The Portland Trail Blazers completed their mini road trip and the toughest week of their season so far in Memphis tonight, facing the powerhouse Grizzlies in the second night of a back-to-back. After a slow start Portland put up a fight but ended up succumbing to the Grizz 102-98. This loss puts the Blazers at 30-11 at the halfway point of their 2014-15 campaign. It also marks the first time they've dropped 3 straight games all year.
The contest can be summarized simply. The Blazers pack plenty of weapons in their arsenal. Over the course of the season we've become used to Wesley Matthews draining threes, LaMarcus Aldridge thrumming his way to 25+ points, Damian Lillard's fourth-quarter heroics, offensive rebounds and second-chance points, daredevil come-from-behind victories, a never-say-die attitude, confidence and swagger. But the foundation upon which all of those rest is defense. Without defensive intensity the Blazers lack the high ground from which to deploy their weapons effectively. They become a well-armed platoon fighting their way out of quicksand.
Tonight marked Exhibit A for the argument. The Blazers unloaded from every barrel just listed...throwing everything they had at the Grizzlies. But they couldn't stop Memphis from passing and running around their defense during a first half in which they surrendered 60 points. Down 20 in the third period, Portland made a run behind some three-point strikes, offensive rebounds, and forced turnovers. They started the fourth quarter within 8. Again defense let them down as their small bench lineup got pulverized in the paint. But the starters returned and made a game of it, finally showing the stopping power the team had lacked. The Grizzlies' lead was down to a single possession headed into the final minute of the game but Beno Udrih toasted the Blazers twice with easy jumpers...once on a steal gamble gone wrong and once off a supremely tardy reaction to a simple screen. Those 4 points equaled the final margin of the game.
So yeah, we can talk about LaMarcus Aldridge playing brilliantly once again with 32 points on 50% shooting, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks. We can talk about Wesley Matthews hitting an amazing 7 of 14 attempts from beyond the arc, passing Terry Porter for the most three-pointers made in Trail Blazers history. We can talk about Damian Lillard scoring 10 points in the final 5 minutes of the game to lead his team back in thrilling fashion. We can mention that the Blazers were never out of it even down 20, that they seized control of the game when they seized control of the boards, that Steve Blake had 8 assists and Chris Kaman 11 rebounds. None of it mattered in the end. Without the defense, it's like baking a really nice batch of cookies then dumping them right in the trash.
The Blazers cannot survive without playing "D". The Blazers cannot beat good teams if they wait until the fourth quarter to bring their "A" game. The difference between Portland's strong points sounding glorious or sad and ironic lies squarely in those two sentences.
Aldridge, Matthews, and Blake had really good outings tonight. It was nice to see the two supporting guards back to productive territory after a hard stretch.
Damian Lillard scored 23 but hit only 9-26 shots, 3-10 from distance, and drew but 3 free throw attempts. That's not his best ball. Plus the same shots that make for highlight reels when they go in look painful when they don't, especially with Aldridge running hot next to Lillard. But LaMarcus touched the ball in the fourth at least. Plus you can't enjoy Lillard's heroics without living with a few misses alongside. On the other hand, Lillard's defense was more or less directly responsible for those two game-clinching Beno Udrih jumpers.
Chris Kaman spurred the second-half rebounding comeback but his offense and help defense were both poor.
Nicolas Batum, Thomas Robinson, and Meyers Leonard had abysmal outings. We'll skip over their non-appearance and hope for better in the next game.
The Blazers get a travel day tomorrow before returning home to face the Sacramento Kings on Monday. Theoretically that's a "get better" game and it'll probably turn out that way. But do not sleep on DeMarcus Cousins' ability to wreck Portland's defense, not the Kings' tendency to flourish when given mid-range shots that the Blazers tend to cede. If the Blazers play with energy and throw in a little defense it should be fine, but don't count it as a "gimme" matchup.
Our Instant Recap gives you post-game reaction.
Grizzly Bear Blues will be happy their team wrapped up this one successfully.
Don't forget you can call 234-738-3394 to leave a voicemail question for our weekly podcast or to answer our question to you: If the Blazers were to trade for a wing, would you prefer Wilson Chandler or Kevin Martin? Watch for the next edition to come out Tuesday, complete with a special announcement!