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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Memphis Grizzlies Preview

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The Blazers hope to end their three-game losing skid tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies on the second half of a back-to-back and on the last night of a five-game road trip.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (44-23, No. 4 in the West) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (48-21, No. 2 in the West)
Saturday, March 21
FedEx Forum; Memphis, TN | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews, Chris Kaman (day-to-day) | Out for the Grizzlies: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear BluesTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers end a five-game road trip tonight in Memphis against the Grizzlies. Portland has lost three straight and played last night in Orlando. Memphis beat the Mavericks last night in Dallas.

The Grizzlies have won three of four games, sitting in the No. 2 spot in the West and looking to finish a tough March strong. Memphis will have played 17 games in 30 days by the end of the month, but eight of their last 13 will be at the FedEx Forum, home of the Grit 'N Grind.

The Grizzlies have played at a slightly ramped-up pace -- for them, at least -- the last several games, averaging 96.4 points a night on 44.8 percent shooting from the field and 39.7 percent shooting from deep. Memphis doesn't stack up the assists, but the team doesn't have poor ball movement, just an offense that picks its spots. The Grizzlies get out in transition slightly less than an average team, but they're exceptionally efficient on the run. On the less positive side, they've uncharacteristically coughed up the ball 17 times a game the last five.

Memphis' defense -- No. 5 in Defensive Rating for the year at 101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com -- has actually tightened up to a Defensive Rating of 99.7 the last five games. The Grizzlies have been average at defending teams both within and beyond the arc, but they only allow opponents to attempt 78.4 shots a game, contrasted with the 86.4 field goals a game the Blazers have allowed the last five. Memphis limits ball movement, shuts down the paint and generally brings a lunchpail and hard hat to every defensive possession.

Memphis' offense has been driven by the frontcourt lately, as point guard Mike Conley played his first game back last night after missing the previous four due to injury. The eight-year vet attempted just nine shots, easing his way back into the lineup. Compare that with the 14 attempts power forward Zach Randolph has averaged the last five games, center Marc Gasol's 11.5 and wing Tony Allen's 10.3.

(In case you were wondering, yes, that's the same Tony Allen who has painted his 2014-15 shotchart with a sea of red attempting 10+ shots a game the last couple weeks).

At any rate, Z-Bo and Gasol have both been good for just slightly under half their shots the last five games, with Randolph doing most of his damage inside off the dribble or from the midrange. Gasol, one of the best-passing big men in the NBA, bangs hard in the key for most of his points but also consistently steps out for shots from 10-15 feet out, normally a good shot for him but not the most efficient tool in his kit lately.

Allen has attempted 80.5 percent of his shots at the rim the last five games and has successfully converted 45.5 percent of those attempts. Grizzlies fans love him either way, though, as he's one of the league's best individual defenders.

Conley will no doubt gain his aggressiveness back, and that could start tonight. He shot 6-of-15 the last time these two teams met about a month ago, when Memphis stormed back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit to send the Blazers packing with a loss. Conley takes about half his shots in the lane, an average finisher, but he's also hit 38.9 percent of the 3.9 threes a game he's attempted this season. Starting across Conley in the backcourt is guard Courtney Lee, who prefers to attack from the midrange where he's nailed 44.4 percent of his field goals the last five games.

Coach Dave Joerger opted to replace small forward Jeff Green with Allen last night in the starting lineup, and the Grizzlies cruised to a 112-101 win over the Mavs, shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 8-for-18 from deep. Green scored 15 off the bench on 5-for-15 shooting. He's launched 3.4 threes a game the last five at a 47.1 percent clip, second on the team in that time only to 38-year-old reserve wing Vince Carter, who's converted 47.6 percent of his 4.2 long-range tries a game in that same span.

Backup point guard Beno Udrih made half of his shots and averaged 4.2 assists a game in Conley's absence, and he continued that strong play in 23 minutes last night off the bench, shooting 5-for-8 from the field and picking up three assists. Center Kosta Koufos prefers to hang around the rim and has made 52.4 percent of his shots the last five games. Power forward Jon Leuer and guard Nick Calathes are on the fringe of Joerger's rotation now that everyone is healthy.

The Blazers took a huge punch to the gut last night from the Orlando Magic, as they dropped their third game in a row.

Portland's offense -- led by All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, admirably playing through what should've been a season-ending injury to his thumb and still dominating opposing frontcourts on a nightly basis -- has, for the most part, performed very well the last five games. Even though they have solid shooting percentages from all over the floor, the Blazers have struggled to hit shots when they've needed them most. On Tuesday against Washington, a slow start doomed them. The next night, it was a late-game collapse that afforded Miami the victory and last night against the Magic, poor shooting out of the gate gave way to a 37-point second quarter, followed up by a solid third and finally a fourth period in which Portland was outscored 36-23 -- by the No. 13 team in the East.

The Blazers' execution has left much to be desired lately, particularly on the defensive end. Allow Dave Deckard to explain:

Of course the Blazers can only do one thing right at a time, so their 37 [points in the second quarter were] nearly matched by Orlando's 33. The second unit couldn't contain. The starters weren't much better. Orlando's pick-and-rolling might as well have been Rick Rolling for the number of times the Blazers fell for it. None of Portland's guards could handle their counterparts for more than 2 dribbles.

Joe Freeman of the Oregonian also has some revealing details about Portland's recent defense in his recap of last night's loss:

The Blazers have only allowed 11 opponents to shoot 50 percent or better this season -- but three have come in the last seven games. To be sure, the absence of Wesley Matthews, who will miss the rest of the season with a ruptured left Achilles' tendon, has been a problem. But coach Terry Stotts said the defensive slippage started before his injury, just after the All-Star break, and the causes are a combination of factors, ranging from spacey transition defense to shoddy offensive rebounding to poor pick-and-roll coverage. Since the All-Star break, the Blazers are allowing open shots five percent more frequently than they had been before the break, a small number that adds up over a few weeks.

And that's been the story of the Blazer's defense lately; John Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Goran Dragic, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton have all abused Portland's wings over the course of this three-game skid.

Point guard Damian Lillard turned in an 18-point performance last night, but he did so shooting just 6-of-15 from the floor and 0-for-5 from deep with just four assists. A single turnover and 6-for-6 shooting from the line are both positives for Lillard, but if he struggled to score that badly against the Magic, Memphis' Conley, Lee and Allen must be licking their chops tonight. Lillard has slipped to 33.3 percent shooting the last five games but is still scoring fairly efficiently at the rim, where he takes just over a third of his attempts.

Aldridge, as mentioned before, couldn't possibly do much more to help his team offensively. He's averaging 27 points and 10.2 rebounds per game the last five, shooting 57 percent from the floor and turning the ball over less than once per game. Magic interim coach James Borrego told CSSNW.com's Jabari Young last night that Aldridge "might be the most dominant post player" in the league right now.

Blazers starters Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo combined to shoot 8-for-18 last night, almost completely stranding Aldridge in the loss. Batum had 11 rebounds and four assists but counteracted that production with five turnovers. Afflalo shot 1-for-4 and turned it over three times and Lopez only attempted four shots and hauled in three total rebounds.

Did the bench help? Guard CJ McCollum had 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting -- he also committed five personal fouls in 19 minutes -- and center Chris Kaman hit all four of his shots for eight points before leaving the game due to a shoulder injury after logging just nine minutes. Wings Alonzo Gee and Dorell Wright, centers Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland and guard Steve Blake combined to make two total field goals last night in 45 minutes of game time.

Simply put, Aldridge has gotten little to no help offensively the last three nights, even though he's turned in three All-Star-calibre games, aside from his four missed free throws against the Heat.

Portland had been doing well on the boards the last several games leading into last night's loss, but the Magic beat the Blazers 50-44 on the glass and pulled down 18 offensive rebounds, leading to plenty of second chance points. The Grizzlies have the horses up front to be a dominant rebounding team on any given night, particularly on the backs of Gasol, Randolph and Koufos, the latter two -- along with Allen -- excelling at keeping possessions alive after their own team's misses. With Kaman either our or banged-up tonight, Lopez, Leonard and Freeland need to step up and give Aldridge and Batum a hand on the boards. Otherwise, they'll be no match for Memphis.

The Blazers have already given up three games this year to the Grizzlies, sporting an average point differential of -7.7 in those losses. Yes, Memphis has Portland's number both at home and on the road, and they're Grit N' Grind style of play has been a huge roadblock for the Blazers recently.

However, Memphis is also coming in on the second half of a back-to-back -- their third such set of games the last week and-a-half -- and they close out the month playing five games in seven nights. Conley is still working his way back from injury and Joerger did recently tweak the rotation by shifting Green to the bench. Allen and Randolph, both 33 years old, played 32 and 34 minutes last night, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Blazers end this difficult five-game road trip in Memphis tonight and fly back home for a two-day rest before resuming play on Tuesday against the Warriors. True, it's not ideal that Portland also played last night, but if there were ever a good time to catch Memphis at home, now might be it. Don't be surprised to see what coach Terry Stotts would likely refer to as a "defensive battle" tonight.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter

Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: