As you no-doubt know by now, the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies will face off in the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs. The series tips at 5:00 p.m. Pacific on Sunday. We begin our coverage with a look at the two teams by the numbers.
The biggest stat of all in this series reads "4-0". The Grizzlies swept the Blazers this year, winning 2 games in Portland by 13 and 6 points respectively, 2 games in Memphis by 11 and 4. Their average margin of victory over the Blazers was 8.5, far outstripping their season average of 3.2.
The Grizzlies hold homecourt advantage by virtue of their 55-27 overall record against Portland's 51-31 mark. Memphis sports a 31-10 home record, slightly inferior to Portland's 32-9. The Grizzlies' 58.5% road winning rate outstrips Portland's 46.3%.
Here's a look at the offensive statistics for the Blazers and Grizzlies side by side, including how they rank among 30 NBA teams in each category. High rankings are marked in bold, low in red.
As you can see, the offenses are polar opposites of each other. The Blazers produce points from the perimeter with a high three-point shooting rate and percentage. The Grizzlies don't make much use of the three. The Blazers rank near the bottom of the standings in paint points while Memphis sits #1 in that category. If each teams plays their ideal styles it's the lane vs. the arc with a little skilled mid-range play thrown in.
Note that neither team runs much, nor do they commit turnovers. Both offenses play smart, under control, and reasonably unselfishly. The Blazers outrank the Grizzlies in three-point and free throw marksmanship, but these offenses are both in the mid- to mid-high ranges of the league in efficiency.
Though the Blazers would appear to have the upper hand in offense, they must beware getting nickle-and-dimed. Even discounting Memphis' paint prowess, the advantage the Blazers generate at the arc can be given back via a free throw here, a transition bucket there. Shooting straight isn't enough. Portland has to do the little things too, else any edge they generate will disappear.
A look at the defensive numbers:
The news for the Blazers is mixed here. Portland defends the three-point arc quite well. Memphis doesn't depend on the three, though. On the other hand the Blazers' inability to force turnovers may not hurt them since the Grizzlies don't give up TO's anyway. Memphis' paint defense might not hurt the Blazers as much as it would a lane-dependent team. But the Blazers probably won't be able to score in the teeth of the Grizzlies defense so they better hope the jumpers are falling.
Even with that back-and-forth, several cautions jump out:
1. Portland's strengths of Field Goal Percentage Allowed and Defensive Rebounding Percentage are nearly matched by the Grizzlies. More advantage there would be comforting.
2. The Blazers don't give up many foul shots but neither does Memphis. That's disappointing considering Portland's ultra-high rank in free throw percentage.
3. The Blazers might not be good at forcing turnovers but the Grizzlies are. That's an edge Portland can't afford to give up.
How Portland Players Fare Against Memphis
Here are statistics for key Blazers who played significant minutes against the Grizzlies this season and who are expected to be active for the playoffs. The chart compares overall season averages to production against Memphis. As usual, positive results are in bold, negative in red.
Of the players listed, only CJ McCollum avoided the Memphis Malaise. Everybody else found themselves in deep water.
LaMarcus Aldridge fared better than most in this matchup...a major relief to Portland fans. His rebounding suffered but playing against Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will do that to you. Otherwise Aldridge shot better than average and kept his scoring high against the Grizzlies.
Damian Lillard scored above his season average and managed more assists than usual but his shooting ranged from bad to unmentionable.
Portland's center tandem of Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman rebounded quite well against the Grizzlies but their shooting percentages went so far south that Roald Amundsen planted a flag on them.
Nicolas Batum provided the cherry crowning the suck-filled sundae, deep-diving in every single statistical category. Points, rebounds, 24% three-point shooting...there wasn't enough space on the chart to list his decline from a 4.8 assist average down to 2.5. The Grizzlies didn't just contain Batum, they made him not exist.
Over the course of the season Memphis took a bite out of every significant contributor the Blazers fielded. Only one Portland starter managed to excel against the Grizzlies, upping his scoring average from 16 to 18, his three-point percentage from 39% to 47%. That would be Wesley Matthews...the one guy guaranteed not to suit up for this series.
How Memphis Players Fare Against Portland
Here's the other side:
All the red on Portland's table has been replaced by bold type here. Zach Randolph shot significantly worse against the Blazers than against the league as a whole, likely due to Aldridge's length and mobility thwarting Zach's mid-range proclivities. Other than that, Memphis players either stayed steady or blossomed against the Blazers.
Portland's big men did a reasonable job containing their counterparts. Marc Gasol broke the Blazers' back a couple times but he produced near his average overall...a reasonable outcome from Portland's view.
There was nothing reasonable about the small end of the Memphis lineup, though. The Blazers couldn't defend any of them. Not a one shot under 50%. Their three-point percentages were particularly disturbing. Remember that defensive chart showing Portland's three-point defense as a clear strength? Not against Memphis. With wings that hot the Grizzlies should have served the Blazers a free side of ranch.
It's nearly impossible to overstate how massive of a breakdown this is. The Blazers never want the opponent to get the better of them at the arc. It's their stock and trade, the place they generate the biggest advantage. If they can't eat into Memphis' percentages, they have zero chance of winning this series.
Notice that small forward Jeff Green went crazy against the Blazers, upping his field goal percentage by almost 9 points and his three-point percentage over 20 (on almost 5 three-point attempts per game). Cross check Batum's numbers. The Blazers are getting obliterated at the small forward position.
Team vs. Team Comparison
Given the individual matchup results, you wouldn't expect the team splits to favor Portland. And they don't.
Portland's Points-Per-Game drop off looks brutal, but the more subtle three-point percentage is equally indicative. The Blazers can absorb a single game of average-to-bad distance shooting but when it becomes a chronic condition, they're done.
Just as telling: the Blazers excelled nowhere...not one significant inroad. They managed to take care of the ball (nice, given Memphis' ability to force turnovers) but they couldn't do anything with it.
The Grizzlies' only deficits came in blocked shots and free throw attempts. Neither is surprising. Portland shoots jumpers. Portland doesn't foul much. Both statistical "faults" are products of opponent style. So, too, Memphis' relative strength in low turnovers and low fouls committed. Portland doesn't draw fouls or force turnovers.
Even after minimizing the style factors, we see Memphis' field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and overall scoring trending upward compared to their average while the corresponding numbers for Portland shrivel. That's not good.
As the Blazers discovered last season against the Houston Rockets, regular-season performance is not always indicative of playoff success. The Rockets couldn't exploit individual matchups enough to make up for their lack of cohesion and smarts. They lost because of it.
Memphis is a different animal. They're already cohesive and smart. Plus they defend well. During the regular season Portland gave them the final ingredient needed to run roughshod: individual dominance. The Blazers earned that 0-4 record fairly.
Injuries may provide a ray of hope. The status of Mike Conley (foot) and Tony Allen (hamstring) is unclear at this point. Conley sets up the Grizzlies' offense. His ability to put Damian Lillard on a string accounted for open, high percentage shots. If he and Allen can't play, Portland has 2 fewer deadly wings to worry about.
Even so, the onus is on Portland to change the course of this matchup. The Grizzlies aren't just beating them, they're beating them with their own finishing moves. Memphis has not only solved the Blazers, they've turned them in for extra credit. Unless Conley is out for good, this may be the toughest draw possible for Portland.
The Blazers have been too good, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard too strong, to dismiss their chances. But they'll need a new game plan, new energy (*cough* Batum *cough*), a new commitment to defense, and plenty of great shooting to make it through this series. If Coach Stotts and the gang have something up their sleeve, it's time to show it. If we don't see a radical departure in Games 1 and 2 of the series, the Blazers are in deep trouble.
This is just the beginning of our playoff coverage. Stick with us every day as we unwrap more facets of the matchup and build towards Game 1 on Sunday night!
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