Remember that feeling when a final, triumphant flick of your wrist solved the Rubik's Cube for the very first time? Well, neither do I. Two sides at once was my limit. But the Portland Trail Blazers must be feeling something similar tonight as they finally overcame the Memphis Grizzlies with a 105-98 victory.
And the celebration went beyond a single win! The Golden State Warriors fell to the New York Knicks only seconds after Portland-Memphis went final, leaving the Blazers 5th in the conference, 2 games ahead of the Warriors in the playoff seeding race. Memphis dropped to 9th in the conference with the loss, 4 games behind Portland.
In short, the evening could not have gone better for the Blazers.
The game started out evenly with both Portland and Memphis playing to familiar strengths. The Grizzlies ran the ball through Marc Gasol, depend on his mid-range game to pull out Portland's defenders. During previous matchups Robin Lopez was tasked with Gasol duty but tonight the Blazers switched LaMarcus Aldridge to him, leaving Lopez on Zach Randolph. Unfortunately for Portland, Randolph's mid-range game is just as deadly. The Grizzlies alternated between both big men, peppering in the occasional cut-and-pass or fast break off of a pick-six steal.
The Blazers countered with their own duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, both excelling in the halfcourt attack. Aldridge dizzied defenders with an array of jumpers. Matthews went outside-in from the other side of the court. Nicolas Batum had little offensive presence early but announced his intention to wring every bit of defense possible out of this game, his shuffles and rotations popping like hot bacon grease.
The end result after one period was a 25-23 lead for the Blazers. The lead was welcome but you had to ask why the overall scoring was comparatively low with both teams shooting well over 50%. The answer: tempo. The Blazers were succeeding but they were doing it at a pace that would eventually favor the large, lumbering Grizzlies. Portland's games with Memphis so far have all ended the same way. The Blazers got into a grind with the Grizzlies and got smothered. Would this evening turn out the same?
Beginning with Portland's bench unit featuring Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson, the Blazers' offense shifted gears. They rebounded, ran, and got up a quick shot. Faster looks kept the Memphis defense from getting settled, kept rebounders out of their customary positions, and kept shots coming from all over the floor instead of the customary three spots. The Grizzlies couldn't keep up. Their bench got blown away. Portland's starters continued the momentum when they returned, adding in their always-strong ball movement. Batum continued his defensive flurry. Dorell Wright provided unexpected rebounds. When the horn sounded for intermission the Blazers had compiled 57 points and held a 12-point lead.
The Blazers would protect their margin through most of the second half, moving feet and ball too quickly for Memphis to follow. Aldridge's jumper remained pure. Three-pointers fell. Portland kept turnovers low, eliminating the biggest potential drawback to playing fast and keeping the Grizz from scoring easy points on the run. Memphis played fine. They got rebounds, put the ball in the hoop, but they had to work for it. The game came easier for Portland.
The story changed as the fourth-quarter clock dwindled. Pace took a toll; the Blazers looked tired. But Memphis couldn't score quickly enough, often enough to make the comeback. Whenever they threatened the Blazers seemed to get a key defensive stand or make a pressure-relieving shot. By the time the Grizzlies got within 4 the clock had become a mortal enemy. No miracle was forthcoming. Portland walked away with one of their better wins of the season.
The Boxscore holds plenty of gems for Memphis. They did most of the things they set out to do. Portland shot 5-15, 33%, from beyond the arc. Memphis held the Blazers to 7 offensive rebounds and put up 89 shots to Portland's 75. That alone would spell doom for the Blazers on a normal night. The Grizz didn't shoot poorly at 46%. They had 28 assists on 41 shots and poked away 11 steals. But they couldn't overcome two basic flaws. Portland shot 52% from the field overall, approximately doubling their normal rate against Memphis. The Blazers also went +11 from the foul line, making up fully for their so-so distance shooting. For the Grizzlies this game was like a pretty cake with a can of expired sardines baked into the middle. It looked good enough but there's no way to avoid the flaw.
For the Blazers, meanwhile, this game proved well-planned, well-executed, and appropriately adjusted. The mainline players did well and the ancillary contributors, especially off the bench, made it a night to remember. We're not used to seeing that in Portland, but it looked pretty darn good.
LaMarcus Aldridge went 10-20 for 28 points, looking smooth and never forcing. It was his most coherent offensive outing in two months. 8-8 foul shooting didn't hurt. He got only 4 rebounds but he was chasing perimeter players around the court.
Damian Lillard barely attempted a shot in the first half, ending up 4-10 for the evening, scoring 13. Normally you'd tab that as a poor outing but, like Aldridge, Lillard didn't barge into the action. Ball movement and opportunism were the bywords this evening, not All-Star showcasing. Lillard looked content, adding 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals to the show, his 4 turnovers providing the only real counterpoint.
Wesley Matthews had a good opening quarter and a decent game overall, scoring 15 on a couple of triples, 5-5 from the foul line, and 4-9 shooting overall. You could tell the ball and players were moving from his 5 assists.
Nicolas Batum played the most engaged defense we've seen in a while. That overshadowed his 10 points, 6 assist, 5 rebounding outing...in a good way. Great game overall.
Robin Lopez managed 10 rebounds and 3 blocks against a team that has often made him look like a fish out of water. He mixed it up under the boards tonight and never stopped getting physical. You also have to like how his teammates have started to respond by clogging the middle along with him. When even one other Blazer gets in decent defensive position Lopez is hard to get around.
You want quicker offense? My friend, Mo Williams is your man. I'm not sure Terry Stotts had to coach Mo into the game plan much. Likely he just pointed and said, "Mo, go!" Mo went. Mo went hard. Mo went and scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting, not busting the game plan but leading it. 4 assists and 4 turnovers balanced each other out, but the defensive intensity went pretty high tonight. 2 steals were the most obvious fruits, but you could tell Williams was into this game on that end overall, trying to make plays. That makes two nights in a row where he didn't look like a liability. Knock on wood.
Thomas Robinson sang that same song, bringing out most of the good and limiting the bad in 15 minutes of play. He scored on all 4 of his attempts, grabbed 3 rebounds, and committed 3 personal fouls. He also received plenty of attention from Stotts as he subbed out, indicating that Coach was as into T-Rob as T-Rob was into the game...a good sign.
Dorell Wright didn't do much offensively but he didn't get blown away on the other end either...no small feat versus those Memphis forwards. A potential "Uh Oh" matchup turned into, "Hmmm...not bad!" Plus Wright made up for the lack of rebounding from the usual suspects with 7 of his own. Nice.
Will Barton got a nifty alley-oop dunk off of a Batum pass. That never gets old.
If you liked the home-cooking tonight, prepare for plenty more of it. 7 games remain in Portland's season, 5 of them at the Moda Center. One of the remaining road games happens Tuesday as the Blazers say goodbye (and good riddance) to the Los Angeles Lakers. Until then, this will be a win to bask in.
Grizzly Bear Blues will sing them loud tonight. This was a missed opportunity for Memphis.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Tuesday are HERE. Tonight's Answers: Three players tied for the most missed foul shouts and the system wouldn't accept it, so no score on that one. Tony Allen grabbed the most rebounds per minute for Memphis, Portland won the opening tip, Mike Conley had more combined points and assists than Damian Lillard.