The Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight to host the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 3 of their first round playoff series after dropping the first two on the road.
Is there reason to feel a little dejected after the Grizzlies placed Portland in an 0-2 series deficit, in convincing fashion, after the first two meetings in Memphis? Sure. The Blazers haven't been playing their best basketball.
But that's exactly the point -- Portland has dropped two straight to the Grizzlies, but they've also not played the way they're capable of playing, and the improvements the team needs to make on the court aren't out of reach for a wounded-but-still-capable Blazers squad.
Yes, Memphis plays a suffocating brand of defense and has a 1-2-3 punch of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph -- complemented with some wily veterans and role players in guys like Beno Udrih, Kosta Koufos, Tony Allen, et al. -- that sets the bruising, inside-out tone for the team's offensive attack.
But LaMarcus Aldridge, though he's been a reliable and bankable workhorse for the Blazers throughout the first two games in this series even with his efficiency dipping, has yet to truly dominate in the way he can -- the way he played against the Rockets last postseason, and how he performed immediately following the postponement of his thumb surgery when he carried his team and inspired a fanbase.
The Grizzlies are choosing to throw single coverage at Portland's All-NBA power forward, mixing up the looks by throwing Randolph's physicality, Koufos' length and the versatility and defensive acumen of Gasol and Allen at him. Aldridge has responded by playing well against Z-Bo, decent against Gasol and inconsistently against the other two. If he can turn his offense on and string together a few productive possessions, Memphis coach Dave Joerger will have to decide how long he can keep Aldridge in single-coverage.
As it stands, the Grizzlies have been able to get by burning only one defender at a time, for the most part -- with the consistent poking and prodding of Allen, though not accompanied by double teams early in the possession -- in keeping a lid on Aldridge with various looks from a handful of defenders. This has allowed Memphis to focus down hard on Damian Lillard, trapping, doubling, crowding and generally bothering the third-year guard when the Blazers have the ball.
Aldridge catching fire would likely take some of the heat off Lillard, unless Joerger lets Aldridge go off -- in which case, Portland coach Terry Stotts should put the team on his superstar big man's back and ride it until the wheels fall off. Ask Houston coach Kevin McHale if he wishes he had adjusted to Aldridge's dominance earlier in their first round series against Portland last Spring.
Lillard needs to hit his shots when he has opportunities, though; he's generally been unable to capitalize on any hint of breathing room the Grizzlies have provided the last two games. But if Aldridge can corral just a bit more of Memphis' defensive attention, Lillard should be able to better find small cracks in the defense he can exploit -- a midrange pull-up here, a quick backdoor cut to the hoop for an alley-oop there, a 25-foot bomb off-the-dribble when the defender chooses to go under the wrong screen instead of over.
Lillard's individual defense still leaves much to be desired, and he'll continue to get exploited by Memphis when he's on the court. That said, Robin Lopez played noticeably better on the defensive end in Game 2, Chris Kaman will be back and Arron Afflalo will rejoin the starting lineup. If Aldridge continues neutralizing Randolph defensively, Lopez' improvement and the return of two key players in the rotation should allow Lillard at least slightly more forgiveness with his defensive struggles against Conley. CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, the two starters on the wings opposite Lillard in the backcourt for the first two meetings with Memphis, are second-year players and while both have their strengths, they can be better utilized coming off the bench.
Afflalo brings another look for Portland's offense into the starting lineup, an eight-year veteran playing in his sixth postseason who should also be able to help keep things a little more calm on the defensive end. With Lillard and McCollum on the court together, mismatches abound and Joerger can pick and choose how he wants to go at the young Blazers backcourt. Afflalo's experience and ability could dampen some of Memphis' options offensively.
If Afflalo can find ways to play off Aldridge and Lillard the way no Blazer but Meyers Leonard has been able to so far this series -- Nicolas Batum, Steve Blake, Crabbe and McCollum are a combined 6-for-23 from outside through two games -- the Grizzlies will have to pay more respect to Portland's perimeter shooting. Memphis has been able to sag off the Blazers' wings, for the most part, in an effort to send extra attention at Lillard and a swipe or two at the ball when Aldridge has possession.
Portland's offense can be spurred by, essentially, any combination of its players. Aldridge and Lillard certainly light the lamp more often than others, but a few three-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor from ancillary scorers like Batum, Afflalo, McCollum, or Leonard, a couple jump-hooks in the lane from Lopez or a tip-in or two from Kaman and just like that, Portland's offense can get ignited.
Now, don't expect Memphis' defense to fold if a few Blazers happen to get hot -- the contrary is likely true, as the Grizzlies are a seasoned team that plays with poise behind the monumental defensive efforts of Gasol, Allen and Conley. But right now, they're not even considering respecting Portland's tertiary contributors, instead swarming Lillard. Heck, Leonard's drilled four of his five three-pointers so far this series, and he's still consistently finding himself open beyond the arc. The lanes for the Blazers' offense will open up when Memphis is forced to respect multiple angles of Portland's attack. Right now they can key in on Lillard and play physically with Aldridge, and their confidence is soaring after winning the first two games in this series by double-digits.
The Blazers can punch a hole in the Grizzlies' swelling confidence, however, by working as a unit, playing off each other and executing the way that got them to a 51-win season. Wesley Matthews' hole in the lineup is no doubt cavernous on both ends of the floor, but Portland has enough capable wings, with enough talent, to patch together some semblance of a functioning unit with the combined efforts of Batum, Afflalo, McCollum, Blake and others.
Just because the Blazers are returning home -- though they do tend to play much better when the Moda Center serves as the setting -- they're not guaranteed a victory by any stretch. Similarly, a breakout performance from one or both Portland stars and any combination of role players does not ensure streamers will be falling from the rafters tonight, either.
But the Blazers have only been truly competitive in this matchup for short stretches at a time, found occasionally in Game 2 and with only the keenest of eyes in the series opener. If the team can build a foundation around Lillard, Aldridge or some amalgamation of any of the aforementioned stars and role players, Portland's opportunities on the offensive end will open up and they just might find themselves back in this series, even after coughing up two in a row to kick off the 2015 postseason. The Blazers -- overwhelmed by the Grizzlies' brutal physicality, so far -- just need a spark.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter