The Portland Trail Blazers played their best game yet against the Memphis Grizzlies in this best-of-7, first-round matchup. With their backs against the wall and the home crowd cooking, Portland finally got their offense in gear and made the Grizzlies nervous. But a few beads of sweat was all Portland could wring out of their rock-hard opponent. Though the Blazers kept the game tight early and closed hard, they made too many mistakes to overcome, tripping over their own feet into a 115-109 loss and an 0-3 hole in the series.
For those who watched the first two games between these teams, the opening of Game 3 must have looked like Bizarro World. Arron Afflalo played. Damian Lillard hit his first three-pointer after missing all week long. Jumpers from Nicolas Batum and CJ McCollum landed on target too. Suddenly the lane opened up for Lillard to drive and he put the ball in the hole. The whole resembled Blazers Basketball far more than anything we saw in Memphis.
Except nobody told LaMarcus Aldridge about the change in plans. He had been the team's tent-pole through the first two games, keeping the roof from falling in by playing hard and producing when others weren't. As the game opened tonight he was chronically the last guy down the court. His only made field goal in the first half was a layup. Salted around that glorious moment were plenty of free throws, but also blown jumpers and airballs.
It was as if the vampiric trio of Lillard, Batum, and McCollum had jumped on Aldridge in the locker room and sucked all the mojo right out of his neck. As they thrived, he stumbled.
For the first 6-7 minutes of the game the Blazers relied on Aldridge to carry them and the results were hideous...7 points in 8 minutes. The train got rolling as others picked up the slack and didn't slow until intermission. A pedestrian 19-point first quarter morphed into a brilliant 30-point second for the Blazers. By the standards of this series it was an embarrassment of riches, as were Portland's 49 points at the half. The Blazers were finally on pace to break 100 and life was good. Or...almost.
The Grizzlies were on pace to break 120.
Solving Memphis' defense didn't do a thing for Portland's own defensive woes. The Grizzlies took the lane seemingly at will and hit three-pointers when they had to. Portland did a decent job defending the point of attack but once again their help and recovery system blue-screened. You could see the coaching staff hitting CTRL-ALT-DEL at every timeout.
The only thing the Blazers did quickly during this stretch was draw fouls. Afflalo and Meyers Leonard ended up checking into a 12-Step Program for whistles, the rest of the team barely escaping an intervention. The Grizzlies' parade to the line might as well have included a marching band, Rodeo Queens, and a nifty convertible with referee Scott Foster perched right on top. The result was a 38-point second quarter and a 62-49 edge for Memphis at the half. And this after a darn good effort from the Blazers...discouraging to say the least.
The third period would see Aldridge come alive again with 8 points off of well-timed jumpers. Batum was still rolling. McCollum and Lillard got theirs after Aldridge eased off. It looked for a while like the Blazers would finally put it together.
Portland even got an unexpected (and unwelcome) break when Mike Conley fell to an inadvertent elbow from CJ McCollum with 4 minutes remaining in the third. His face bloody, Conley headed to the locker room and from there to a medical center for evaluation. He would not return. Conley's absence provided a boost to Lillard, who roamed even more freely on offense. The Blazers had a chance.
But every time Portland tried to eat into the lead they stumbled due to self-inflicted wounds: a missed rotation, not securing a rebound after a good defensive possession, turning over the ball when they were one pass from a clear shot, missing those clear shots when they had them. When Conley went down Memphis led by 10 points. As the third quarter closed Memphis still led by 10 points...no change, no advantage taken. The Blazers had won the period by 3 but that was 3 points out of a 13-point halftime hole. The Grizzlies didn't look threatened, much less intimidated.
And so it would go through the fourth. Batum made a mighty effort, scoring 14 in the period. His three-pointer with 2:23 remaining would bring the Blazers within 3, 94-91, as close as they ever got. But the Blazers let Tony Allen score an easy layup on the very next possession and missed three-pointers on their next two.
The second of those missed threes typified Portland's performance. They were within 7. A triple would have made the game close again. Lillard not only missed a one-legged heave, he failed to get back in transition afterwards and Allen flushed down a transition dunk to take the spread to 9 again with 1:14 remaining. Whenever doing one thing right might have saved the game, Portland ended up doing two things wrong instead.
As the game closed the Blazers gave the Grizzlies 16 free throws trying to play for possession. Memphis hit 15 of them. That was more than enough to close out the game. CJ McCollum scored 10 mostly-meaningless points in the last minute as Memphis let him into the lane without resistance. That made the final score look respectable, 115-109. The effort was respectable enough, but the game wasn't that close.
As we talked about extensively before this game, it's amazing how Portland's offense opens up when the secondary scorers actually hit shots. Batum shot 9-18 tonight, an incredible 6-12 from distance. McCollum's stats were inflated by his final barrage, but he still scored 16 even without the 10 freebie points. He ended up with 26 total on 8-14 from the field. Once Memphis had to respect that pair, look what happened to Lillard: 9-17 shooting, 22 points, 9 assists. Seem more like the Damian you know?
On the other hand, whatever was happening with Aldridge in that first half was...not....good. Everything from his gait to his shot release looked off. He redeemed himself in the second half but he and Lillard never got it going at the same time. If LaMarcus had been hitting, Portland's offense would have excelled instead of just looking blessedly normal.
Thanks primarily to Batum, the Blazers welcomed their three-point shooting back into the fold tonight. Portland shot 11-27, 41%, from the arc. Their assists went up to 23, they outscored the Grizzlies 21-7 on the break...the Blazers generated more good, clean shots in this game than they saw in the first two combined.
Nevertheless, something always seemed to get in the way when the Blazers looked ready to prosper from their bounty. A slow start hurt them. Defense killed them in the second quarter. They pressed too hard during their comeback attempts in the third and fourth, creating bad shots and turnovers instead of points. When they finally made some good defensive stands in the final period they didn't get the rebound off of them. Most of all, they failed to take advantage of Conley falling on an evening when Beno Udrih wasn't playing either. Fate sent them a hand-written invitation and they didn't even bother to R.S.V.P.
As usual, the game came down to execution. As usual the Grizzlies executed better for longer. The Blazers played underdog, taking wild swings in thrilling moments. But wild and exciting doesn't win playoff games like being in control does. The Grizzlies were far more in control of themselves and the court than the Blazers were. Whenever critical possessions came around Memphis calmed down and executed while the Blazers got frantic and hoped their high-wire act would work out. It could have, but it didn't.
Portland fans taking a casual look at the boxscore will notice the Blazers and Grizzlies tying exactly in field goals made, 36-77 each. They'll also notice the Blazers hitting 11 three-pointers to 4 for Memphis. They're going to point at the Grizzlies going 39-43 from the foul line against Portland's 26-31 and say, "Aha!". As one would expect in a partisan arena, tonight's crowd was not enamored with the refs. But the boxscore numbers don't tell the story.
Take away the 16 free throws that the Blazers gave up on purpose in the final minutes of the game and Memphis' free throw tally sinks to 24-27. Portland actually had the edge in that category.
The Grizzlies also allowed the Blazers to hit 6 of 7 relatively unopposed buckets in that stretch. Taking out those shots without replacing them with anything wouldn't give an accurate picture, but it's fair to say that before the final "charity-bucket" stretch the Blazers were shooting 42.8%, far lower than the 46.8% sported by the Grizzlies.
The refs weren't the story in this game. The Blazers dug themselves a hole against a superior team. Needing to turn the game around they found themselves unable to keep Memphis out of the lane or force turnovers, either of which might have held the opponent down. Portland couldn't score enough to make headway. As the game closed the Grizzlies did their job, hitting 15 of those last 16 free throws, denying Portland the last-ditch opportunity to change their fate.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 21 with 5 assists and 2 blocks but managed only 7 rebounds and shot a paltry 6-18 from the field. He played 45 out of 48 possible minutes in this game but only looked like Aldridge for 2/3 of those.
Nicolas Batum led all scorers with 27 points. 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 0 turnovers round out the picture. His 6-12 clip from beyond the arc was crucial. Given the stage and his team's need, it may have been the best offensive performance of Batum's career.
Damian Lillard's only major fault tonight was shooting 2-7 from three-point range. Several of those shots looked ill-advised, a guy pressuring himself to do too much. But the rest of Lillard's game went back to normal, with the exception of coming up a little light at the foul line (2-4 on the evening). 9-17 shooting, 22 points, and 9 big assists (9 times his total in the last game).
Robin Lopez had but 4 points and 4 rebounds to go along with 5 personal fouls in 27 minutes but he was working hard against Marc Gasol and deserves at least partial credit for Gasol's 6-17 shooting evening. (Gasol went 13-14 from the foul line too, but you can't have everything.) Even though Lopez didn't grab many rebounds himself, Portland's problems on the boards came mostly with him out of the game.
Arron Afflalo matched Lopez's 27 minutes and outdid him with 6 personal fouls. That was a mix of rust and how the game was being called. Afflalo's biggest contribution might have been 6 rebounds. He hit 2 shots, including a critical three-pointer in the fourth, but he scored only 5 points.
With Afflalo starting, CJ McCollum returned to his normal spot in the rotation. He looked more comfortable there, as 8-14 shooting, 8-9 from the foul line, and 2-4 from the arc attest. 26 points in 27 minutes is a number he'll be able to frame as well. The Afflalo-McCollum combination looked better than the cobbled-together shooting guard rotations the Blazers have been using.
Chris Kaman had 6 rebounds and no turnovers in 17 minutes. It wasn't as good as his Game 1 performance. The Blazers could have used more. He looked frustrated and/or agitated but it's hard to say if that was due to role, referees, or something else.
Steve Blake had 2 assists and a rare blocked shot in 9 minutes of play.
Meyers Leonard got stuck at the whistle stop, committing 2 personal fouls in 5 minutes of play, watching the Grizzlies score up close and personal, and never attempting a shot or grabbing a rebound.
The Blazers are now in do-or-die mode...or perhaps "waiting for the inevitable end" mode. They face the Grizzlies again on Monday night. Every long journey begins with a single step. We'll see whether that game is the first step in Portland's road to redemption or Memphis' first step towards meeting the Golden State Warriors. If Conley's injury will keep him out for a few days, losing on Monday may actually be an advantage for the Grizzlies.
Instant Recap with web reaction
Conley Injury Video and updates
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