To say the least, the circumstances are not ideal for the Trail Blazers as they prepare to embark this weekend on their second consecutive Western Conference playoff run. Portland is limping into the postseason, both literally and figuratively. After posting a record of 44-20 through March 15, the Blazers finished the season with 11 losses in their final 18 games, including a four-game skid in the final week to ice the cake.
Injuries abound. LaMarcus Aldridge's foot, Nicolas Batum's knee, Chris Kaman's back, C.J. McCollum's ankle and Arron Afflalo's shoulder are all nagging issues for the Blazers heading into Game 1. And of course, Wesley Matthews is still out. Sadly, this team is a shell of itself at the one time of year it matters most.
Which is why it's fortuitous that their first-round opponent is in a very similar situation.
It's not so much injuries with the Memphis Grizzlies, but rather a general malaise has come over them for the last two months. Marc Gasol has been solid but not the world-beater that he was in the first half, Jeff Green's fit has been a question mark, shooting has been a major issue overall and last but not least, it's unclear who, if anyone, Dave Joerger can trust coming off the bench anymore. Add it all up, and the Grizzlies are looking like a .500 team just the same as Portland - while the Blazers are an alarming 23-23 in their last 46 games, Memphis is also 14-13 in its last 27.
Whatever. All that's forgotten now, right? Regardless of the past, these two teams will do battle beginning Sunday, and one will earn the privilege of a future smackdown - er, I mean, meeting - with Golden State in round two.
This is a difficult series to predict, if you ask me. There are a number of indicators that the smart money should lean Grizzlies - among them overall record, injury trends and the fact that the Grizzlies swept the Blazers during the regular season, beating them in four contests by margins of 13, 14, 6 and 11 points. But it's always hard to know how much stock to put in regular season results - after all, the Blazers went 1-3 against Houston last year, and look what happened in the playoffs. It's especially tricky with this matchup, since both teams have changed a lot over the course of the season. The Blazers have been shuffling their rotation and adapting to injuries all season long, and the Grizzlies made a major shakeup when they swapped out Tayshaun Prince for Green. Memphis beat Portland 112-99 on Nov. 28 - how much does that really matter now?
Sometimes, you just have to throw out the old results. But what you can do is analyze trends and look at potential matchups. With that in mind, here are the five biggest questions on my mind about the Grizzlies and how they match up with your Trail Blazers.
1. How do you guard against a team this balanced?
The first thing that jumps out at you about the Grizzlies is that... well, nothing jumps out at you. They don't have any individual scoring stars with numbers that fly off the stat sheet. The Grizzlies put together an above-average NBA offense this season at 105.7 points per 100 possessions, and they managed to do it without a single guy scoring 18 points per game. Gasol "carried" them with 17.4. If you check out the Grizzlies' best individual performances against Portland this season, you'll notice they managed to go 4-0 without anyone ever scoring 30. There's one 26, a handful of low-20s and that's it.
If the Blazers were playing another opponent like Houston or New Orleans that's centered around one superstar, this series would be easier to game plan for. But they're not, and it won't be. Stopping Gasol will obviously be a priority, but you can't overcommit to it because everyone else on the floor is a threat. The Blazers' best chance defensively is to play everyone straight up, man to man - Robin Lopez on the big Spaniard, then Aldridge on Zach Randolph and so on.
The Blazers' speciality all season has been playing a straightforward defense - no double-teams, no traps, no gimmicks, just each guy sticks with his man. They've done just fine in this regard, no matter if the floor is clogged or spaced. They'll need to keep it up against the Grizzlies.
2. Where will the Blazers find 3-point shooting?
If you check out the Blazers' best individual performances against Memphis, one thing you'll quickly notice is that Wesley Matthews gave them two of their four highest-scoring games. He had 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting and 25 on 9-of-18 when the teams met in November and January, respectively. In both games, he shot 50 percent from 3. (Remarkably consistent!) Obviously, Wes won't be around this time - and perhaps neither will Dorell Wright or Arron Afflalo, depending on how their injuries heal this coming week.
The Blazers will need to look elsewhere for 3-point shooting. It's a must in this matchup. The Grizzlies allowed opponents to take 28.3 percent of their total attempts from 3 this year, seventh-most in the league, and 35.1 percent of those attempts went in (of the West's eight playoff teams, only San Antonio and Dallas had a higher 3-point percentage against). Playing the paint well, given Randolph's muscle and Gasol's versatility, is the Grizzlies' strength, but you can beat them by stretching them out to the 3-point line.
Without Wright and Afflalo, the Blazers still have plenty of outside shooters. Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe will all be asked to step up in this series, and if all three can shoot well, the Blazers just might have a chance. Getting those guys going is important not just for putting points on the board, but also for spreading out the floor and opening lanes to Damian Lillard et al to drive. It's especially important to create shots for whoever Tony Allen's guarding (looking at you, Nicolas Batum). The last thing you want is T.A. roaming around to help everywhere because the Blazers don't have a shooter to keep him honest.
3. Who guards LaMarcus Aldridge - and how?
Aldridge's versatility is the key to the Blazers winning this series. I've written about this already but it absolutely bears repeating. Aldridge is the kind of superstar player with the ability to wreck opposing defenses in multiple ways. He can muscle up against guys and score on the low block, or he can step back and hit an 18-foot jumper, or he can drift into the lane and take a little fadeaway that's nigh impossible to guard. He's got every trick in the book.
I can't imagine the Grizzlies enjoy planning for that. There's a lot of elements to consider - how do you decide on just one guy to guard LMA? Zach Randolph has been a solid rim protector this season, and he's a good guy to have on Aldridge if he tries to beat you on the block, but he can also stretch the Grizzlies' defense out to near 3-point range, at which point you're better off sticking a more mobile big like Gasol (or possibly Kosta Koufos off the bench) on him. But what makes Aldridge difficult is he can switch it up on you constantly. He can score inside, then out, then in again and out again. He's going to force the Grizzlies to adjust and readjust all series long. Imagine being Gasol and having to go back and forth between guarding Aldridge 15 feet from the hoop and getting bludgeoned in the paint by Chris Kaman? No fun at all.
Aldridge will need to keep Memphis on its toes for up to seven games. That's a tall order. But if he can make the Grizzlies work all series long, that's obviously huge.
4. Can Damian Lillard slow down Mike Conley?
16.9 points, 7.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game - those are Conley's averages in 10 career contests against Lillard. Conley's Grizzlies are 8-2 in those games.
Lillard has taken a lot of flak this season for his lackluster defensive performance, and it's all justified. The mistakes are evident - getting lost going through screens, getting burned by quick point guards who can drive, struggling with when to help off the weak side and when to stay back. Man. If Damian Lillard ever had to guard Damian Lillard, Damian Lillard would drop 40 every night.
Conley's a tough matchup for anyone, but especially for Dame because his combination of athleticism and crafty play leaves little room for error. Give him open space for even a split-second, and he can attack it - make a mistake guarding the pick-and-roll, and he's a nasty dual threat to find a big either at the rim or popping to 18 feet, or to take it the rim himself.
Some point guards are athletically dazzling (like Russell Westbrook); others beat you with tactical brilliance (like Chris Paul). Conley goes unheralded in a West that's crowded with bigger names (he still has zero career All-Star nods), but he's quietly emerging as a guy with both tools, body and mind. He's scary good. Lillard will need to play his best defense of the season.
5. Does either bench have an unsung hero in waiting?
Depending at who starts on the wings for these two teams - the Grizzlies can go with either Jeff Green or Tony Allen at the small forward spot, while Terry Stotts has his choice of C.J. McCollum or Allen Crabbe at the two for Portland - both teams are looking at very thin arsenals of bench weapons. The Grizzlies' leading scorers outside of the starting five will likely be Allen/Green, Beno Udrih, Kosta Koufos and Vince Carter; at least until the injury situation improves, Portland will rely mainly on Crabbe/McCollum, Meyers Leonard and the veteran duo of Kaman and Steve Blake.
It's not much. Precious few of those names have the potential to swing a playoff series by delivering their team a clutch 10-point scoring burst off the bench. Portland's wing guys have shot the ball well in fits and starts; it's impossible to predict when they'll have it and when they won't. Memphis has a problem when they start Green; their second unit becomes sorely lacking for scoring punch as Allen, Udrih and Koufos all prefer to contribute in other ways. Carter's first season in Memphis at age 38 has been kinda lousy (29.7 percent shooting from 3 - yikes).
Someone is going to have to score during the longish stretches - think early second quarter, late third - when the starters rest and the coaches push the limits of their playoff rotations. It's true that things tighten up in the playoffs and bench guys get fewer minutes, but they do still get some, and both teams have to hope they find some scoring. Memphis' top guys from last year's playoff second unit (Mike Miller, Tayshaun Prince, James Johnson) are gone now, and someone new will have to step up. Portland's guys might be a little more proven, but a big postseason from any of them is far from a sure thing.
Playoff excellence requires the full 48-minute effort. The stars, chiefly Aldridge and Gasol, will have a tremendous impact on who wins this series, but the team that advances will do so on the strength of its full rotation, be it eight guys or 11. Both of these teams are beaten, battered and quite frankly flawed - but ultimately one will advance to round two.