Just when you thought it was safe to play in the Western Conference...along come the Memphis Grizzlies.
You could all but hear the iconic Jaws theme playing tonight as the conference-leading Grizzlies and the red hot Trail Blazers met in Portland's Moda Center. The only question was, which team was the shark and which the bait?The issue got resolved fairly early as Memphis took control with superior rebounding, defense, and paint playm never ceding it back on their way to handing the Blazers a 112-99 loss.
At first it looked like the Blazers were going to not only survive the night, but do it in style. Wesley Matthews began the game in full flamethrower mode and never shut off. His early outside shooting opened up the floor for all sorts of mid-range tomfoolery from Portland. The Blazers screened and cut for quick. open jumpers. They hit them too. Splashing 6 of their first 7 shots put the Blazers up 13-6 with 8:30 left in the first. They'd extend the lead to 18-6 as the clock approached 5:00, seemingly on their way to a dominant period. The message was clear: Memphis may be the best team in the NBA by record, but the Blazers are ready for anyone.
Except they weren't.
If this had been a Jaws re-make Portland's early success would have been captured in a scene of young professionals wearing khaki shorts while sport fishing. We'd watch them pull a six-foot bottom-feeder out of the water and joking that they just caught a "shark". Meanwhile as they were congratulating themselves and disparaging the crazy local Great White legends, you'd see a fin coming out of the water behind them. It'd be striped Memphis black and blue too.
The first bump on the boat tonight came when Courtney Lee hit a three-pointer with 5:00 on the clock in the first. Then Mike Conley and Zach Randolph converted layups in quick succession. Then Marc Gasol hit 2 free throws followed by another Conley layup. In 2 minutes the Grizzlies had chopped a 12-point deficit to 6. Captain Terry Stotts called a timeout and tried to remind his charges about the dangers lurking just beneath the surface, but it didn't work. Portland would score only a single point for the remainder of the period as Memphis cut the lead to 25-23 after one.
The Grizzlies took a chomp right out of the Good Ship Trail Blazer in the second quarter, leaving a gaping hole right at the waterline. Jumpers that were falling for Portland's starters early in the game started clanking as the bench took over. Memphis controlled most of those rebounds. When they missed one the Blazers struggled to convert the second-chance opportunity. The Grizz defense forced a couple turnovers, beating the Blazers down the court for easy opportunities. That was like blood in the water. Soon they dispensed with the "turnover" portion and just ran after every rebound. The Blazers never quite caught up. Matthews and Chris Kaman kept doing damage but they were like a couple of guys on a tilting deck, poking at the shark with a fishing rod in an attempt to drive it off. The shark hung around anyway as the boat continued to sink. Memphis posted a 29-18 quarter and took a 52-43 lead into the half.
Portland's offense resuscitated in the third quarter, proving the team still had life left in them. The Blazers passed around the Memphis defense instead of driving through or passing into the hands of. Matthews continued his one-man onslaught. LaMarcus Aldridge got good looks. Damian Lillard tried to take over the game late in the third...earlier than his usual habit. Between them that trio scored 23 of Portland's 27 points in the period. Well and good.
Except the Blazers couldn't defend the Grizzlies any better than the Grizzlies were defending the Blazers. Memphis still out-raced Portland down the floor. They got into their offense earlier and executed better.They also bared their double row of teeth in the form of Marc Gasol, who scored 14 in the third quarter alone. Inside or out, the Blazers couldn't stop him. Then again, they couldn't really stop any of the Grizzlies in the lane. Conley and Randolph scored repeatedly on layups and flips as Memphis put up 31 against Portland's 27 and exited the period up 83-70.
Despite the boat being underwater and the shark winning handily, the Blazers almost escaped to shore in the climactic scenes of the evening. The Grizzlies' bench--excellent in their first half stint--went dry on offense in the fourth. Meanwhile Chris Kaman showed up to play the part of "Grizzled Old Guy with Lots of Ammo". He plinked the Grizz for 9 points and a couple of blocks in the period. When they weren't going to Kaman (directly or via offensive rebounds) the Blazers were launching deep with their guards. They found some success, but they could never drain enough threes or corral enough offensive boards to make up for their inability to defend. Gasol continued to rip them apart inside with field goals and free throws in the mid-quarter. Conley and Randolph reprised their layup performances late. Needing to change the course of the game, the Blazers ended up with more of the same.
Portland cut the lead to 4 with 7:26 remaining but got no closer. Memphis tightened down, the Blazers tightened up, and the Girzz swam away with a satisfying victory and bits of Blazer uniform stuck between their teeth.
The points at which the Blazers played poorly during this game were few and far between. The loss wasn't about talent disparity or horrible effort. Instead most of the little things that the team has let slip during a winning streak against inferior opponents came back to haunt them all at once tonight.
--The Blazers gave up only 7 turnovers (8 when you count a team turnover) but lost 14 points as a result...meaning Memphis scored nearly every time after Portland lost the ball.
--The Blazers grabbed 15 offensive rebounds but scored only 10 points off of them.
--Memphis held a 16-4 edge on fast breaks.
--Memphis generated 54 points in the paint
--Portland shot only 29% from the arc on 28 attempts.
--Kaman was the only reliable bench scorer for the Blazers
Portland has not only gotten away with these things in the last few weeks, they've prospered in the process. The script runs, "Play substandard basketball early, turn it on in the second half, slip away from the opponent and win." Except tonight they ran into an opponent that knows how to defend, how to prevent slippage, and how to score themselves. The Blazers had a lead then fumbled it away. Memphis got a lead and never gave it back. Really good, really talented, and somewhat careless gets beat by really good, really talented, and really careful. That's what happened tonight.
Hopefully this will be a little bit of a learning experience for the Blazers. They've done really well. They're going to do really well again. They're almost certain to exit the regular season looking good this year. But that's not the goal...or at least not all of it. The Blazers need to beat the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, and everybody else who's going to stand in their way as they race for the conference crown. Seeding will not mean as much as being able to emerge victorious in games such as this. Talent isn't enough. Focus and consistency matter as well.
Let's give some credit to Memphis. They walked into the building of a team that has designs on challenging them for conference supremacy. They wrapped up a convincing win against that opponent. They're where they want to be. The Blazers are in a nice place, but not yet where they want to be.
This is not the last time these two teams will meet, nor is this the only hurdle the Blazers will need to clear to show they're for real. But they didn't clear it. They bumped it with their shin and knocked it over. Now they have to pick themselves up and get back in the long race, preparing better for the next jump. That starts by ironing out some of the rough spots that force them to come from behind against teams they shouldn't be behind to in the first place. That includes most of the next 6 opponents on their schedule. Let's see how they do.
Fun With Numbers
Besides the numbers listed above, the Blazers shot 40% tonight and the Grizzlies 54%. It's hard to win on nights when your opponent defends and you don't.
If you check the Costco security cameras from this afternoon, you're probably going to see Wesley Matthews in there getting Black Friday special on a full pallet of three-pointers. He sure brought a bunch with him to the arena, hitting 7-12 from long range against the Grizz and scoring 26 points in the process. The Blazers kept pressuring with other people, Memphis kept following, and Matthews kept making them pay. And pay. And pay. It was a marvelous game from him...one of the better offensive efforts in recent memory.
LaMarcus Aldridge spent much of the game trying to defend Marc Gasol with mixed success. It may have taken some of the starch out of his offense. Memphis' defense didn't help matters any. Aldridge ended up with 19 points but required 7-19 shots to get there. He tried to score in the lane and it wasn't working. Memphis was happy enough to live with his scoring outside. Aldridge did net 10 rebounds, high among Portland starters.
Damian Lillard scored 20 on 7-16 shooting but shot only 1-6 from distance. You started to get the idea that this game wasn't going Portland's way when Lillard turned on his super-mode late in the third period but it didn't make a dent in the lead. Lillard had 3 steals tonight but his basic defense wasn't great. 9 assists to 1 turnover is a great stat line though.
Robin Lopez watched Zach Randolph early, then watched from the bench as Chris Kaman went crazy late. It wasn't Robin's worst game but it wasn't his best either. 3-10 shooting, 6 points, 7 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Nicolas Batum was more or less a non-factor in this game. He didn't have anybody to guard, he shot 0-5 from distance and 3-11 overall, he was too far out on the floor to help with rebounding, and there's not much else to the story.
Chris Kaman, though...wow. His first-half performance wasn't memorable but his second half nearly erased Portland's deficit in a game that was out of their control. He scored inside, rebounded on the offensive end, and even put in some stalwart defensive possessions. He played 25 minutes, scored 16 points, grabbed 11 reboounds, blocked 2 shots, and committed 6 fouls. That last one isn't optimal, but at least he was slapping and bumping inside instead of getting scored around.
Steve Blake added to Portland's defensive pressure look tonight, moving his feet like we haven't seen (or at least not for as extended and obvious of a stretch). You have to love the way Blake's brain works. He knew the Blazers were in trouble. He knew they needed a radical change to avoid succumbing. He knew that his coach put him in there to add to the defensive pressure. So he did. Memphis was more than able to compensate, but you still like guys who will put it out there like that. Blake is definitely one of those. Blake is also the guy who once again missed all of his shots, whom Memphis was happy to leave open. He did manage 4 assists in 22 minutes but the 0 points puts a lot of pressure on his teammates to score.
Will Barton was the only other Portland bench scorer tonight, pouring in 6 points on 3-4 shooting in 5 minutes. The Blazers still couldn't get ahead during that stretch though. Defense.
Allen Crabbe played 13 minutes and missed a couple shots. Not much to show tonight.
Joel Freeland got 5 rebounds in 10 minutes, following a Blake-like "At least I'm doing something out here" philosophy. Well done.
The Blazers welcome the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday before a run of 6 road games out of the next 7 total.
Our Instant Recap gives you post-game reaction from around the universe.
Grizzly Bear Blues has reason to crow tonight.
Our In-Arena Report covers this emotional, topsy-turvy night from the Moda Center seats.
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