After avoiding a sweep in Game 4 of their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series with the Grizzlies in a win at the Moda Center on Monday, the Blazers hope to keep their season alive tonight in Game 5 on Memphis' homecourt.
Many Portland fans had been clamoring for more minutes to be given to Blazers big man Meyers Leonard throughout the series, suspecting his boost on the offensive end would stretch Memphis' defense out and put the onus on Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger to employ in-game adjustments.
Leonard had played a combined 39 minutes throughout the first three games of the series, and just five minutes on Saturday in Game 3 after drawing two quick fouls in his first action of the night before spending the rest of the evening in warmups.
But Portland coach Terry Stotts, possibly sensing the need to throw a wrench into Memphis' gameplan on Monday, went with Leonard as the first big man off the bench to see how he'd respond.
And respond Leonard did.
The Grizzlies initially opted not to honor the outside shot of the 7-foot-1, third-year man out of Illinois, instead keeping their frontcourt players in the key to disrupt the Blazers' shots inside. Leonard rebuffed that plan by sending home a trio of three-pointers in the first half.
Eventually Joerger caved in to the potential threat of Leonard raining in open threes, and Memphis' bigs were instructed to chase him out to the three-point line and respect his jumper.
With the Grizzlies' defensive pillars stretched outside of the paint and preoccupied with Leonard, Portland's backcourt players immediately found the necessary space inside to sneak toward the rim and score against the interior defense of Memphis that had been, to that point in the series, nearly impenetrable.
If Leonard's 35-minute, 13-point performance on 5-for-6 shooting Monday provided the battering ram required to smash through the Grizzlies' frontline dam around the basket, Blazers guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to create the rushing river that splashed through the gates after building up pressure for three straight games, flooding the plains under the rim with fantastic finishes. The two young backcourt players combined to flush 20-of-35 shots en route to 50 total points, 32 of which were provided by Lillard and complemented with seven assists -- aided by his newfound ability to more easily penetrate -- and a perfect 7-for-7 outing from the free throw line.
Memphis' perimeter defense and ability to handle pick-and-rolls was noticeably impacted with maestro Mike Conley unavailable following surgery earlier that day to repair a facial fracture suffered the game prior; He won't be suited up tonight, either, and potentially for several weeks as he recovers.
Portland would be wise to continue exploiting the loss of the Grizzlies' floor general, running Memphis' backup backcourt contributors through Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-rolls all night. Of course, having Leonard on the floor to keep Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol occupied on the perimeter also allows the Blazers to limit the two bruisers' ability to help defend against penetration.
Joerger, who seems generally well-respected and regarded around the league for his coaching acumen, has a few options to counter the gamesmanship of Stotts that led to his team's Game 4 win. First, consider Leonard's four personal fouls in Game 1, two fouls in just five minutes of Game 3 and another four fouls on Monday. True, he committed but a single foul in the second game of the series, but Leonard often has a tendency to lay down the lumber inside and pile up the personals. Memphis has a number of bigs who can draw Leonard into hacking them, putting them at the free throw line for easy points and forcing the young big to the bench. This plan isn't guaranteed to work, but Randolph and Gasol are both good free throw shooters and have the moxie to draw fouls inside.
The Grizzlies also have two guards in Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih fully capable of running Lillard, McCollum and Leonard through a pick-and-roll meat-grinder. Calathes is a decent penetrator, distributor and finisher, while Udrih has consistently punished Portland from the midrange for following behind too loosely on screens; This could also mitigate the effectiveness of the trio that led the Blazers to a Game 4 win, if it pushes Stotts into playing either Robin Lopez or Chris Kaman heavy minutes in the middle across Aldridge to handle the interior while Leonard sits.
For what it's worth, Lopez played just 21 minutes on Monday while Kaman picked up a DNP-CD in the wake of Leonard's breakout. Don't be surprised to see the Grizzlies turn to their Grindfather, Tony Allen, to key in on whichever Blazers guard is causing the most damage. Rangy forward Jeff Green could get some time up front in an effort to better defend the three-point line.
Joerger could also keep his big men back in the paint, daring Leonard to hit shots from the perimeter. But he's made 44.7 percent of his wide-open threes (no defender within 6 feet) this year, and 41.4 percent of his open threes (defender within 4-6 feet), according to NBA.com. Leonard's drained all four of his open outside looks this series and two of his three wide-open attempts.
With the floor stretched, Portland's guards aren't the only beneficiaries -- Aldridge receives fewer hands flying in at him from all directions and finds the middle less clogged. He only made six of his 22 field goals on Monday for 18 points, but the All-Star power forward is due for a big game this series. With the Grizzlies concerned about Lillard and the ancillary scoring of Leonard and McCollum, now would be a good time for Aldridge to strike while the iron is hot; He's already essentially battled Randolph to a standstill defensively.
Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum and the rest of Portland's wing corps could also see a few more open threes tonight with Memphis' defense finally looking at least slightly vulnerable.
Leonard's emergence also helped spur the Blazers to their biggest rebounding advantage of the series, his 13 boards contributing to Portland's 50-40 edge on the glass Monday. Aldridge reeled in 12 rebounds of his own, Batum took home 13 and the Blazers out-rebounded the Grizz on the offensive end as well, 13-7. The less Memphis' bigs are able to camp down low, apparently the more Portland's frontcourt players are able to capitalize on their own athletic advantages and swoop in for rebounds.
Did Stotts unlock the key to this series by serving Memphis a heaping, 35-minute helping of Leonard on Monday night and unleashing his secret weapon? Maybe, at least in the short-term. But the Grizzlies are a disciplined, well-coached team that's had more than enough answers for the Blazers 12 of the last 14 times they've collided, and they're probably motivated to put the first round behind them and wrap up this matchup at home tonight with a victory.
Down 1-3 in the series and still facing a win-or-go-home situation, Portland can only proceed one game at a time. That said, it's hard not to wonder how Joerger might respond tonight, now that he and his squad are forced into pondering serious adjustments against the Blazers, instead of the inverse.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter