As we all remember, last year the Portland Trail Blazers started the season 30-9, hanging near the top of the entire league, then limped to the finish line going 24-19 over the final 43 games. This year, the Blazers once again started 30-9, becoming the first team to 30 wins. They've gone 6-10 since. The season feels like deja vu and you could say the same thing for this game as well. A massive scoring drought in the first half repeated in the second, undoing the Blazers against the Memphis Grizzlies.
As the game started it was clear one of the following was true:
(1) the Memphis Grizzlies decided to take the extended All-Star break to heart and gave all their assistants the week off.
(2) The assistant coach assigned to scout the Blazers got arrested in Cabo after some drunken fighting, struggled to make it out of Mexico in time for the game and then just re-used last game's scouting report thinking "eh, close enough".
(3) The Grizzlies just didn't care what Meyers Leonard's percentage from the three point line is this season. Or...
(4) Zach Randolph didn't believe the scouting report his coaches gave him regarding Leonard.
With LaMarcus Aldridge a late scratch because of a thumb injury from last game (don't worry, not that thumb), Leonard got the start in place of the and Z-Bo refused to guard him past about 12 feet. That went well for the Blazers.
On the other end, Marc Gasol knew enough about Meyers to work on the young fella in the post. That didn't go Portland's way.
The first quarter began as the Leonard vs. Gasol show. If that prospect sent shivers down your spine I don't blame you, but technically Meyers came out on top! He out-scored Gasol 8 to 7. Though he got burned pretty bad a couple times, Meyers also played some tough defense on a few occasions.
But the Real Story checked in at 5:31 to a roaring standing ovation from the home town fans. Arron Afflalo had arrived. Robin Lopez provided his own welcome when Afflalo got beat back door on his first defensive possession. Rolo rotated over and erased the threat. Yeah, I think he'll like playing with Lopez a bit more than J.J. Hickson. This puts him in a club with every other Blazer. The very next play Afflalo drilled a pull up jumper, then became a key member of an absolutely stunning pass-pass-pass sequence for a wide open three. His first quarter didn't set the world on fire but it was clear he's gonna fit right in.
The bench started the second with a 2-point lead and collectively said "we can do better than that". They played great defense, scored consistently, and Dorrell Wright had his best stretch in recent memory as the Blazers built an 11 point margin. One sequence had Wright taking a charge on one end and then scoring on 2 straight possessions, driving right around (get it?) Z-Bo for an easy layup. Afflalo didn't score much but he played solid defense, pressuring out along the perimeter and pinching into the lane for a steal. Whether we give the credit to Afflalo, Wright, or a more active Kaman, the second unit looked better than it has all year.
And then the wheels fell off.
The Grizzlies ripped off a 13-0 run in typical Grizzlies style. It wasn't one of those runs where a team hits 4 triples and you look up wondering what happened. No, it was one of those runs you get to see in all its gory detail. The Grizzlies strangled the Blazers' offense, not allowing a single field goal for 5+ minutes. Coach Stotts would mix and match his wings, trying to find anyone who could sink an outside shot to no avail. Leonard hit a late three to counter the Grizzlies' run and the Blazers entered the locker room tied at 38.
Yep, you read that right. The Blazers put up a season low 76 against the Jazz a few nights ago and were on pace to do it again tonight. Aside from Leonard, the Blazers were 1/9 from behind the arc and the bench was the only thing keeping them in the game. In a complete reversal from the nightmare in Utah, the starters all had a negative plus minus while every bench guy stood above zero.
Earlier in the year, we had praised the Blazers for being able to win games in lots of different ways. Lately, it feels like they're taking the same diversified approach to losing.
Memphis started the second half as they did the first, pounding the ball into Gasol. He didn't score as much but he revealed many of Leonard's bad habits, quickly forcing Meyers into his 4th foul . With that, the Blazers went twin towers, playing Kaman and Lopez together as the teams went back and forth. The real Damian Lillard made an appearance as he knocked down a couple ridiculous threes and found his way to the rim. His 14 points in the quarter keyed a critical run before the torch passed to the bench.
Afflalo hit his first triple for the Blazers in this stretch but Steve Blake would steal the show, hitting 3 three-pointers in the final 3 minutes of the third quarter. Clearly he's found his new lucky number. Blake's last shot was particularly ridiculous as he faded from a few steps behind the line to beat the buzzer and put the Blazers up 13.
And then the other wheels came off.
[ed. Somebody better send the Blazers to lugnut school.]
The Grizzlies amped up the pressure in the fourth. Instead of bringing the energy right back, the Blazers wilted. Portland made 4 field goals the entire period, searching desperately for good looks. Sometimes Portland's offense gets a little off or players miss open shots. This quarter, there were no open shots to be found as the offense turned downright stagnant. I've never seen the Blazers' offense so predictable. As a result, Portland's guards were forced to score in isolation at the end of the shot clock and wound up shooting an ugly 1-12 as a group for the quarter.
Memphis, on the other hand, moved the ball with ease and fed their big men down low. Gasol and Randolph combined for 17 of Memphis' 34 points in the quarter. Of all the times the Blazers have missed Aldridge, this was by far the most painful. The team found themselves starving for buckets and completely incapable of containing Memphis' bigs. The result was a 34-15 point quarter in favor of Memphis and yet another impressive win over Portland, 98-92.
An evaluation of Arron Afflalo's first game as a Trail Blazer probably has more to do with your own expectations than his actual play. If you're hoping Afflalo would be a godsend, revolutionizing the second unit and single handedly carrying his team to another level, you're going to be disappointed. If you were hoping Afflalo would fit it quickly and provide the consistent presence the bench desperately needs, tonight was nothing but encouraging.
Even though he didn't know all of the Blazers sets, Afflalo had numerous great moments on both sides of the ball. His curl into the lane to draw foul shots when the Blazers needed points was fantastic. Memphis plays a fair number of big wings, so we only saw glimpses of Afflalo's post game tonight but we know he has that in his back pocket too. And his mid-range jumper looks as wet as rain.
It's obvious we're going to learn a lot more about Afflalo's game as the weeks go by but the summation on Night One is, "delivered as advertised". He looked like a guy trying to feel his way around but still played with confidence. The Blazers are definitely better with him on the team.
The addition of AAA also makes Leonard's skill set more valuable. With Leonard's shooting ability and Afflalo's post up game, the Blazers can invert the offense on the second unit. This can be effective because it puts defenders in unfamiliar positions. The first play of the game provided a preview when Wesley Matthews got the ball on the block. Gasol over-helped, then the lumbering center had to close out on Leonard at the three point line. Meyers gave an easy pump fake and Gasol flew by, forcing a bunch of secondary rotations and scrambling the defense. If the Blazers develop Afflalo and Meyers continues to improve, it will be interesting to see how they maximize theircomplementary skill sets.
Leonard's potential has become so obvious these last few weeks. He's a stretch 4/5 who is big enough to body Gasol on the post and pull him out of the lane on offense. It's still mostly potential though, as Leonard has a ways to go on the defensive end. He struggled to contain pick and rolls a couple times and couldn't defend the block without fouling. This might have been the toughest match up imaginable for Leonard. It also exposed all the things he needs to improve in order to become a major difference-maker for this team. However, looking towards the Blazers' future, he's gone from a complete non-factor to one of their biggest x-factors moving forward. Amazing.
Afflalo and Leonard might carry the most tantalizing potential for improvement but Dorrell Wright was absolutely the bright spot tonight. Lots of people were clamoring for the Blazers to go after Jeff Green or Wilson Chandler because it would give them the ability to play small ball. However, if the Blazers already have a qualified small-ball four then those arguments become thin. In many ways, the trade for Afflalo was also an endorsement of Wright and his role on the team. He made the deal look even better tonight.
The final take-away is just a reminder that the Blazers took the floor without their best player tonight. It seems like a lot of Portland's losses have been of the "well, we didn't have such and such but we probably should have won anyway" variety. Tonight definitely falls into that category. The Blazers had this one in the bag and they let it slip with one of their worst fourth quarters in recent memory. The offensive struggles are real and just as inexplicable as they were before the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see if the Blazers can finally put it all in place over the coming weeks as they gear up for the playoffs. This is a talent team and all of the championship-potential pieces are there. Let's just hope they start putting it together soon.
In his first game with the Blazers, Afflalo had 8 points on six shots, 2 assists and 4 rebounds along with the second highest plus/minus on the team (+16). Not bad for a first day.
I already talked about Leonard and Wright so I'll just add their stat lines here. Meyers had 11 points and one rebound which doesn't bother me since the team stayed even on the boards against one of the toughest teams in the league. Wright chipped in 9 points and 5 rebounds.
Normally we talk about the starters first but tonight the bench was the better unit. Kaman and Blake each had solid games with ol' Steve-O providing the fireworks for the evening. Blake shot 4/4 from three point range tallying 14 points and a single assist. He only played 14 minutes with the new rotation but the limited time didn't seem to affect his rhythm. Chris Kaman struggled from the field shooting 2 for 7 for 6 points but the rest of his game showed up. He had some trouble defending Z-Bo one on one but was otherwise solid on defense and pulled down 9 rebounds in 24 minutes.
As a unit, the bench outscored the Grizzlies' bench 36 to 16 and out rebounded them 21 to 15. If that can become a consistent occurrence you gotta like the Blazers chances.
The starters...where to begin with them? Damian Lillard had a scorching third quarter, scoring 14 of his 18 points and reminding us that his game is still in there somewhere. He was pretty bad the rest of the night and got outplayed by Mike Conley on the whole. He did fill up the stat sheet adding 7 assists and 5 rebounds but the Blazers really need him to start putting whole games together.
Wesley Matthews had a forgettable night going 0-fer from the field. He had a few open looks but also a bunch of tough bail-out shots near the end of the shot clock. We all know Wesley really gets going when the ball moves and that just didn't happen tonight.
Robin Lopez played his usual energy-filled game, scoring 6 points and pulling down 7 rebounds. The Grizzlies' front line is insanely tough so all that effort went into holding them off rather than giving the Blazers a boost like he normally does. It might seem like he had a bad game but that's really just because he had his hands full.
And last but certainly not least, welcome back Nicolas Batum! 17 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, only 2 turnovers and 3 for 7 from distance. This was the Batum everyone's been missing. He can't take over a game when the stars are hurt or having an off night but this kind of aggressive, all-around game is exactly what everyone has been waiting for. If he can keep this up and Aldridge and Lillard come back strong this starting unit could be good again very soon.
Our Instant Recap covers post-game reaction from around the web, which, for the first time in the history of the internet, may turn out to be just deflated silence.
The Grizzly Bear Blues are singing anything but tonight.
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