The Portland Trail Blazers walked into FedEx Forum tonight looking for redemption on several levels. They wanted to correct a 1-3 road trip by winning its most important game. They wanted to close the slim distance between themselves and the Memphis Grizzlies in the conference standings. They needed to show the Grizzlies that they could hang with them, avoiding a season series sweep. They needed to galvanize, gaining confidence in their new, Wesley-Matthews-free rotation which has been shaky since Matthews went down with injury.
Not only did Portland fall short of all of those objectives, the basketball gods stuck a dagger in their collective backs as LaMarcus Aldridge re-aggravated his long-standing thumb injury and Nicolas Batum tweaked his back. Neither returned for the second half of play in Portland's 97-86 loss to the Grizz.
The prognosis for Portland's staring forwards, and by extension for the season, is still unknown. You can see video of the Aldridge play and get the latest updates and interviews here.
The outcome of this game may have been a foregone conclusion even before injuries hit. As has been typical over the last couple weeks, Portland let the opponent get off to a roaring start. Memphis shot 62% in the first period, scoring 35 off of open shots, open passes, open drives, and open threes. Portland's defense didn't look passive as much as uncoordinated. At any given time three Memphis players were quite well defended. Those other two didn't miss, though. Giving up attempts right at the rim or around the three-point arc are sure signs that Portland's defense is going wrong, as those are the exact shots the system is geared to prevent. The Blazers allowed both at the same time in the first.
As the ship sank around him LaMarcus Aldridge did what he always does: bail water with bucket after bucket after bucket. 14 points accounted for over half of his team's total in the opening period. It wasn't enough. Memphis led 35-27 after one.
For the second night in a row, Portland's bench performed admirably in the second quarter. With Chris Kaman out, Robin Lopez remained in to fill the center position. This seemed to buoy the defensive effort against the second unit of the Grizzlies. The Blazers forced shooters outside. The Memphis bench contingent didn't have the same facility with the long ball that their starters had. The Blazers weren't hitting many threes but they got enough attempts in the lane to force their way back to a 40-37 lead halfway through the period.
That's when the starters returned for both teams and the game broke down again. Memphis' first unit hit the threes their bench had missed, spreading the floor for Zach Randolph and penetrating guards. Portland compounded the debacle by committing turnovers. The Grizz shot, grabbed, and ran their way to a 53-44 halftime lead.
Once it became clear that Aldridge and Batum would not return, the handwriting was on the wall. The third quarter featured Damian Lillard Unchained as he tried to score his team back into the game. Memphis led 77-62 after three.
The fourth quarter opened up with a 12-2 run courtesy of Lillard and CJ McCollum. Memphis' bench still couldn't give a decent account of itself. But the Blazers never got closer than 7 points. When the Grizzlies starters returned they snuffed out Portland's momentum like a cigarette butt. Zach Randolph taunted the Blazers by hitting face-up jumpers like he was LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland couldn't find a good defensive combination to contain the Grizzlies' big men. Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, and Meyers Leonard tried gamely, but every one of them ended up mismatched. The final horn was a mercy, especially since the score read only 97-86. Without the offensive heroics of Portland's guards it could have been a 30-point blowout. Instead it only felt like one.
There's not much in-game analysis to do on a night like this. As we said, this game wasn't going Portland's way before the injuries, let alone after. Memphis looked great in that first period and their starters outclassed Portland all night long. Aldridge was amazing, but 40 points might not have been enough to rescue the evening.
No matter who plays going forward, Portland will need to take a long, hard look at their defense. It's betraying them regularly now. Until that's remedied, it doesn't matter how many All-Stars they feature or don't. Things will not go well for them.
Memphis shot only 41.6% from the field tonight but that number is deceptive in a couple ways. First, they shot 11-18, 61%, from beyond the arc. Second, they appeared to get almost any shot they wanted for large stretches of the game, missing seemingly by accident. Third, they scored 29 points after Portland turnovers, of which the Blazers committed 17. This speaks less to Memphis' glory (though I have often lauded them) than to Portland's lack of continuity.
Given the injury virus, lack of continuity is not a surprise, but we can't pretend like this team has their act together anymore. Opponents are punching them straight in the nose and the Blazers are flailing back wildly, more like schoolyard brawlers than professional fighters. You can all but see their eyes close as big, looping punches go sailing. Even when those punches connect, it ain't that pretty.
Watching the Blazers exit the court after the first half, you couldn't help but see fatigue wash over their faces. They looked grim, tired, like their rope was getting thin. Winning cures some of that, but one wonders if the team isn't wearing down and hitting the wall.
The status of Aldridge and Batum are bigger issues, of course. We'll all wait anxiously for final word. Without hearing more than we have already, I'd be surprised if the injuries were much more complicated than Aldridge and Batum have already been dealing with.
I would not be surprised to hear that we are approaching a limit beyond which players and team will not go. When Aldridge put off surgery, it was for the promise of a special season. Absent Wesley Matthews, the season hasn't been quite so special. I don't think Aldridge or Batum would shut down preemptively, but tonight felt like a warning shot across the bow from the basketball gods, the injury bug, or just plain common sense. If the team continues to spin downwards, might Aldridge and the Blazers reconsider their stance, taking a Kevin Durant, long-term approach to health? If they opted to rest Aldridge until the playoffs--or heck, even if they opted to go ahead with surgery--could anyone blame them?
I do not think that decision will be made based on tonight's events alone. But if the Blazers go .500 over their next 6, I could see Aldridge sitting out huge swaths of April in preparation for the playoff run. If the wheels really come off, well...maybe the response is more than that. They wouldn't be human (or smart) if they weren't at least thinking about it.
Aldridge had 16 points in 18 minutes on 7-12 shooting before he left. Yeah, this guy is pretty good.
Nicolas Batum played 15 minutes, went 0-4 from the field, and and gathered 2 rebounds.
Damian Lillard scored 27 trying to hold his team together. His biggest accomplishment was probably 9-9 from the foul line. He's a terror when he gets in the lane.
Arron Afflalo touched the ball relatively little given the situation. He shot 3-6 for 8 points, 0 three-pointers hit.
Robin Lopez had 7 rebounds and 8 points in 32 minutes. He's looking more mortal now than he has his entire tenure in Portland.
CJ McCollum and Dorell Wright had big nights off the bench, scoring 13 and 10 respectively, each hitting a pair of threes. They helped the bench do alright in Chris Kaman's absence. Nobody else stood out much, though the bench as a unit fared far better than the starters tonight.
Good News! The Blazers return home on Tuesday, finally done with this infernal Eastern road swing.
Bad News! They return home to face the Golden State Warriors. Then again, depending on who's healthy, the Blazers match up with the Warriors better than most people think.
Portland's 1-4 road trip left them in 4th place in the Western Conference, deadlocked with the Los Angeles Clippers who sit in 5th. The Blazers are 1 game ahead of Los Angeles in the loss column. Portland trails Houston for 3rd place by 1.5 games, 1 game behind in the loss column. The Grizzlies sit in 2nd, 4 games ahead of Portland, 3 in the loss column. The Blazers would need to finish with a better record than Memphis to surpass them, as Memphis owns the tiebreaker.
Portland's magic number to seal the Northwest Division is 8. Any combination of 8 Portland wins or Oklahoma City Thunder losses will guarantee the Blazers the 4th seed in the Western Conference bracket at worst. Homecourt advantage does not automatically accompany that seed, however.
Grizzly Bear Blues will be tickled pink about the Grizz sweeping the Blazers this year.
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