After 7 games that felt more like 7 years, the Portland Trail Blazers finally vanquished the Memphis Grizzlies tonight. It was their first win over Memphis in the 2014-15 season. The 99-92 victory pushed the best-of-seven series mark to 3-1 for the Grizzlies, forcing a 5th game Wednesday night in Memphis.
This game only counted as 1 win in the series schedule, but the Blazers had to play at least 3 different games to secure it.
Mike Conley did not start at point guard for the Grizzlies, instead undergoing surgery for cracked facial bones after taking a hit from CJ McCollum in Game 3 Saturday night. The Blazers seemed well aware of that fact at the outset of the game, getting the ball to Damian Lillard repeatedly. But those sneaky Grizzlies knew that Lillard knew that Conley would not be playing and were prepared for the strategy. Lillard hit a couple of mid-range jumpers but Memphis kept him out of the lane and off the arc, limiting his damage. Portland's offense produced only 6 points in the first 6 minutes of the game as their faithful groaned in recognition, anticipating another squash.
The Blazers turned things around at the 5:10 mark when Lillard rebounded a Nick Calathes miss and whipped the ball downcourt to Nicolas Batum for a quick layup. You could see the light bulb snap on over their heads. Getting the ball in the lane during the first 10 seconds of the shot clock is easier than probing the paint against a set defense late in the clock. Paint conversions from Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge followed. This opened up the floor for Portland's shooters. The rest of the period was a breeze. A trio of three-pointers and 3 more inside buckets provided a resounding crescendo to the first. The Blazers led 27-22 at the horn. By the standards set so far in this series, 27 points felt like 37. It seemed like Portland's night.
That impression got even stronger in the second quarter when Meyers Leonard took advantage of his team's inside-out success, blistering the Grizzlies from both ranges. His onslaught started with a short hook, followed by back-to-back three-pointers, followed by a sweet assist on a CJ McCollum layup. Memphis might have been expecting Lillard but they had no clue Meyers was coming, at least not like that.
Scrambling to stop the suddenly-raging Blazers at the arc, Memphis now left the lane open. It was an inversion of the first quarter's inside-out progression, producing the same results. Layup followed layup for the Blazers as Portland took their very first halftime lead of the series, 55-48. The Blazers were outscoring the Grizzlies in the paint, destroying them on the boards, hitting three-pointers, producing from the bench...life was good.
This is Portland-Memphis, so you know the Blazers weren't going to have it easy. And they didn't. The Grizzlies engineered a huge turn-around in the third, using Portland's tactics against them.
Memphis started the second half going dunk-layup-layup, then hit a three. Free throws, three-pointers, and more dunks carried them through the period. Portland's defense didn't know which way to turn.
Meanwhile the Blazers missed their first 10 shots of the second half, turned the ball over 4 times, and crumbled like a stale cookie. Gone was the paint dominance. Gone were the rebounds. Portland had to score 11 points in the final 5 minutes of the third just to get their total to 13 for the period.
As it turned out, a 7-point lead wasn't really like 17. It was more like...7. The Grizzlies erased the margin then tacked on one of their own. Memphis led 75-68 at the end of three. Maybe it wasn't Portland's night.
That comment isn't tongue-in-cheek either. That 14-point turn-around could have been the end of the series. One great quarter followed by a run of good defense had kept the Blazers at bay in Games 2 and 3. The third period was the Grizzlies' great quarter tonight. With the Blazers down 0-3, nobody could have blamed them for surrendering to the inevitable defensive suffocation.
Except they didn't. They bore down and played harder. And look what happened.
Portland's comeback started with solid defense of their own. To the surprise of nobody who saw the second period, Coach Terry Stotts sent Meyers Leonard onto the floor for the fourth. Memphis thought they smelled blood in the water. They isolated Marc Gasol against Leonard. Finding only moderate success there, they involved Meyers in side pick-and-rolls. But the Blazers did a good job shutting off the middle of the floor, closing to the weak side when necessary, and rebounding. Just as Portland had done to start the game, Memphis got too wrapped up in their perceived matchup advantage and predictability cost them.
But Memphis defended just as well, if not better. With Grizzlies in their face, Portland's shot selection showed all the discrimination of that Kate McKinnon/Saturday Night Live "Closing Time at the Bar" sketch. Every shot was like watching someone tongue-kiss Louis C.K. Halfway through the quarter Memphis has mustered but 5 points, Portland 8.
4 free throws over 2 possessions from LaMarcus Aldridge cut the Memphis lead to 82-80 with 5:00 remaining. Then finally...finally...the Grizzlies showed some weakness. With no Conley to stop them, Lillard and McCollum brutalized the Memphis backcourt for 9 points in 75 seconds. It was the same layup-layup, three-three combination that had buoyed the Blazers in the first half, highlighted by a four-point-play from Lillard.
At the 2:35 mark he lead was 84-82, Grizzlies. With 1:20 left it was 91-88, Portland. Memphis ended up having to foul for possession as the clock dwindled. 4 free throws by Lillard in the final minute sealed the game.
The night wasn't perfect, but it didn't have to be. 99-92 was plenty good enough. The win was all that mattered.
Even in a game the Blazers won, the first impression is still how amazing the Grizzlies' defense is. What they're doing to LaMarcus Aldridge (6-22, 0-3 from distance) can barely be printed. Portland shot only 41% from the field, 32% from three-point range tonight. Grizzlies fans will have more than enough justification to claim, "If only we had Conley that would have been good enough."
(Before you Memphis folks get too misty-eyed, if only Portland had Wesley Matthews...eh?)
Both boxscore and media story lines will contribute to the impression that this game was won by hero ball. That's not accurate. Lillard, Leonard, and McCollum had the brightest moments but they prospered most when Portland's offense was in motion, not when they were pounding the ball one-on-one. Inside-out and outside-in won this game for Portland, not just individual talent. For most of the evening, whichever team tried to play individual, mismatch-based offense ended up up suffering. The big story for Portland was that they made Memphis suffer just as much as they did...no small feat.
Portland's decision to play faster and shoot earlier paid dividends, though those depended on the quality of the shot. The Blazers (Lillard in particular) took plenty of wild stabs that had crowd and commentators groaning. But the idea was sound in general. It's classic basketball strategy: if you can't beat a defense, score before the defenders get there.
A couple of numbers loomed large for Portland tonight. They edged the Grizzlies 42-38 in paint points. That 4-point advantage represents an enormous amount of work on both ends of the floor. Throughout the series Memphis has prospered by running away from the Blazers in this category. Not tonight.
Portland's 13 offensive rebounds contributed to the paint advantage. The Grizzlies only mustered 7 in return. Not giving up second chances made the Blazers' defense look much better. Securing rebounds also allowed the quick offense that was so critical to Portland's momentum.
Damian Lillard: 12-23, 7-7 from the foul line, 32 points and 7 assists. His only blemish was 1-5 shooting from the arc, but those early shots to push tempo came from distance. Plus the one he hit for the four-point-play in the 4th was HUGE. Lillard pretty much willed his team not to lose then backed it up by hitting the lane, scoring big, and keeping the energy high.
Meyers Leonard didn't need no stinkin' Damian Lillard to get his energy high. He came into the game in the late first-quarter ready to fire and became Mr. Gatling Gun in the second. His rebounding was great, his defense acceptable. 5-6 shooting, 3-3 from distance, 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 assists in 35 minutes. Even though Meyers didn't score late, his torrid pace in the first half forced the Grizzlies to keep a man devoted to him throughout that decisive fourth period. Want to know why the guards got to beat their men without Memphis bigs waiting to shut them down?
CJ McCollum shot 8-12, hit both of his three-pointers, and scored 18 in 35 minutes with 2 assists and 2 steals. He was hell-bent on scoring on his own no matter what. For the most part it worked.
Not so for LaMarcus Aldridge. 6-22 shooting produced 18 points in 40 minutes. BUT Aldridge had 8 offensive rebound...a great sign. When he's slumped against the Grizzlies he's really slumped. Tonight he was shooting poorly but made up for it on the glass. His defense against Zach Randolph is top-notch as well.
Nicolas Batum. (sigh) He had 13 rebounds. Full marks for those. But he was Captain Ugly on offense, shooting blanks and bricks from every angle. 3-13 overall, 2-8 from distance, 12 points in 42 minutes. This was a step back from his Game 3 performance.
Portland's starting shooting guard position is the equivalent of the Defense Against the Dark Arts post at Hogwarts. Whoever gets named to it will fail...spectacularly. Tonight it was Professor Afflalo's turn once again. He played 19 minutes, missing all 5 shots from the field, and scored 0 points.
5 points is the high-water mark for the series among Trail Blazers starting shooting guards. They've scored a combined 10 points in 106 minutes over 4 games. Courtney Lee alone has scored 72.
Course it doesn't matter if McCollum is going to run that hot off the bench.
Game 5 takes place on Wednesday. I don't know about you, but I could use another home game before the season ends.
Instant Recap with reaction to the win.
Technically you could strut at Grizzly Bear Blues tonight, but at 1-3 it's still dicey.