The Portland Trail Blazers' super-interesting road trip continues today with a visit to Memphis to play the Grizzlies. The game starts at 5:00 p.m. and will be televised on CSNNW.
I say "super-interesting" because this trip features teams the Blazers haven't met yet this year plus teams with interesting storylines behind them. The Knicks had been on a tear before they met the Blazers and were returning a couple of stars. The Raptors have turned their season around against sub-par teams, of which the Blazers proved a classic example. And now we greet the Grizzlies, currently 20-9, paired with Golden State as relatively unheralded teams who are ripping up the conference.
In case you haven't checked in with the Grizz for a couple years, they're performing these feats of heroic derring-do on the back of a consistently great defense. That's right. I said "de", not "off". And yes, it's Memphis. Gone are the days of the 132-128 victory. The Grizzlies have allowed an opponent 100 points just once this season. ONCE. That was a disastrous 98-121 wilting under the Rockets' red glare. And lest you think the parsimonious point allowance is solely pace-based, they play at roughly the same pace as the Blazers. By comparison the Blazers have allowed triple digits to 14 opponents so far this season.
Oh heck, let's take it further. The Grizzlies have held opponents under 90 in 14 of their 29 contests. They're the only team in the league with fewer than 90 points allowed on average per game. Trying to score against this team is like trying to grow watermelons in a desert. You can put in the work, but don't get your hopes up.
The Grizzlies are 1st in the league in points allowed, 7th in points in the paint allowed, 7th in FG% allowed, 10th in 3PT% allowed, 6th in Effective FG% allowed, and 2nd in turnovers forced per game and per possession. If they have an Achilles' Heel it's transition defense. They allow tons of points on the break, which is not wholly surprising considering the type of player in their rotation. Most nights that's a blip on the radar. They may give up 15 on the run, but when you only score 90 total, what's the difference?
Fortunately for the rest of the league, the Grizzlies' offense is only average as a whole. They're good in the paint, bad from the field overall, average from the three-point arc. Surprisingly for a talented and relatively athletic team, they don't draw many fouls. Their paint-based play depends on bigs and offensive rebounds (at which they're the best in the league) more than penetration. They'd do better with a more aggressive attack off the dribble. Then again, when 90 points is the bar jump shots and offensive boards will do most of the time.
Besides the lack of consistent penetration and foul-drawing, the Grizzlies are handicapped by a high turnover rate. They get those back through steals and forced turnovers, but it's still not a happy stat for a team that doesn't run and doesn't generate huge offensive numbers.
Plenty of individual Grizzlies can put up huge games, though. Rudy Gay leads them in scoring with 18 per game, well off from the near-20 we've come to expect from him. He's still getting the same number of shots but his field goal percentage is way down. He's always been an outside-heavy player and that's getting worse as he ages. Zach Randolph, on the other hand, is shooting brilliantly and rebounding like the second coming of Moses Malone. He's averaging nearly 5 offensive rebounds per game. That's most teams' entire starting frontcourt combined into one. Mike Conley has blossomed into an amazing three-point shooter, an occasionally-explosive scorer, and his timing is veering towards impeccable...especially on his good nights. Marc Gasol is a good clean-up man at center. Tony Allen defends. Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur provide forward punch off the bench while Wayne Ellington and Jerryd Bayless fill in wing minutes for injured three-point specialist Quincy Pondexter. Any of those guys outside of Ellington could put the hurt on you if you're not careful.
The Blazers will probably need to key on Memphis' proclivity for turnovers and their weakness against the break tonight. For all the improvements they've made in the last couple of years, this team still features players susceptible to getting out-hustled everywhere but the offensive glass. Portland has to find a way to keep Memphis out of the paint and especially away from those offensive boards. If you can secure the rebound against them you'll find a relatively easy outlet as their bigs are all going for the ball under the hoop. Ball movement will be a key for the Blazers. You have to move those defenders and tire them out a little. If the Blazers walk down and set up individual dribble jumpers the Grizzlies will stand still, defend the percentages, and happily watch the Blazers sink enough shots to score 92. Portland has to get Randolph and Gay moving laterally, make Conley worry as much about defending as setting up or scoring, get Gasol out of the lane and roaming.
Sum up all of that and you'll find that energy is the key. The Blazers can't match Memphis' talent and experience but those gaps don't make the Grizz invulnerable. Run them, make them work, then work a little harder and move a little faster yourself. That's going to give you a chance at this win.
Note: Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports that Blazers center Meyers Leonard will not play on Friday against the Grizzlies or Saturday against the Minnesota Timberwolves as he continues to recover from a badly sprained ankle suffered in a recent win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Straight Outta Vancouver talks about the Grizzlies.
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