Your Portland Trail Blazers won a knock-down, drag-out battle versus the Memphis Grizzlies tonight. Though they played without starting power forward Zach Randolph, out with "flu-like symptoms", the Grizz gave nothing to the Blazers tonight. Their defense was as impressive as advertised. They hustled. They fought. And every time they took a swipe at the Blazers, the Blazers took a swipe right back.
The game started with Portland exploiting their opponent's chief weakness: turnovers. Portland created easy points off of Memphis miscues, breaking the ice against the solid Grizzlies defense. That defense asserted itself quickly in the person of Marc Gasol, who staked his claim to being one of the best defensive players in the league by bothering the Blazers inside, outside, everywhere the Grizzlies needed help. At varying times he blocked LaMarcus Aldridge, bowled over J.J. Hickson, and forced Damian Lillard into a turnover 40 feet out on the court. The Blazers didn't go through Gasol. Instead they worked around him, taking advantage of his commitment to defense by cleaning up the offensive glass behind him. Thus went the first quarter, after which the score was 25-24, Memphis.
The second period saw some rough play from Portland's bench, apparent fatigue from Portland's starters (evidenced by the speed at which most of them were jogging down the court despite Terry Stotts' frantic waves to hurry), and plenty of points in the paint for Memphis. This was as close as the Grizzlies came to building solid momentum as the Blazers missed threes and committed turnovers while Memphis continued to assault the paint. Wesley Matthews helped calm the Blazers on offense by hitting key shots and Nicolas Batum made a couple defensive plays that only he could make. The play of those two wing players proved enough to keep the Blazers alive. Memphis extended the lead to 3 points at the half but the Blazers were in good shape.
The third period was a battle of power forwards as Marreese Speights beat the Blazers down the court repeatedly for easy buckets and then fanned that flame into a bonfire with his strong halfcourt play. Speights scored 16 in the period, a rush which not only should have made the Grizzlies forget the absence of Randolph, it should have sunk the Blazers. Portland stayed tight in their non-Speights defense, rebounded well, and went through LaMarcus Aldridge for some much needed post offense. Late-period offense by Matthews and Aldridge pushed the Blazers into a tie with Memphis at 72 headed into the final period.
If the Grizzlies couldn't shake the Blazers in three quarters you knew it wasn't going to happen in the fourth. This game was going down to the wire. Portland started the period too far outside on offense but made up for it with heroic rebounding. They never got their inside mojo going but they hit enough shots off of passes to keep up with the Grizz scoring in the paint on the other end. J.J. Hickson's work inside earned him multiple free throws, which he hit. On the other end Memphis got...nothing. The Blazers played defense every bit as well as the Grizzlies, allowing only a dozen points total in the period. The last field goal of the game fell with 3:10 left in the game as Rudy Gay hit a short shot to pull the Grizz within 1, 83-82. After that it was all free throws. The Blazers threatened to give up the game via multiple offensive rebounds allowed to the Grizzlies and by Aldridge making only 1 of 2 free throws with 2 seconds left and the Blazers up by 1 before the shots. But somehow when the Blazers needed the ball Batum or Hickson were always in place. Matthews made an amazing individual defensive stand against Gay in the final 2 seconds, forcing a miss and preserving the win for Portland.
Little in this game will differentiate it statistically. Both teams shot around 40%. The Blazers went 10-27 from distance compared to 2-5 for the Grizzlies but Portland gave all of it back with -8 scored at the line and an 18-point deficit in the paint. Seriously, this was like a boxing match where both guys just kept throwing punch after punch, staggering the opponent every time they connected. The fight went the distance. The Blazers ended up landing 1 or 2 more punches total and that was that. The Grizzlies have nothing to be ashamed about or correct, nor can the Blazers point to too many technical reasons for their victory. This was all about guts, being as hard-nosed as your opponent. That's not always been a Blazer hallmark this year. It was tonight. Great game.
The game balls for this outing belonged to two players, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. I'll be the first to admit that I haven't been in love with the play of Portland's starting wings every night, and for good reason. I've also not been shy about sharing those impressions, as both are trending into veteran territory and have to develop more consistent (good) outings. But man, I was in LOVE with these two tonight. L...O...V...E. My goodness, what performances.
On a night Portland struggled to find offense, Wesley Matthews took judicious shots and hit them. He went 5-8 from distance, scored a team-high 21 points and poked away 3 steals (turnovers being a huge hitch in the Memphis game plan). Anybody who wonders what people see in Matthews defensively need to rewind the last 22 seconds of this game and watch it over and over again. What he did to Rudy Gay at that 22-second mark was near-unmentionable. Without fouling or reaching he refused to give an inch to the Grizzlies' best scorer when they needed a shot desperately. Amazing. Plus whenever the Blazers seemed to get nervous or out of control on offense throughout the game, Matthews showed up like a wise guru come down off the mountain to make the right play, hit the restorative shot. He was in many ways the team leader tonight.
Speaking of defense, my gosh was Batum impressive tonight. He did plenty of little things well, but in that second quarter when Memphis was threatening to get away, Batum just swallowed them whole. Sometimes he does stuff that would make you say, "Holy *****!" and high-five your neighbor if it happened in a video game. But this wasn't a video game, it was 100% real. Blocking a shot off the backboard so it would carom off into the hands of a teammate and start the Blazers down the floor? Noooooooooooo. He did NOT just do that! And who corralled the critical possession giving the Blazers the ball with 4 seconds left, grabbing the rebound and throwing the ball off of Mike Conley out of bounds? Other than 3 steals and 3-8 shooting from the arc Batum's stat line wasn't much to behold tonight, but don't let that fool you. NICE game.
J.J. Hickson took the worst abuse the Memphis bigs could dish out tonight and still came back at them with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Up until the last few minutes he was a rebounding machine. He also took advantage of their non-mobility with a couple of cuts for dunks. Plus there was a moment about 4 minutes into the third period. Gasol and company had been using Hickson whenever possible and J.J. was obviously aware of the potential of getting his shot blocked on any non-dunk attempt. But finally Gasol went up for a little 3-foot chippy and Hickson rose and swatted it, straight up. It was like, "HUH! Enough of THAT! I can play this game too."
LaMarcus Aldridge had a relatively quiet 5-15 offensive performance for 15 points but his mid-range jumpers and occasional post moves were critical in steadying his team. He also had 12 rebounds, 10 defensive, and 5 blocks. Without Aldridge the Blazers don't come close to holding Memphis to 84 points.
Damian Lillard's night was mixed. He shot poorly, forcing it at times but mostly just missing. (5-14, 11 points) He had 8 assists but also 5 turnovers as he looked legitimately surprised at what the Grizzlies were able to do to him off the dribble. On the other hand he had 5 rebounds and Mike Conley's line was 2-8, 6 points, 3 assists. That wasn't all due to Damian's defense but this needs to be said: even though he's still a sub-par defender he has been improving as the season has progressed. If he had played tonight on the defensive end like he did in Game 1 the Blazers would have lost. Other teams still strike gold every time they involve him and J.J. in a pick and roll together, but those moments are becoming more the exception than the rule.
Will Barton had a nice offensive return to Memphis, hitting 2-3 shots in the first half and looking confident.
Joel Freeland had 4 rebounds in 8 minutes but missed his defensive assignment badly at least once, plus he couldn't get above the rim in the lane if they built him an escalator.
It wasn't Luke Babbitt's finest night. It looked like Memphis was watching for him.
This was a great win. If the Blazers can follow it up with another tomorrow that's a 3-1 road trip. All of a sudden the 8 of 10 homestand coming up looks full of possibility despite the general strength of opponent. On the other hand it'd be just like the Blazers to win the two games of this trip that they shouldn't have and lose the two games they should have won.
Straight Outta Vancouver will have interesting things to say about this game, no doubt.
Your Jersey Contest scoreboard for January and the form for tomorrow's game.
Portland Trail Blazers tickets