in the first four minutes. Things improved considerably from there on out.
- Twitter buddy @CJZero has the GIF of Nicolas Batum's alley-oop pass to Will Barton for the slam.
- Signs: "Win Blazers Win," "Biggest Blazer Fan," "What Does the Blazers Say?" "Bear down on Memphis," "I'm bananas for the Blazers," "Dame Tame the Grizzlies," "These Girls Love Their Blazers," "Nice Basketball Aldridge," "Maul Memphis," "Batum = Bawss," "L-Train MVP," "Get on the L-Train, Chug-a-chug-a-choo-choo," "AMI (94 years old) is never too old to cheer for the Blazers," "Grizzlies hit by the L-Train," and last... but certainly not least, from a female fan: "My perfect weight is with Lillard on top."
- Stotts has some nice thoughts regarding Williams' growth as a player and his veteran perspective at the very bottom of the comments below.
- I tweeted after the victory over the Bulls that the Blazers' status as a playoff team was secure. That was met with some paranoia about jinxing -- which I totally get, my Michigan Wolverines didn't advance to the Final Four on Sunday because I accidentally wore a red shirt (Ohio State) this morning, a mistake that violates basically every law of humanity that I stand for -- but this victory over the Grizzlies should really, really have put to bed any lingering doubts.
- At this point, beating only the Lakers, Kings and Jazz gets the Blazers to 51 wins, which would require an 8-1 close from the Grizzlies to match. Meanwhile, the Mavericks would also need to finish 7-1 to get to 51 wins. And, oh yeah, Dallas and Memphis play each other, and they both play San Antonio. And then there's Phoenix, who would also have to finish 7-1 to get to 51 wins, and they just so happen to face both Dallas and Memphis. Don't count the eggs, wait until the hay is in the barn and the money is in the bank, and all of that. That's cool. These last two victories were the equivalent of a two-hour full body massage when it comes to removing lottery-induced tension for Portland.
- The Blazers handed out the Wesley Matthews version of the DQ-style glasses and the image depicts him diving for a loose ball. Nice choice on that.
- Both Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes really take the "pattern" part of male pattern baldness to the limit. I kept seeing matching crop circles as they moved about the court.
- Speaking of hair, Jason Quick of The Oregonian has some funny quotes regarding Williams' hairstyle of choice, which has since been cut.
- A nice piece by Jeff Caplan of NBA.com on former Blazers assistant coach Kaleb Canales.
- Meyers Leonard reflects on his second NBA season to Scott Powers of ESPNChicago.com: "The second year has been all right. Definitely have my ups and downs. I haven't been in the rotation as much. This next summer is going to be huge for me. I fully anticipate to push my way back into it by next year. But just have to remain positive. I've always been a big team guy. I'm happy for the team as far as the success. Coming into the playoffs, got to stay strong and stay together as a team."
- Because Memphis dropped to the No. 9 spot, Portland still technically does not have a victory over a Western Conference playoff team since Jan. 18, a span of 71 days. This one sure felt like a victory over a playoff team, though, even if nixed on a (possibly temporary) technicality.
- Nothing new on the Chalupa/McMuffins front except that you might need to get five liters of saline solution pumped into your arm if you even think about eating a McMuffin.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Much like the last three games, I really liked how we were playing, I liked our mindset, I liked our focus from beginning to end. Except that in the fourth quarter, a couple of loose possessions, I thought we were really locked in on both ends of the court. Matched their physicality. I think our shooting lineup gave us some separation in the first half. Got a lot of good effort off the bench too, Mo Williams was terrific. [LaMarcus Aldridge] was terrific. We had a lot of good performances.
Mo Wiliams' recent play
You'd have to ask him. He's playing well. Having L.A. is reinvigorated some people. ... Mo is playing well. All year long, when he's scored, that's been a bonus for us. He leads the league in assists off the bench. The fact that he's had three good games in a row obviously helps us, but he's had a pretty good year for us.
Bench coming into its own
I think part of it is -- L.A. being back makes a big differences for everybody, as far as the rotation, the minutes. Dorell [Wright] at [the] four did a good job when L.A. was out, now we've managed to find a way to continue to play him at the four. That's worked out well for us the last three games. Dorell getting seven defensive rebounds for us in the first half, it opens up the game for us, playing in flow and playing in transition. I think settling on a rotation -- when L.A. misses seven games, it's harder to settle into a rotation. It's nice that that is working out. ... When L.A. was out, we had to patch things together ... a lot of guys got minutes during that time, and now we can go forward with it.
Especially in the first half, and the third quarter, we did a good job of rebounding the ball. [Wesley Matthews] did a good job on [Mike] Conley. The most important thing going into the game is limiting their putbacks and transition and we did an excellent job of that in the first half. As far as I know, in the third quarter as well. We really wanted to limit the amount of easy baskets they got, I thought we made them work for it.
Cross-switching bigs on defense
Length on Zach [Randolph] and [Marc] Gasol plays away from the basket as a passer and plays more at the elbow, so it kept Robin closer to the basket. Much like we did against Chicago, when we put L.A. on [Joakim] Noah.
Growth from beating a team you have struggled against
This was a good game. Memphis is most likely a playoff team. They've beaten us rather handily, particularly the first game. The second game was in the middle of a rough roadtrip, they caught us at a good time and we didn't play that well. It's not about a statement game. I do like the process of how we've gotten better the last three games.
Reaction to LaMarcus Aldridge falling late
I thought it was a foul. That was my initial reaction. Later, when he was kind of rubbing his backside, but to be honest, during the play, I was disappointed a foul wasn't called. Afterwards I thought about his injury.
Lots of free throws, attacking the basket
If you check our last few games, we've been getting to the free-throw line. It's not necessarily a point of emphasis. I'm a big believer in taking what the game gives you. We got our threes. I thought one of the biggest possessions was when they made their comeback in the fourth quarter, it was a 10-point game or whatever it was, and L.A. went strong to the basket and got fouled. I think he understand the importance of that moment, being strong and going to the basket. Over the last few weeks, we've lost some games and won the free-throw line. You've just got to win games in different ways.
Good energy on first home game back from a road trip
Our team is really pretty good -- didn't someone tweet about our record after a road trip. ... Coming back off a road trip, I know there's that perception. I don't know how much validity there is, coming back after a long road trip, that first game back. To be honest, this is part of our road trip because we head out tomorrow. This is an extended road trip. We can play well or not play well, but I think our team generally gets up for games and finds the energy to play.
Mo Williams' career development since you had him in Milwaukee
It's been awhile. He's matured as a man and as a player. He knows the league. He's been in some good situations, bad situations, he's a grizzled vet now. When I had him, it was early in his career, he came off the bench for me, started the second year. I think all the experiences he's had since we were together in Miwaukee, he knows the game, he knows the league, he knows his role, there isn't much he hasn't seen. He's been on a team with LeBron James in Cleveland and then he was on a team that lost 26 in a row. He's seen it all and he appreciates the value of what we're doing right now and what it means for everybody.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter