Facing playoff elimination, the Blazers host the Memphis Grizzlies tonight at the Moda Center in Game 4 of their best-of-seven, first-round series.
Portland dug itself into a deep hole on Saturday, and was forced to play catch-up again as the Grizzlies built an early lead, withstood the Blazers' best shots and maintained a commanding advantage all night.
Lots of things went right for Portland offensively -- Nicolas Batum poured in 27 points as he drained six of his 12 three-point attempts, Damian Lillard went 9-of-17 from the field for 22 points to go along with nine assists and CJ McCollum scored 26 points on 8-for-14 shooting as all three players each notched their best postseason performances so far this year.
The Blazers hit 46.8 percent of their shots, 40.7 percent of their threes, tallied 23 assists, had but eight turnovers and scored 21 points on the run.
But just as LaMarcus Aldridge's teammates stepped in to ease his heavy lifting, the All-NBA power forward turned in a flat performance, ending with 21 points on 6-of-18 shooting.
On the other end, Portland held Zach Randolph to 16 points, Marc Gasol to 25 -- he sank 13 of his 14 free throws but went just 6-of-17 from the field -- and Mike Conley to 14 before he left with a facial injury that will leave him out of tonight's contest.
Right on cue, Courtney Lee stepped up for the Grizzlies and finished with 20 points on eight shots, making all nine of his freebies. Nick Calathes, somewhat of an afterthought in the series preceding Game 3 but needed to fill in for the injured Beno Udrih and eventually Conley, calmly scored 13 points in 27 minutes.
The Grizzlies won the rebounding battle, were only forced into 6 turnovers, dominated the interior and cruised to 115 points.
The return of Arron Afflalo was expected to give Portland a lift on both sides, but he picked up six fouls in 27 minutes and was disqualified from the contest with just five points to his name. Robin Lopez, Chris Kaman and Steve Blake were all no-shows offensively, attempting five shots between the three of them. Meyers Leonard, the Blazers' most efficient weapon off the bench theretofore in the series, picked up two quick fouls, didn't attempt a shot and was sent back to the pine after five minutes of service and didn't return.
In short, the Blazers were again unable to get a full team effort for 48 minutes, while Memphis handled the adversity of tempered outputs from its stars and Conley's injury with distributed scoring and another suffocating defensive performance.
What more can Portland try against a Grizzlies team that's had its number 12 of their last 13 matchups, the last seven losses consecutive?
Apparently for this battered Blazers squad, just about everything needs to go right to have a chance at stealing a game in this series.
Offensively, Aldridge and Lillard need to be clicking. In three games so far this postseason, Portland's All-Star duo hasn't been on the same page on the same night for more than short stretches, at best. Memphis already has a disciplined defense that makes life hard for the Blazers regardless of who gets the brunt of the attention; When one of Portland's main weapons is slumping, the Grizzlies can key in on the other.
The Blazers would benefit substantially if Batum can string together another solid outing offensively, but he'll also be needed on the defensive end where Memphis' backcourt has wreaked havoc on Portland's perimeter defenders. Lillard won't have to worry about Conley tonight, but Udrih is likely good to go and Calathes is capable of distributing and also initiating the pick-and-roll effectively. As the Blazers' best wing defender, Batum will likely have to play Swiss Army Knife again tonight and cross-match onto whomever has the hot hand on the perimeter for the Grizzlies. Lillard's defense will improve over time and he has plenty of room for growth, the talent needed to harvest and the will to get better, but he's struggling without Wesley Matthews out there on the perimeter getting his back.
Portland coach Terry Stotts went with Lopez down low for 27 minutes on Saturday, and though Gasol scored 25, it wasn't efficiently. Lopez should be in store for more minutes again tonight, but needs to at least make himself an option offensively, which he hasn't been so far this series.
McCollum should probe the paint, keeping Memphis' defense honest with the threat to penetrate or attack from outside. Kaman and Leonard will have to fill in the cracks, taking what the defense gives them. In Leonard's case, that's likely open three-pointers.
Realistically, the Blazers appear overmatched by a team that's playing incredibly well as a unit, instead of individually. Coming into this series, most Portland fans probably knew the loss of Matthews would be hard to overcome, and that's played out so far.
Can the Blazers turn this thing around, come back from an 0-3 deficit and advance? No team in NBA history has done so before. But tonight's game isn't about winning this series, at least in the short term -- it's about pride, not closing the door on this 51-win season with an 0-4 sweep at home and giving the Moda Center faithful and fans watching at home at least one more game of solid, well-executed Trail Blazers basketball on both ends.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter