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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Memphis Grizzlies Preview

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The Blazers' young cubs have already secured the same number of wins against Memphis this year as the franchise had in eight tries last year. Can they harass the aging Grizzlies enough for a road victory?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trailblazers (4-5) at Memphis Grizzlies (3-6)
Friday, November 13
FedEx Forum | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM

Portland injury report
:  Damian Lillard (Probable), Meyers Leonard (Out) Memphis injury report: Brandon Wright (Officially Questionable, likely Out), Jordan Adams (Questionable)
SBN Affiliate:
Grizzly Bear Blues | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

What a difference a year makes, eh? Last November, the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers were battling for the top spot in a stacked Western Conference, en route to a hard-fought postseason series between the two.

This year, the same old Grizzlies have struggled mightily to date, while the Blazers have mildly surprised with a retooled roster. Neither team has won since they met in the Moda Center last Thursday, as weak fourth-quarter showings have led Portland to three straight losses, while a tough early-season schedule has played a part in Memphis losing four in a row.

What’s wrong with the Grizz?

While the ‘Grit-n-Grind’ style of play is not intended to be pretty, the numbers say it has been downright ugly this year. Offensively, Memphis is dead last in the Association in PPG, Efficiency, Effective Field Goal percentage, and Total Shooting percentage. Yikes. Couple that with giving up the highest 3-point percentage (40.5) and fourth-highest FG percentage (46.5), and you start to get a sense of why five of their six losses this year have been by double digits. If you can get up on them, they haven’t been able to find enough offense to climb back in it.

The core of this team has ridden continuity and chemistry for several years now, but injuries and age may finally be catching up to the Grizzlies. Marc Gasol (14.7 PPG, 41 percent FG) has mostly been settling for outside shots rather than doing damage in the paint; an early-season neck injury may be making him reticent to take it inside. Mike Conley (12.7 PPG, 35 percent FG, 27 percent 3PT) battled through a litany of injuries last year, and speculation holds that he still might not be right physically as he is off to a rough start. Zach Randolph (14.8 PPG, 49.6 percent FG) is still a tough assignment every night, but at 34 looks like part of the team’s problems defensively.

Meanwhile, role players Matt Barnes (26.5 percent FG), Jeff Green (6.3 PPG, 25 percent 3PT) and Courtney Lee (34.9 percent FG, 19.4 percent 3PT) are off to miserable starts, indicative of how much trouble the team has had hitting outside shots. The coach can’t shoot the ball for his players, but Dave Joerger is on the hot seat as the whispers mount that time has passed by his schemes.

It is still very early on, so it may be a bit premature to start etching that epitaph. Memphis has already had a 5-game West Coast swing, while playing the Warriors twice as well as the Cavaliers and Clippers once each.

The Grizzlies’ demise was also anticipated two years ago, when they started off 10-15 before roaring to a 40-17 mark the rest of the way, setting up an epic playoff battle with Oklahoma City.

What’s new since last Thursday’s blowout win over Memphis?

The Grizzlies made a trade with Miami, sending away Beno Udrih (who no Blazer fan will miss), 15th man Jarnell Stokes, and a second round draft pick for Mario Chalmers and James Ennis. The hope is that Chalmers adds some zip and punch from the outside, taking some of the perimeter scoring load off of Conley, so he will have to be accounted for.

The Blazers will counter with a new piece of their own in Gerald Henderson, who recovered from a hip injury to score 12 points in his season debut on 6-of-6 shooting in the second half Wednesday. He hit from a variety of spots on the floor, and definitely adds an exciting wrinkle to the team.

Unfortunately for fans of athletic bigs, both Brandon Wright (knee) and Meyers Leonard (separated left shoulder) are out for this game and for the forseeable future. This means we may see more of 6-foot-9 JaMychal Green for the Grizz, a second-year man who has impressed lately, while the Blazers will compensate with either more Ed Davis or Noah Vonleh, or perhaps more small-ball lineups. Who knows, we may even have a Sasquatch sighting (Chris Kaman).

Meanwhile, Damian Lillard, who is No. 5 in the NBA in scoring at 26.9 PPG and 45 percent from 3-point range, tore the thumbnail on his shooting hand at the end of Wednesday’s loss to San Antonio, so it remains to be seen if that will hamper his outside touch.

What do the Blazers need to do to win?

Basically the same things they did last Thursday.

Play smart and under control against defensive pressure: This sounds simple, but isn’t when an aggressive defense is coming at you. Key initial points to watch are spacing, court vision, and early recognition when Memphis decides to be overaggressive. In their first match-up, they sent a lot of traps and double-teams early on, which was easily defeated by crisp ball movement and reversals, which will often find an open man on the weak side—a situation which could help account for the Grizz’s league-worst defending of 3-pointers. Moving the ball quickly to break down the defense also helped to free up the Blazers’ athletic young bigs on the offensive boards.

Memphis also regularly overplays both on- and off-ball, jumps passing lanes, and / or plays tight on their man. The antidotes here are ball fakes, misdirection, and picks in space, all of which exaggerate the effects of such aggression and easily create room to roam—and often did exactly that last Thursday. Memphis' D had to back off and pick their spots instead of bringing all-out heat.

With the X’s and O’s in hand, it becomes a matter of execution—finding the open man, hitting the open threes, being patient and not forcing the issue. These are things the Blazers have struggled with since that last meeting with Memphis. C.J. McCollum in particular was guilty of a bunch of sloppy dribbling and forced shots during the first 20 minutes of the second half against the Spurs, going 0-for-6 with three turnovers. Al-Farouq Aminu has cooled off from outside after his hot start, having hit only 16 of his last 45 attempts from the field and 5 of 21 from downtown, so he may be tested to hit open jumpers.

Get out in transition: One way to beat a potentially troublesome defense is to never give them a chance to set up. The Grizzlies are a little slow getting up and down the floor, and Portland did well to regularly push the ball in their last meeting, leading to many good ‘secondary break’ shot opportunities. This is a situation where their stable of youth and athleticism serves them well: Henderson, Aminu, Mo Harkless, and Mason Plumlee are tough covers on the run, especially for an older team, and the Blazers’ ball handlers have just enough burst to see to it that Portland could rip through the Grizzlies’ bear claws like, well, the delicious pastries of the same name.

Let them "take it ‘till they make it": You saw the individual numbers above: Memphis is struggling to hit from outside, allowing defenses to collapse the middle and clog the paint. This is what the Blazers want to do—leave no driving lanes for Conley and Co., no room in the post for Gasol, and to keep Z-Bo’s feet out of the paint, thusly eliminating easy buckets. Gasol and Randolph can’t do their high-low routine if everyone is packed inside.

You would expect Memphis’ shooting trends to turn around at some point, and this feels like the type of game that could get Courtney Lee on track. He has torched the Blazers from range in recent years, with a career 3-point mark of 54 percent(!) against Portland. So it would behoove the Blazers not to be so routinely generous with space as to let anyone get on a roll.

Outlook

Taking a cross-country trip to Memphis and walking out with a ‘W’ is always a tough ask. Portland was very well prepared for the Grizzlies’ schemes last week, and you would assume that Memphis would accordingly make some adjustments. How well the Blazers handle those, or if they can make them irrelevant by getting up early, will go a long ways to determining if this young team can take two in a row from the Grizzlies for the first time in four seasons.