The 2014-15 season ended for the Portland Trail Blazers tonight as they fell to the Memphis Grizzlies 99-93. To say their effort was brilliant and heroic would not do it justice. On the other hand "shockingly bad" describes it just as well. The Blazers couldn't decide whether they were spunky history-beaters trying to force a Game 6 against all odds or an injured, exhausted team just looking to go home. They ended up mixing both in a solution that never gelled. Slap Pauly Shore's face on the Mona Lisa and you'll get the idea. Brilliance kept the game close but flaws spoke louder, ending the series in 5.
The Blazers could not have diagrammed a worse start to this game if they had taken out a slide rule, a compass, and jammed one in each eye. Despite the proven success of fast, free-flowing offense against the Grizzlies in this series, Portland opened up with a matchup-based attack, forcing the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge and Arron Afflalo. The result: 3 turnovers and 1 point in the first 4:30 of the game. The Grizzlies feasted on mid-range jumpers and rushed to a 13-1 lead.
Thankfully the Blazers called a halt to the insanity. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum drove the lane, converting on quick layups or drawing fouls. As the quarter progressed Memphis' bench players couldn't keep up the run their starters had begun. Lillard and McCollum scored 14 straight points while Memphis stalled. Despite Portland's comically bad start the game was tied at 20 after the first.
The Blazers have not played a single game in this series without blowing at least one quarter. Tonight was no exception. McCollum and Lillard hit 3 of the 4 shots they took during the second period. Meyers Leonard canned 1 of 2 three-pointers. Nobody else could hit to save their lives. When the Blazers weren't turning over the ball they were clanking it off the side of the rim (jump shooters) or missing the rim entirely (LaMarcus Aldridge). It was ghastly. Portland was lucky to escape with 19 points. That was 10 more than they deserved.
Fortunately Portland's defense was not as bad as the offense. Memphis' big players--Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos--got bottled up by swarming Trail Blazers. But Portland could not secure a rebound to save their lives. Second chance after second chance allowed a struggling Grizzlies offense to produce points despite their miscues.
The Blazers were also the unfortunate recipients of Vince Carter's "Turn Back the Clock Quarter". When everybody else was covered, Carter made free at the rim with devastating layups and dunks. The last time I saw VC do that much damage I was watching "Platoon". Carter's 7 points in 6 minutes led the Grizzlies to 26 in the quarter and a 46-39 halftime lead.
At this point the Blazers weren't just suffering from missed shots, but from missed opportunities. Turnovers and lack of rebounding kept them from getting up shot attempts, choking off their supply of points and rendering their defensive efforts moot. Something had to change or a good effort would be wasted.
Then came the third period and the advent of the one foretold, the young lad sent to lift the Blazers out of their misery. During halftime a star hovered over FedEx Arena and lo, at the 10:11 mark of the third period Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts did see it as Its rays touched the head of CJ McCollum. Then angels appeared unto the coaching staff, proclaiming, "Fear not, for we bring you heavenly tidings! The Lord Most High says unto you this day, 'What the hell are you doing leaving CJ on the bench??? Are you trying to lose? Get a clue!'"
Then did the coaching staff fall on their knees in awe and wonder. But before they did Coach Stotts pointed McCollum towards the scorer's table.
Seriously, you can just play "O Holy Night" over CJ's third-period highlight clip. It fits perfectly. And you'll need the whole song just to cover his three-pointers.
As soon as he hit the floor McCollum sank 4 triples on his way to 16 points in the period. (Keep in mind the Blazers had only scored 19 total in the second.) Coupled with a three from Meyers Leonard and faint signs of life from Aldridge, McCollum's barrage sent Portland to a comparatively massive 27-point total.
Once again, Portland's defense flourished. They finally decided to guard the Memphis Grizzlies like they were the Memphis Grizzlies, peeling a defender off the perimeter to bother Gasol every time he headed into the paint. With a man in front of him and a man behind, Gasol did nothing but turn over the ball. Nor could Randolph score against the sagging defense. Memphis was left shooting long shots...not their specialty. They missed. And missed. The Blazers were on their way to taking control of this game.
Except... Except... Except...
They couldn't grab a rebound. Again.
Part of this was systemic. Collapsing the defense to the ball brings outside defenders in, but also brings inside defenders out. After shots went up, nobody seemed to know who was minding the shop under the rim. Sans security guards, the Grizzlies scooped up the ball and converted freebies while Blazers fans yelled, "Get out of our store!"
Still, Memphis managed only 22 in the third and Portland trailed 68-66 going into the decisive frame.
Portland's defense held up through the early part of the fourth. They did a decent job of forcing the Grizzlies outside, or at least making their inside looks tough. But rebounding issues remained. The Blazers stayed alive by scoring at the rim with Aldridge, Lillard, and Robin Lopez contributing, but never made headway.
The score read 78-75 Memphis when Portland called a timeout with 5:35 remaining. Tension was thick. Everybody knew the game would be decided in the next couple minutes. Whoever made the first run would have the advantage.
Sadly for the Blazers, that team was the Grizzlies. The heretofore-silent Jeff Green--a Blazer-killer in the regular season but a non-entity in this series--scored 5 points in a minute, followed quickly by a jumper from Randolph. The Blazers countered this mini-explosion with a McCollum turnover, Aldridge getting his shot blocked, and a pair of missed threes.
When the Blazers called timeout again, 2 minutes and 10 seconds after their last one, they were down 10.
Three-pointers from McCollum and Leonard kept the door open for a while but the Grizzlies guards picked that exact moment to begin hitting mid-range jumpers again. When they finally missed, the Blazers gave up yet another offensive rebound. The McCollum-Leonard threes ended up shaving nothing off the margin. Portland trailed by 9 with a minute remaining.
From then on it was a game of desperation fouls and desperation shots. The Grizzlies ended up obliging Portland with missed free throws, shooting 10-14 from the line in the last 1:04. But Portland couldn't hit enough shots. Lillard and Steve Blake each hit threes in the last 30 seconds to pull the Blazers within 4 but Courtney Lee hit the ensuing foul shots and Gasol blocked Nicolas Batum's leaning attempt with 6 seconds remaining to seal the game. Memphis took the fourth quarter 31-27, the game 99-93, and the series crown 4-1.
Portland held Memphis to 42% from the field tonight, a miserable 7% (1-14) from the three-point arc. It was clearly their smartest defensive effort of the series. Had the Blazers been able to secure a rebound it would have been enough to provide a win. But the Grizzlies ended up with 15 offensive boards. That single, massive flaw proved fatal.
Not that this was a classic Trail Blazers effort on the offensive end. It was downright weird, in fact. Damian Lillard scored 22 but the rest of the starters combined for only 24. The bench actually outscored the starters 47-46. The last time that happened was...never. Portland's reserves shot 17-30 (57%) while the starters managed only 16-52 (31%).
The Grizzlies limited the Blazers to 5 offensive boards and 30 points in the paint. They paid for it by allowing Portland to shoot 40% (13-33) from the three-point arc. It was a near thing but the trade-off ended up being worth it.
Though the Blazers had a chance in this tantalizing, frustrating game, their fans can't be too upset about the way the series turned out. The Grizzlies played more consistently, played harder for longer, and executed better. They were the superior team. The Blazers appeared to be learning how to defend, and even score on, their opponents. But that knowledge didn't come quickly enough and frankly the team looked too tired and discombobulated to put it into action.
One team tonight played imperfectly but with their famous grit. One team played imperfectly and looked like they were just hanging on, desperately riding a surge from their bench players and praying it was enough. It wasn't. Desperate teams seldom emerge victorious from 7-game series anyway. There's plenty to rue about this series, but little to complain about.
LaMarcus Aldridge played his worst game of the series, shooting 5-18 for 14 points with 9 rebounds and 2 blocks. His defense was masterful once again in spurts, but he wasn't the force we're used to seeing. Part of that was Memphis' amazing defense. They bottled up Aldridge like nobody else has, forcing him to dribble into traffic repeatedly...not his strength. But even when his shots came clean his release wasn't normal. It looked like his thumbs had finally given out. He couldn't control the ball and he often missed wildly. It was not a pretty end to his season.
In hindsight Aldridge might have served his team better by getting surgery back in January and coming full-strength into the post-season. But it's impossible to do anything but applaud him for his effort and irreplaceable production this year. The Blazers tried to win without him all series long. That they couldn't manage it tells you what kind of player Aldridge is and how much he means to this team.
Damian Lillard was the definition of "mixed blessing" in this game. He scored 22...the only starter to produce points. He was impressive in the lane. But he missed 7 of 8 three-pointers, a chronic problem in this series. Plus he was a turnover waiting to happen, committing 6 and never looking completely secure with the ball, his handle, or his footing. The Blazers tried to hide Damian on defense, switching him to Courtney Lee for parts of the game. It didn't work.
It's hard to fault Nicolas Batum when the boxscore reads 10 rebounds and 7 assists but we're going to anyway. He missed wide...open...shots all night, putting undue pressure on his teammates. Aldridge missing was bad enough, but Batum's bricks added on top were near intolerable. He scored 6 points on 2-12 shooting, 1-7 from the arc.
As was true every game of the series but one, when the Blazers needed a shot in the arm Batum wasn't there. His play ranged from occasionally-inspired to occasionally-awful, landing mostly on "didn't matter". It was a fitting ending to a season that was mostly slump. Both Batum and the Blazers will need to do some serious thinking about his future this summer. He's only 26 but he just completed his 7th season, one of his worst. Ironically this in one of the best set-ups he's ever had. Something needs to change.
Robin Lopez played 18 minutes, once again doing his best but once again finding his contributions blunted by the opponent's playing style. The Blazers have had a hard look at Lopez's gifts and limitations now. He's the kind of guy you want on your team forever but he's probably not the only center you want to be depending on to get you through the playoffs. Too many good teams have a counter for him.
Arron Afflalo played 14 minutes, missed both his shots, and didn't look like he was that healthy. This was a disappointing end to the season for him.
On the very, very bright side CJ McCollum scored 33 points on 12-20 shooting, 7-11 from distance. It was one of the most memorable playoff performances in Blazers history, probably among the top 3-4 from a bench player. CJ has come alive. The caveat here comes in the exuberance with which people say, "CJ can be a starting shooting guard (or star) now." This was one game. It came on the tail end of a good run at the end of the season, but it was one game nonetheless. People are going to dog Damian Lillard for his performance in this series, questioning his fitness. Keep in mind that Lillard has accomplished far more than McCollum has in this league. If Damian's not a guarantee after all we've seen, CJ shouldn't be labeled one yet either. But there's far more hope surrounding McCollum now than at any time in his career.
Ditto Meyers Leonard. He shot 3-6, 3-5 from distance for 9 points in 32 minutes. His contributions go beyond the numbers, though. Memphis had to respect him after he hit his first couple shots, opening the floor for McCollum and company. Meyers' fresh legs and "go for it" attitude were a boon in this series. 6 fouls and only 4 rebounds toinght provide counterpoint. Leonard isn't all the way baked yet. But he's solidifying. Flipping on the light and peeking inside the oven, it looks like the end product could be tasty. It's certainly better than the lumpy, gooey mess we were talking about at this time last year.
Steve Blake played 6 minutes and hit his first 2 shots of the season. His defense wasn't bad either.
Chris Kaman played 5 minutes with 2 rebounds. He looked awkward, he looked like he wasn't feeling 100%, and either way Meyers took his jerb.
And that's the season, folks. Beginning tomorrow we're going to begin discussing the hottest issues of the off-season, including the one on everybody's mind. You're not going to want to miss that. Plus we'll have a season recap, player reviews, and a heck of a lot more in store for you.
A shout-out to Timmay, Ryan, Sagar, Dylan, Eric, and everybody who's kept our Game Night experience running this year, plus Peter, Bryan, Arthur, and everyone who's provided In-Arena Reports. They get to rest until October, but for the rest of us the work is just beginning. It's going to be one heck of a summer. We're glad you're along for the ride.
Huge thanks to everyone who stopped by those GameDay threads to leave a comment as well, and special props to akicks who leaves us with this wonderful commemoration of the season.
If you go to Grizzly Bear Blues, offer them congratulations and best wishes. Their team played really well. Plus thanks to the folks from Golden State of Mind who joined our GameDay thread this evening. We'll return the favor sometime next season.
You'll be able to catch me on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio tomorrow morning at 7:45. Or drop by at noon for the first of a couple important and definitive LaMarcus Aldridge articles.