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Game 18 Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW and NBATV

The Memphis Grizzlies roll into town with a suitcase full of recent wins and confidence in hand, having earned (for now) the right to be mentioned in the same breath as Dallas and San Antonio in their division. They've ripped off multiple victories without the services of forward Zach Randolph, down with a knee injury. It's a good day to be a Memphis fan.

Rudy Gay has been the Grizzlies' leading scorer at 19 per game (plus his usual 6 rebounds). The most impressive part of his performances may be his 47% shooting clip. Gone are the days when he'd just fire anything, shooting Memphis out of victories. He'll always be Rudy Gay but he seems more comfortable in his own skin now and the team more comfortable with him doing his thing.

Despite Gay's statistical lead, the heart and soul of this team so far have been point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol. Conley's 13 points and 7 assists look modest but you have to factor his 49% clip from the field, his ability to sink threes (39%), and his 3+ assist-to-turnover ratio. Plus, at least early in the season, he's taken the next step in defending. His 2.5 steals per game look flashy, but he's playing better position defense as well, making him the kind of well-rounded player that basketball aficionados can appreciate. Gasol is following the same pattern at his own position. He averages 15 and 11 on 54% shooting with 2.5 blocks per game and more good defense. These guys can score 20 but they don't have to in order to bring their team the victory.

Former Sixer Mareese Speights starts at power forward. He's getting more minutes and looks than he did in Philadelphia but also playing a little farther away from the basket. That's still an adjustment. His rebounding is as good as ever though. Tony Allen continues to start at shooting guard. He's an efficient, not productive, scorer but a good defender.

The Memphis bench features O.J. Mayo alongside of a bunch of hard workers. Now freed from the burden of being anything but a scorer Mayo is producing the best percentages of his career. Like Gay he seems to have found a comfortable fit and how to be a weapon in this league. Guys like Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter, and Jeremy Pargo aren't going to win games for you but they won't lose them either...a key component of bench play.

In other words, unlike previous years when the Grizzlies would go on weird streaks of a half-dozen victories by scoring 120 per night and giving up 117, this year's record looks legit. Their players have grown and gelled. Randolph's absence may even be a plus in uncovering fully some of the capabilities of their more complete contributors.

Though offense will always get most of the attention in Memphis, the Grizz have made their greatest strides in the defensive department. They've got the 8th most efficient defense in the league, right there with the Blazers and snuggled close to teams like Miami, the Lakers, and Atlanta. That's foreign territory if all you remember is Classic Grizzly play. They're solidly in the middle of the pack in most categories, plenty enough to make their offense tell. They excel at forcing turnovers. They lead the league in steals per game, adding a little zest to their otherwise-standard defensive game. When even Rudy Gay is having the best defensive season of his career, though, you know you're doing something right as a team.

The Grizzlies are in upper-middle-average territory in offensive efficiency and point production. Their secret is simple: they score a ton of points on the break and in the lane. Remember those Toronto and Detroit teams that couldn't score an easy bucket to save their lives? This ain't them. Naturally their shooting percentage is high as well. When pushed away from the bucket they become more average again, but they make up for that with an excellent offensive rebounding attack.

This team isn't showing a ton of obvious weaknesses right now. The occasional 128-point night against the Kings or 64-point outing against the Bulls aside (binary scores FTW!) they're playing steady ball and winning whether they score in the 90's or 100's. Home or not, they'll be a tall order for the Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Portland will have to work hard to prevent those easy buckets upon which the Grizzlies thrive. The first two tenets tonight must be rebound and get back on "D". If either of those breaks down Memphis will score enough points around the edges to give them a terrible advantage. Portland can go toe-to-toe with them in terms of production, forced turnovers, and star power. For the most part the Grizzlies' strengths are also Portland's. But the Blazers equaling or exceeding the Grizz in the straight-up categories won't matter if Memphis goes +12 on easies.

Read the Memphis point of view at StraightOuttaVancouver.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (