Portland Trail Blazers (30-10, No. 2 in the West) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (28-11, No. 3 in the West)
Saturday, January 17
FedEx Forum; Memphis, TN | 6:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Grizzlies: Mike Conley (doubtful)
SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear Blues | Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night
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The Blazers take on the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum tonight in a meeting between two of the top teams in the Western Conference. Both Portland and Memphis played last night, the former losing in ugly fashion to the Spurs, the latter defeating the Magic on the road.
The Grizzlies, known most for their "Grit & Grind" style of play, recently upgraded their athleticism and offensive ability by adding 6-foot-9 swingman Jeff Green in a trade with the Celtics. He gets into the paint and is a solid finisher in traffic, but Green's jumpshot has been fairly erratic this season and he's made just 29.2 percent of the 4.6 three-pointers a game he's attempted.
Still, Green is an obvious upgrade over Tayshaun Prince, Memphis' former starter at small forward who was jettisoned in the trade.
The Grizzlies score a ton of points in the middle, and the addition of Green will further boost their interior attack. Power forward Zach Randolph loves operating down low, attempting three-quarters of his shots this season in the paint. Though his jumper has fallen off this year, he's still a great finisher near the rim and he complements starting center Marc Gasol well.
Over half his shots come within several feet of the basket, but Gasol can also step out to the midrange and often initiates offense for Memphis near the free throw line. He's a serviceable jumpshooter, certainly one the Blazers need to respect, and also a player who has torched Portland in the past -- Gasol scored 26 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished nine assists in a 112-99 victory over the Blazers in late November. Now that Portland is missing starting center Robin Lopez and fill-in starter Joel Freeland, it remains to be seen how coach Terry Stotts wants to approach his matchup with the formidable frontcourt Memphis now employs.
Green scored 21 points on 8-for-18 shooting last night against the Magic, playing 31 minutes off the bench and pacing the Grizzlies in scoring in just his second game with the team. Every starter scored in double figures, with Gasol and Randolph combining to shoot 11-for-26 for 30 points. So while the scoring dynamic in Memphis' new, improved frontcourt hasn't been entirely worked out, fans of the team can expect Green to fit in nicely as a third or fourth option with the starters or as a volume scorer with the reserves.
Unfortunately for fans of both teams, they'll likely have to wait at least another month, when the Grizzlies and Blazers meet again, to see two of the NBA's elite point guards in Damian Lillard and Mike Conley face off, as Conley hurt his ankle on Wednesday against the Nets and is considered doubtful for tonight's contest.
Even with injuries to Conley, Lopez and Freeland, this matchup still has plenty of intrigue; Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge won't likely be easily contained by Randolph in single-coverage, and Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger will have to gameplan a way to slow down the three-time All-Star who has been able to score more effectively inside recently than from the midrange, his favorite spot. Aldridge hung 37 points on the Clippers Wednesday and 24 last night against the Spurs, and his offense will again be needed to help the Blazers keep up with Memphis, a team that dropped 112 points on them in convincing fashion a couple months ago.
The last two teams to play Portland have figured out a way to keep a lid on Lillard for three periods while building up enough of a lead to weather his typical fourth quarter heroics. He made four of his nine threes on Wednesday against L.A. and followed that up with an 0-for-5 performance from deep last night against the Spurs, but showed some nifty finishes at the rim. Lillard will be facing guards Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes for much of the game, who are both less pesky defenders than Conley and should have a difficult time matching the All-Star guard's offensive production.
Guard Wesley Matthews, usually the Blazers' most potent scorer from outside, has gone 2-of-11 from deep the last two games, both losses. His point production from the three-point line is almost mandatory if Portland doesn't get big nights from both its star players, especially if the offensive struggles continue for forward Nicolas Batum, who's been dealing with lingering injuries all season and appears to have lost his confidence with the ball lately. His five turnovers against the Spurs last night were a concern, as he started the season as one of the main hubs in the Blazers' offense and is an important distributor in Stotts' pass-heavy system.
Batum draws another difficult matchup tonight, though, having to deal with Green and fellow tough Grizzlies wings Tony Allen and Courtney Lee. Allen is hardly a threat on the offensive side of the ball, but he'll likely guard whichever Blazers wing player is in the best shooting rhythm tonight, as one of the NBA's elite individual perimeter defenders. Lee is not the defensive force Allen is, but he's one of Memphis' best offensive threats this year, able to score from both inside the paint and from the midrange, and also connecting on almost half his threes. Matthews and Batum are sure to have their hands full on both ends of the court tonight dealing with Allen, Lee and Green.
Portland center Chris Kaman has been filling in as a starter for Lopez and Freeland down low the last six games, and the results have been varied. He shot the ball well against the Clippers Wednesday night but responded with a very quiet outing last night in San Antonio, finishing 2-of-5 from the field in an unusually non-aggressive game for the veteran big man. The Grizzlies can mask some of Randolph's defensive deficiencies with an excellent team system, but his age and lack of athleticism would be more difficult to mask if Kaman is keeping Memphis' defense honest with his ambidextrous versatility around the rim and his jumpshooting range, particularly if Aldridge is having his typical solid night and receiving extra attention from defenders.
Of Portland's normal rotational players lately -- guards CJ McCollum and Steve Blake, along with bigs Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard -- the most effective of the bunch has been Leonard, who can present difficult issues for opposing bigs with his accuracy from the midrange and beyond. He'll be needed tonight to help the Blazers keep up with Memphis' talented rotation of bigs, which includes the aforementioned Gasol and Randolph, along with center Kosta Koufos, who has a nice touch around the rim. McCollum also had a big game last night, scoring 17 points off the bench in 20 minutes, including a couple solid corner three-pointers.
Most of the Grizzlies' production off the bench will come from Green, as wing Vince Carter has struggled with his shot lately and Calathes hasn't shot particularly well from anywhere all season. Forward Jon Leuer put up seven points in 14 minutes against the Blazers the last time they played, but his playing time has been limited lately and his shot attempts even more so.
Memphis handled both the Nets and Magic in the rebounding department the last two games -- Green's first two with the team -- and Randolph, Gasol and Koufos have all been reliable on the glass individually all year. Otherwise, the Grizzlies are fairly average at rebounding on both ends. The Blazers, meanwhile, gave up 15 offensive rebounds to the Spurs last night and only brought in two of their own, which led to San Antonio putting up 20 more total field goal attempts than Portland, an almost impossible deficit to overcome. Aldridge, Kaman, Leonard and Batum need to be more focused on the glass tonight, because they were clearly out-worked and out-hustled by the Spurs and second-chance points from San Antonio helped bury them.
Though the odds are stacked against Portland on paper tonight -- the team lacks depth in the frontcourt and is playing on the second half of a back-to-back in a hostile arena against one of the league's best teams -- there are some rays of hope for the Blazers against a Grizzlies team that has had their number in recent years.
First, Portland is 7-1 this year on the second night of back-to-back sets, perhaps a random anomaly but also a sign that the Blazers usually come out focused, even on little rest. In those eight games, they've shot 40.4 percent from deep on 28.8 attempts. For as heralded as Memphis' defense is, the Grizzlies still have a very difficult time limiting opposing teams' opportunities from the perimeter and don't defend well around the arc. Portland will try to get Lillard, Matthews and Batum back on track from long-range tonight, and the likely absence of Conley should only help to boost the odds of an upset tonight at the FedEx Forum, where the Grizzlies are 15-4 this year and buzzing with the addition of Green to an already formidable lineup.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter