The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 102-97, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, dropping Portland's record to 29-34.
Grind, grind, grind, grind, grind, grind. It's impossible to read about, watch, talk about, listen to others talk about, write about, or even think about the Grizzlies without coming back to that word.
"Memphis plays a grind-it game," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said afterwards. "It's not an up-tempo, highlight game. They grind it out on both ends."
"They definitely understand their identity," Blazers forward/center J.J. Hickson said, as the "grind" word kept coming up again and again in all corners of the locker room. Grind is perfectly alliterative with their moniker, sufficiently hip, and a precise descriptor of both Memphis' overbearingly deliberate offense and suffocating defense.
The incessant return to that particular word -- "grind" -- is not one of those cases, in politics or marketing, where something is repeated ad nauseam in an attempt to increase its validity or appeal. ("Double-double machine.") There's no truth-bending or word games taking place here. The word "grind" has stuck to the Grizzlies and propagated because it fits on so many levels.
And, too, because the Grizzlies' defeated opponents are often left ground down, broken up, and in pieces, reinforcing the feedback cycle. When things are rolling, Memphis sucks the life out of a gym and terminates momentum better than anyone.
The Blazers never controlled this game and didn't manage to make a serious push until midway through the fourth quarter with the Grizzlies leading by nine and a little less than five minutes remaining. A pretty Damian Lillard to LaMarcus Aldridge connection for a dunk was followed in short order by an Eric Maynor bucket, and suddenly Memphis was taking timeout with their lead cut to five.
The tension lasted for about 20 more seconds; Tayshaun Prince hit a corner three in front of the Blazers bench and that was that. Momentum extinguished before it started. Prince didn't need to fly like an airplane, or spank himself, or blow on his fingers, or holster his guns, or do anything except run back and take his position within one of the league's most efficient defenses. An eight-point lead is a mountain.
"They're a low-possession team so when they go up five or six points, it's tough to get those five or six points back because they grind games out," Hickson explained.
Hickson nailed it there but his explanation was hardly necessary. Watch the Blazers' bench react to Prince's three -- some throw their hands up in the air, others slump their shoulders -- and the ground down effect was clear as could be. When the slender Prince went to the post on the Grizzlies' next possession, delivering two more points and cancelling out Wesley Matthews' basket at the other end, it was just another pestle sweep through the mortar.
"Tayshaun making a three-pointer out of the timeout was huge," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "Then we got him in the paint and he made another big bucket. We just kept holding them off. We were able to hold them off even when they went small, and it was a nice win against a very tough ball club who wouldn't quit."
Portland didn't quit, receiving nice efforts from Aldridge, who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, and Lillard, who added 27 points and seven assists. Rolling over might have made this one feel less damaging for Portland than it did, and getting ground down has a way of bringing forward a more honest, less rosy self-analysis.
"Definitely that [playoffs] door is closing," Aldridge admitted. "We have to put some wins together fast. If we don't, that door will close on us."
Lillard added: "Even if our playoff hopes do go down the drain, it's still a pride thing."
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who didn't hit a shot and finished with just four points, was as gloomy as he's been all season, not only because of the nature of the loss but also because his individual struggles continue. Aside from a 20-point output against the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, Batum has shot the ball poorly for essentially the last three weeks straight. He continues to complain of wrist pain, though it seems to be bleeding over into his mental approach. Down the stretch, Batum carelessly stepped out of bounds and launched a three-pointer that hit the top of the backboard, squandering two possessions.
"Everything changed," he said of his season after the injury. "I tried to play through it, I hurt my wrist, I'm not the same. I have a good game sometimes but not every time. I just tried to play through it but all my numbers aren't the same. Rebounds, passing, everything changed. Sometimes when I get a block shot, my wrist comes back, I can't shoot any more. I try to just shoot it [and not] think about it ... [but] every time [it's] the same. I've tried everything. [It's] really [frustrating]."
Questions about Batum's lack of production brought out the snipping in Stotts again.
"I believe it's down," he said, sarcastically, when asked what's happened to Batum's scoring of late. He stopped there, forcing a pair of follow-up questions.
"For whatever reason, it's not there right now," he said finally. Evidently, it was Stotts' goal to turn the post-game press conference into a low-possession game too.
With Batum providing next to nothing and Matthews (who finished with eight points on three-for-10 shooting) not offering much more, Portland turned to Aldridge. The All-Star forward responded nicely after two dud performances against Memphis earlier this season -- a five-for-15 night in January and a two-for-13 performance last week -- and he joked afterwards that he drew his motivation from Zach Randolph, who apparently heckled him about his shot selection earlier in the day. Candace Buckner of The Columbian reported on Twitter that Randolph also referred to Aldridge as "my son" at shootaround.
"Z-Bo said I was going to take jump shots all game so I was trying to go to the basket more," Aldridge said, after shooting 10-for-19 from the field and attempting 10 shots from five feet or closer. "The first two games in Memphis, they played me more for my jump shot. I watched film and I saw I could go to the basket more."
He did well to find creases, catch passes in tight spaces and finish. He made the Grizzlies' interior defense work but he was fighting a one-on-three battle for most of the game. Randolph, Marc Gasol and Ed Davis combined for 53 points (on 22-for-35 shooting) and 21 rebounds. Grind. Grind. Grind.
"He's back," Gasol said of Randolph, who finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in his first game back after missing time with an ankle injury. "He made them pay in the paint."
The Blazers paid an even greater toll on the other end, unable to generate offense against a Memphis team that pressures ball-handlers relentlessly, communicates well in its secondary coverages, rotates hard, and crashes the glass.
"Our team can learn from the physical nature of how they play, the way they defend," Stotts said.
The Grizzlies are better at grinding than the Blazers are at anything these days, in large part because the "spread the ball around and have fun" offensive approach doesn't work with so little production from their ailing wings. The time has come to begin meaningfully cutting back the starters' playing time, beginning with Batum and Matthews. That Portland officially moved into the No. 12 spot in the 2013 NBA Draft order on Tuesday -- by virtue of its loss and a Dallas Mavericks win -- served as a nice symbol that it's officially time to adjust course.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 18,754. Definitely generous.
- Speaking of tickets, please help us send hundreds of kids to Blazersedge Night. From what I've heard, Tuesday's response to Dave's post was overwhelming, but you can still donate tickets by CLICKING THIS LINK and using the password "BlazersEdge" or by calling Lisa Swan at 503.963.3966.
- Blazers president Chris McGowan is in his first year in the NBA and it continues to show. While he, like all basketball executives, should be either selling wins or selling hope, McGowan didn't really do either this week, instead offering a range of messages that included the announcement of ticket price increases, a shot at the quality of his organization's websites, and a rebuke of the organization's close-knit internal culture. "Sounds like a great guy to work for," said one league source, who expressed confusion at McGowan's intentions with his media mini-blitz.
- A kind read of McGowan's statements would paint them as a heavy-handed attempt to instill a new internal accountability. As noted earlier this season, that's something that's been needed, especially when it comes to the bogus attendance numbers put out there month after month under the old regime. Still, McGowan seemed to err in tone. An improved website is something that many fans, observers and team employees have all wanted for some time. Disparaging -- or appearing to disparage -- the current product and the thousands of hours of work that went into it-- isn't something employees generally expect to hear from their president, especially in public.
- "Wanting to improve his product is great," said a business-side employee who works for another NBA organization. "But he sold out his people on that one." Indeed, McGowan's criticism wound up putting the heat on individual employees who may or may not have the ability or authority to enact the kind of widespread, philosophical changes that he is seeking. Media professionals expect to be shot at as messengers. Usually, it's not friendly fire. A major part of leadership is inspiration and some of those comments, from the perspective of a writer, are pretty deflating.
- The Grizzlies really played with the end of this game in a manner that would have caused their coaches a collective aneurysm if they had slipped up just once more. Marc Gasol received a technical foul with less than a minute to play, turning a three-possession game into a two-possession game. Then, Jerryd Bayless fouled a three-point shooting Eric Maynor when the Grizzlies were up by six points with two seconds to play. That forced Memphis to take a timeout so they can properly set up an inbounds play, lest they turn over the ball and give Portland a chance to tie. Just a senseless and strange ending to a thorough team performance.
- In Bayless's defense, it's always possible that he was simply doing his best to give Portland the opportunity to break 100 points and deliver free Chalupas to the Rose Garden crowd. Had the Blazers nailed a meaningless three at the buzzer, his covert mission would have been accomplished without sacrificing the victory. That would have been an all-time great Chalupa sequence.
- Mike Acker of Rip City Project pointed out that this was Bayless's first return trip to the Rose Garden since Rich Cho sent him packing in a 2010 trade. Remember the good old days when first-round picks were traded with some amount of regularity?
- "The Grizzlies really miss Rudy Gay." -- No one, except Rudy Gay and his immediate family members.
- Portland managed to halt the bullying in the fourth quarter by returning to a two point guard lineup that kept a smaller Memphis unit on the court. The combination of Damian Lillard and Eric Maynor continues to pay dividends, at least on offense, as they combined for 23 fourth quarter points.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian has some details on the January practice when Batum first hurt his wrist.
- The Grizzlies' great defense even rubbed off on one Kiss Cam participant, who blocked out her boyfriend's attempted smooch with a physical head duck. Denied.
- Tony Allen's recovery block at the rim after a gamble for a steal carried him out past the three-point line was jaw-dropping.
- "It's a physical game, we're all physical," Lillard said, before thinking twice and adding, "They're just one of the most physical teams in the league."
- Damian Lillard on his approach to the rest of the season: "We're not going to go out there and not play with the same passion because we don't have a chance. It's still a game, it's still going on our record, and we still want to win. We're still competitive."
- LaMarcus Aldridge on the verbal back-and-forth with Zach Randolph: "That's just two guys being competitive. I've known Z-Bo since my first game in the league, we've done that in practice, all the time."
- Meyers Leonard, in his first game back from a sprained ankle, finished with six points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. He got worked a few times on the defensive end, once to the point where it prompted outright laughter on press row.
- At SI.com, I handed out some third-quarter awards and included some quotes from Lillard at All-Star Weekend on his planned improvements for the summer.
- Stotts' tone in post-game press conferences continues to make for some awkward moments and he basically killed the dialogue after this one (see below). I'm not sure where all the disdain will get him in the long run.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Memphis is a good team. They are physical, they play great team defense, they play individual defense, it was a struggle to score all night. I thought we had some good efforts, but they're the fourth seed in the West right now, they'er a good team. Playoff-tested, our team can learn from the physical nature of how they play, the way they defend. It's certainly disappointing to lose, I thought we gave a good effort. We didn't shoot the ball well, part of that was us, part of that was their good defense.
What happened to Nicolas Batum's scoring?
I believe it's down.
I don't know. I don't know. We need him to be aggressive, we need him to shoot the ball with confidence. We need him to be aggressive going to the basket. We need him to be able to drive and run. For whatever reason, it's not there right now.
How is that negatively impacting you?
We score less.
Flat game, flat crowd
Memphis plays a grind-it game. It's not an up-tempo, highlight game. They grind it out on both ends, it's hard to have one of those games where you can really get the crowd into it because they defend. It's hard to get a lot of momentum. Crowd gets into it, most of the time with offense, but a lot of times with defense. They were effective at both ends.
Meyers Leonard on the ankle
I thought he moved well. He missed some shots I was glad he took. He got a dunk, to be honest I didn't even notice his ankle. I thought he was moving pretty well.
You said this was critical three-game home stand. Got to be disappointing
Yeah. Whatever happens with the playoffs will happen, cliche, we're taking it each game. You want to win the ones at home. We played Memphis three times, we played them tough, but only came up with the first one. Randolph makes a big difference but we've got New York on Thursday. Right now, that's our concern. We've got New York, then Detroit, then we've got a long road trip. Our priority right now is getting a win against New York.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter