Memphis Grizzlies (0-0)
Sunday, April 19
FedEx Forum | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, TNT; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: | Out for the Grizzlies: Mike Conley (questionable), Tony Allen (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear Blues | Timmay's Viewing Guide
The Blazers and Grizzlies kick off their first-round, best-of-seven series tonight in Memphis.
One of the more prominent storylines heading into this postseason matchup regards the health -- or lack thereof -- for both teams. The Oregonian's Mike Richman has the latest scoop on the injuries for both squads:
"It feels pretty good," said [CJ] McCollum [of his recent ankle sprain], who is officially listed as probable for Game 1. "I got a nice workout in yesterday, some conditioning and a lower body lift before practice. So I'm feeling pretty good."
Alonzo Gee is officially listed as questionable after injuring his right foot against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. He said on Saturday that he expects to be ready to play in Game 1. Nicolas Batum (right knee) said he went through a three hour workout on Friday and should be fine for the series opener. Chris Kaman (lower back) is officially listed as probable, but is expected to be available.
The Grizzlies officially list point guard Mike Conley (right foot sprain), wing Tony Allen (left hamstring strain) and forward Jeff Green (low back tightness) as questionable, but all three are expected to play in Game 1.
By all accounts, McCollum, Batum, Gee and Kaman should all be at or near full strength for the Blazers. Portland guard Arron Afflalo isn't expected to play tonight. For Memphis, Conley and Allen are dealing with injuries of the nagging variety that will almost certainly put both players at less than full strength, but they should still be good to go.
As the Grizzlies' top two backcourt defenders, Conley and Allen's effectiveness and ability to play through pain could swing the series in either direction. Unfortunately, no one will know the extent of their injuries and how it will affect them until the ball goes up in the air tonight. Don't expect a lack of intensity from either, however.
Memphis is a bruising, defensive-minded team that seals the paint, shuts off passing lanes and generally forces its trademark grit and grind style on opposing teams. In four meetings during the 2014-15 regular season with Portland, the Grizzlies swept and held the Blazers to 93.8 points per game -- a full nine points below their season average -- and forced them into shooting 40.5 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from deep.
Keep in mind that Portland struggled mightily against the Houston Rockets in their 2013-14 regular season series, but went on to defeat them in six games last Spring in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. In the postseason, teams have extra time to scheme against and get extended looks at each other. Both Blazers coach Terry Stotts, Memphis coach Dave Joerger and their respective staffs have had since late Thursday to install their game plans for tonight.
But don't expect Stotts to come too far from out of left field with any new strategies against the Grizzlies, as he told Richman on Friday:
"There will be adjustments. I don't know about wrinkles," Stotts said. "You don't want to outsmart yourself going into a series, but you're prepared to do different things."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said the Blazers may add some wrinkles to their defense in the series, but he cautioned against major changes to their pick-and-roll defense.
"We'll stick to what we've done,'' Lillard said. "Coach is pretty big on trusting what we do. We just have to do it better.''
Portland's plan is, ostensibly, to come out and play, well...Blazers basketball. On offense that means ball movement, open shots around the perimeter, penetration and kick-outs or interior shots from Lillard and huge heapings of All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Behind the stout interior defense of 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol at center, Memphis shut down the lane this year. The Grizzlies generally don't rely on double-teaming opposing players, instead initially banking on individual defense and receiving weakside help as necessary, which Gasol is unsurprisingly incredibly effective at providing.
Memphis' best shot at slowing Aldridge down is to push him as far out of his comfort zone -- the left block -- as possible. This means aggressively defending pick-and-rolls that he's involved in, pushing him off the block instead of allowing him to face up or get easy post position and keeping him out of the middle as much as possible. Gasol, forward Zach Randolph and center Kosta Koufos will all get a shot at defending Aldridge, and you can bet Joerger will use a variety of looks against the four-time All-Star.
How Aldridge reacts to the Grizzlies' defense against him will play a huge role in determining how efficient Portland's offense is throughout this series. If he's hitting from the midrange and able to get into the paint, then the onus to adjust will be on Memphis. If Aldridge is bothered by Gasol and Koufos' physical defense and is slow to react to double-teams -- many of which will likely come from the baseline in order to force Aldridge into difficult turnaround jumpers -- the Blazers will have a hard time manufacturing points. Aldridge needs to take advantage of any positioning he can establish against Memphis and kick it out when he's unable to get a good look or facing multiple defenders.
With Conley, Allen, guard Courtney Lee and wing Jeff Green on the perimeter, you might expect the Grizzlies to defend the three-point line as well or better than most teams, but they only managed to rank No. 17 in the NBA in opponents' three-point shooting percentage at 35.3 percent since the All-Star break. The Blazers started the season as one of the league's elite defenses against the three-pointer, but since the extended break, they've allowed opposing teams to shoot 37.2 percent from deep -- No. 27 in the league.
Portland uncharacteristically shot poorly from outside against Memphis in four games this regular season, while the Grizzlies flipped the script and hit 50.9 percent of their threes against the Blazers. A regression to the mean for both teams is likely, meaning Portland -- which has converted 36.2 percent of its long-range shots since the All-Star break -- should be able to hit more consistently throughout this series, while Memphis should be closer to the team that shot 33.8 percent from outside on 14.5 three-pointers a game in that same time span.
The real battle for the Blazers, then, is down low where they'll be tasked with keeping a lid on Gasol and Randolph, who helped lead the Grizzlies to the No. 1 paint scoring offense in the NBA this season with 47.1 points per game coming inside. Blazer's Edge scribe Willy Raedy broke down the frontcourt matchups yesterday in an all-inclusive article you should do yourself a favor and read if you haven't already:
Z-Bo has always been a go-to scorer in the post. He likes to face and jab step his opponent into oblivion. From this position he can rise for his awkward looking but fairly reliable jumper or attack off the bounce. Randolph has a unique mix of speed and strength. He can usually get half a step on his defender and then his girth does the rest. He'll drop his shoulder to create just enough space to flip the ball over taller defenders. He can score on anyone that can't match either his speed or strength and feasts on offensive rebounds.
Gasol, on the other hand, is a great passer from each and every situation. You could put him on a water polo team and I bet he'd hit guys on backdoor swims from the middle of the pool. In fact, the most striking thing when scouting Gasol is how dangerous he is from every spot on the floor (except for maybe behind the arc where he never goes anyway). Put him at the elbow, he can knock down a jumper or pick your defense apart with pinpoint passing. Closeout to take those things away and he dribbles right by you still able score or pass with equal proficiency. Put him on the block and he can rip through for a sweeping hook shot or fade over his shoulder. Try to double team and he'll make one handed dimes that would make Sabonis proud.
This kind of all-around game makes (Gasol) nearly impossible to defend. In order to do so well, a defender needs the strength and length to bother him in the post combined with the lateral quickness to pressure him on the perimeter and make passes at least a little difficult.
How do the Blazers counter the size, strength and skill of the Gasol-Randolph tandem? Aldridge is capable of individually defending either player as well as any other post player in the league. The problem there, however, is choosing how to defend whichever player Aldridge isn't on.
Blazers centers Chris Kaman and Robin Lopez have the size, but both Gasol and Randolph can each take their games out to the midrange where Portland's 7-footers are out of their element defensively. Big man Meyers Leonard isn't equipped yet to handle either player on his own, and forward/center Joel Freeland gives up a bit of size and can be a bit foul-happy, which would be exacerbated against Memphis' talented frontcourt.
Realistically, Stotts has an almost impossible task in front of him in trying to stop both Gasol and Randolph. Because Gasol is one of the best all-around big men in the NBA and quite possibly the best passer, keeping tabs on him by assigning Aldridge the cover may be the best route to start with. Randolph's face-up game and ability to shoot jumpers would make life difficult for Lopez and Kaman to cover him, but his impact may be a bit more easily absorbed than that of Gasol -- even if Aldridge defended Randolph better than any of his Blazer teammates this year. Leonard and Freeland will likely be mismatched on whomever they are guarding down low.
On the wings, Portland forward Nicolas Batum has a difficult matchup with Jeff Green. Batum struggled more than any of his teammates against Memphis this year, while Green lit up the Blazers in three meetings. Without divulging specific strategies, Batum says his performance this postseason will bypass his regular season follies:
"It's a new season for me starting Sunday," Batum said, "I'm ready to go."
Fans in Portland should recall how well Batum played post-All-Star break after taking a week off and coming back much stronger. Though the Frenchman obviously didn't avoid basketball activities the last week, he sat last Wednesday against Dallas and hasn't played since Monday -- a full six days off. This rest may not be as rejuvenating as the week-long break he took midseason, but Batum, for all intents and purposes, seems to have his batteries re-charged for the playoffs.
Joerger has a serviceable unit of reserves to throw at Portland, with guards Nick Calathes, Beno Udrih and Vince Carter, along with Koufos down low. All three guards have been underwhelming scorers this year, but Calathes and Udrih help push the ball for the Grizzlies and can manage a game when Conley needs a breather. The Blazers have Kaman, Leonard, Freeland, guard Steve Blake and either McCollum or wing Allen Crabbe -- depending on who starts in place of Afflalo -- to help pace the Blazers while the starters rest. Leonard and McCollum, in particular, could play a huge part in Portland's bench scoring this series, as Leonard can help spread out Gasol, Randolph or Koufos defensively with his range and McCollum can convert from the outside and also penetrate and either finish or find an open teammate.
Neither team has excelled on the offensive glass since the All-Star break, but on paper, Portland fields an overall advantage on the boards. The Blazers have Aldridge, Lopez, Kaman, Leonard and Freeland down low rebounding while Batum is a great rebounder from the wings. Koufos, Gasol and Randolph are an imposing and formidable frontline on the glass, but the Grizzlies simply don't have as many bigs to throw at Portland. Expect both teams to put an emphasis on limiting offensive rebounds for the opposition, as Lopez and Kaman tend to get a few extra points by cleaning up the offensive glass and Randolph is always a threat to sneak in under his own hoop, steal a rebound from his defender and go right back up with it after a flurry of head-fakes, spin-moves and other space-clearing maneuvers.
The regular season series between these two teams overwhelmingly went in favor of Memphis, but the health of the Grizzlies backcourt right now is a huge concern for the team and its fans and could swing this matchup in the Blazers' favor if they can react accordingly.
Either way, Memphis has the best two-way center in the NBA in Gasol and one of the craftiest scoring power forwards in Randolph, both of whom are capable of carrying their team to a victory regardless of who else is available on a nightly basis. The Blazers counter with Lillard -- who cemented his reputation as a clutch player in last year's playoffs in just his second season -- and fellow All-Star Aldridge, one of the most versatile big men in the league.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter