When the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies square off, you don’t expect to see pretty basketball. These teams have engaged in epic battles over the years, most of which have left observers shaking their heads and wincing. Tonight was no exception. Played at a glacial pace, this contest was dominated by ice-cold shooting. The only heat in the building steamed off of the heads of coaches yelling at whistle-happy referees who took any excuse to dam up the game flow. When the icy offensive drizzle and flurry of fouls subsided, Memphis walked away with an 88-86 victory, dreary and atypical only for the fact that they had to come from behind to earn it.
With Moe Harkless nursing an injury and Al-Farouq Aminu playing limited minutes as he recovers from same, Portland’s starting lineup featured the unusual combo of Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard at forward. Let’s remove all suspense. Turner managed an admirable 15 points and 10 rebounds on 4-9 shooting; Leonard landed face first in a snow bank.
Despite that, Portland didn’t suffer much from the personnel change out of the gate. Both teams spent the first period playing a nasty game of “Who can miss the most shots right at the rim?” Mason Plumlee proved the undisputed king of bunny blowing but guards and forwards on both sides gave him plenty of competition. As the quarter expired Memphis’ shooting percentage read 24%, Portland’s 27%. Free throws and Marc Gasol threes accounted for much of the scoring as the Blazers led 22-14 after one.
After an opening period that was (cough) “snow fun at all”, both offenses thawed in the second frame. The Blazers employed a pack-the-lane strategy that worked well against the Grizzlies bench. Ed Davis did yeoman’s work on the boards while CJ McCollum skated around the mid-range. Portland built a 13-point lead midway through the second before Gasol made a mockery of their defensive scheme by launching deep, unopposed shots. Moving centers out to cover that threat allowed Tony Allen to treat the lane like a sledding hill: sliding his way to the rim and converting. A 14-2 Memphis run to close the half stole back all the momentum the Blazers had accumulated in the quarter. Portland still led 50-43 at intermission but it was hardly conclusive.
Offensive woes blanketed the court like a frigid squall as the second half commenced. Memphis decided if they couldn’t score (and they couldn’t), they might as well shut down Portland’s chances too. They accomplished this by burying Damian Lillard—and to a lesser extent McCollum—in defenders. Turner, Aminu, Plumlee, and company were free to take any shots they wanted except layups and dunks. They might as well have worn padded gloves on their hands and ski caps pulled down around their eyeballs. Each of their shots became a special snowflake: different from all the rest and blowing God-knows-where. But the Grizzlies weren’t doing any better. When they tried to feed the ball to Zach Randolph the Blazers employed their own strategy against them. With extra defenders swirling around him, Randolph made smart passes. They were wasted, the recipients unable to hit. Neither offense could gain traction and the Blazers settled for a 69-61 lead heading home.
An 8-point advantage at the start of the fourth was good news for the Blazers in a way. Outside of McCollum their offense looked horrible, yet they still had the game in hand. But the incredibly low score for both sides indicated a Grizzlies advantage more than a Portland one. Unless that changed, Portland would have a hard time closing out the win.
Both teams played slow for the opening minutes of the fourth, then Memphis shook the slush out of their boots and started going hard. Portland wanted to match them but fatigue and a game-long infatuation with sucking conspired against them. Little things began to tip the Grizzlies’ way. Portland’s grip on the boards became slippery. Formerly-active passing—their only other positive quality besides rebounding—devolved into pressured solo opportunities. The blizzard of fouls that had blown their way in the first three quarters started blowing towards Memphis as the game wound down.
And all that happened BEFORE Gasol made like a snow-blower chewing up Portland’s defense and spitting it out into the street. Behind their Spanish center, Memphis blazed out an 18-4 run deep in the fourth. Because Portland started the quarter ahead and the streak took a while to develop, this left the Blazers up 1 with a minute remaining.
Lillard tried to plunge the dagger in with a long shot in the final minute but the attempt sprayed wide. Memphis rebounded. With all eyes on Gasol, Toney Douglas splashed home a “fooled you” jumper and Memphis took an 84-83 lead with 34 seconds left.
Turner hit two free throws on the ensuing possession, followed by two in kind from Douglas as Lillard fouled him on the other end. 19 seconds remained. Memphis led 86-85.
With a final possession in the offing and the game on the line, everybody knew what time it was. Plumlee time.
Yeah, you read that right: Plumlee time.
To be fair, Lillard did try to take the game-deciding shot but Memphis made it impossible. Plumlee was open on the right side of the lane, so Dame flipped the pass to him. Why not?
“Because he’s shooting 1-9 from the field this game, is completely unreliable on offense right now, and doesn’t really want the ball!!!” screamed Mason Plumlee’s mother.
Lillard did not listen.
So Plumlee caught the ball, looked at it like it was square and on fire, then tried to do something with it because the clock was ticking past 9 seconds and not getting any fresher. As Mason made his move, Memphis’ defense closed like a trap. His shot missed but (as was all but destined to be in this game) a whistle blew to decide the matter. In a cold-sweat, nightmare scenario, Plumlee stepped to the line with his team down 1, a huge pair of free throws ahead.
There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Mason was going to sink both of those shots, but to his credit he did manage the first. Portland and Memphis were probably going to overtime.
Except they didn’t because on the final, final...yes this time really final possession (as was all but destined to be in this game) a whistle blew to decide the matter. Again.
When Douglas went up for the buzzer-beater from the right corner, Lillard jumped with him. Lillard bumped him slightly in what could have been a no-call but also could have been a good call. With the refs treating the preceding 47:59 like their own personal parade of Brazilian Carnival music, there was no doubt which side of that line they would end up on. Douglas stepped to the line with half a second left, sank both foul shots, and sent his team home with the 88-86 win. Wasn’t pretty, still counts.
The Blazers did well on the boards tonight, no mean accomplishment against Memphis. Then again, their rebounding numbers (13 offensive, 52 overall) were inflated by 113 total misses available, courtesy of 30.5% shooting for Portland and 35.6% for Memphis. You can blame some of that poor Grizzlies shooting on Portland’s defense but plenty of it was lack of rhythm and offensive talent. The sadder story is that no matter how bad Memphis looked, the Blazers looked worse.
Portland’s ball movement was generally good tonight against Memphis’ “stop the guards at all costs” strategy. But good passing yielded only 13 assists because nobody was hitting shots. Still, the Blazers kept trying to make the right play for most of the game. That’s something.
Portland’s defense did exactly the right thing against Zach Randolph, swarming him and holding him to 2-10 shooting. They couldn’t seem to extend the theory to Marc Gasol though. He hit 13-24 shots and 4-6 threes, often firing with nobody around him. Portland’s centers like to stay inside but once the tally goes past 24, somebody has to cover the guy. If the Blazers planned to hold the paint and secure the rebounding advantage at the cost of letting Gasol hoist jumpers, the strategy failed. He scored 36, the Grizzlies still won every rebounding category, and 40 of Memphis’ 88 points came inside.
Portland might have prevailed anyway had their outside game been working but they fired a collective 7-28, 25% from distance. CJ McCollum was on target, shooting 4-4. The rest of the team went 3-24.
Portland also might have won had their defense not melted like Frosty in a greenhouse at the close of each half. Fatigue may have played a part in the second night of a back-to-back, but defense hasn’t been Portland’s strong point anyway.
Portland and Memphis combined for 70 foul shots tonight, marking the refs as official graduates of the Donald Trump School of Ill-Advised Tweeting. Blazers fans will want to make something of the last call against Lillard but the game was decided in at least 600 other ways too. Since the lack of a call might have led to an overtime featuring 90 more misses, and 40 more foul shots, we’ll consider the ending a mixed not-blessing.
Memphis’ star showed up tonight. Portland’s? You be the judge. Damian Lillard scored 19 on 6-18 shooting, shot 2-7 from the arc, and collected 5 personal fouls including a couple that provided the chance for Memphis to tie, then win, the game in the last seconds.
CJ McCollum had no such issues, scoring 24 on 7-13 shooting. He was perfect from the arc and the foul line. Memphis paid more attention to Lillard than CJ, but McCollum also went into unstoppable mode.
Evan Turner had the aforementioned 15 points and 10 rebounds in his start...a worthy effort. Frankly he looked more comfortable knowing his minutes and role were assured.
Meyers Leonard played 17 minutes, missed 3 shots from the field, fouled 4 times, and went snow-blind on defense.
Mason Plumlee: 1-9 shooting, 6 rebounds in 31 minutes. He tallied some steals and assists, but this was an ouchy night for him.
Ed Davis played STRONG tonight..the bright light off the bench. But hey, the Blazers wanted him to stick near the bucket on both ends and Memphis sent extra men chasing guards, so his chances of a good night improved radically. 10 points on 3-6 shooting, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks in just 18 minutes.
Al-Farouq Aminu played 24 minutes of good defense but shot only 2-9 from the field. His three-point release looked like it was happening in three stages like a booster rocket separating from a capsule in orbit. He was injured in the closing moments of the game and his status is uncertain for Portland’s next outing.
Allen Crabbe shot 2-9. The Blazers could have used 4-9.
Noah Vonleh got 7 minutes and Jake Layman 12. Layman shot 0-5 but looked confident doing it. Vonleh missed only one shot and looked much less confident.
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Grizzly Bear Blues might think this game was slightly less ugly than we did but they also might complain about the refs more.
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—Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @blazersedge / @davedeckard