If the week before the All-Star Break is the NBA's version of eagerly-anticipating students coasting their way into the upcoming vacation, the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies didn't get the memo tonight.
Instead the Western Conference foes battled through what became one of the best games of the season, a rough-and-tumble affair that alternated between spectacular individual offense and brilliant team play. They demonstrated incredible defense and stout rebounding with a few utterly wretched (but dramatically-timed) mistakes thrown in. Players prospered, then sunk, then rose again. Beauty and agony combined until--at the expiration of a fatiguing, but wholly predictable, overtime period--the Trail Blazers walked away with a 112-106 victory.
If you want to get the frantic, intense flavor of tonight's stretch run, you can check out this video recap. Words can't do it justice. The first three quarters were a left-brained affair, with each team pushing advantageous matchups to keep pace with the other. The final quarter and overtime were nothing short of crazy...17 minutes during which the playbook took second place to how hard and confidently plays were executed.
"Guts" and "Perseverance" best explain Portland's ability to win, but even they fall short. To get the flavor right, you should probably hum The Battle Hymn of the Republic as you're reading and don't stop until you've gotten to the sign-off.
In case you've forgotten what that sounds like,we'll give you a little push:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He has trampled out the vineyard where the grapes of Zach are stored
And the Trail Blazers got a win that cannot be ignored
Their truth is marching on!
OK, that's near-blasphemous, but so is the idea of the Blazers winning in Memphis' building. They did it anyway.
Brief perspective check: Marc Gasol played only 11 minutes of this game before heading back to the locker room with foot issues that have been plaguing him for a while. During those 11 minutes he shot 4-6 and scored 11 points. He was one of several matchups the Blazers had trouble handling. It's likely that had Gasol played his normal shifts we'd be talking about a hard-fought loss. Portland winning was thrilling, but not a cemented-for-all-time indication of their position relative to the Grizzlies. For tonight the Blazers finished on top and that's enough.
The big news of the evening was that Meyers Leonard started the game in the place of the injured Noah Vonleh. Doubtless this was to balance poor matchups against economy-sized Gasol and Zach Randolph. Moe Harkless would have been hard to hide against that duo. As it turned out Leonard was too. His temporary promotion morphed into irony, as his main contribution was getting into an early spat with Gasol. When he repeated the trick later with a mostly non-combative (and extremely veteran) Vince Carter, Carter rolled his eyes and Coach Terry Stotts made like a Pokemon Master sucking an under-performing Slurpuff back into his ball. That was pretty much the end of Leonard's night.
With that, the game settled down into predictability. The Blazers began the evening shooting three-pointers like the arc was getting liquidated and they had to be shot now. Portland attempted 6 threes in the first 6:00 of the game, 8 overall in the quarter, hitting 3. Meanwhile the Grizzlies milked their advantage from 18 feet and in, mostly through Gasol with Randolph and Tony Allen contributing alongside. Memphis rebounded well, keeping the Blazers off of the offensive glass. They also committed an uncharacteristic number of turnovers, all but negating the hard work on the boards. The score read 27-25 Memphis after one. The two teams wouldn't separate much farther than that until the final seconds of overtime.
Both benches traded semi-incompetent offense in the opening minutes of the second period until the starting guards checked back in, shaking their heads. They proceeded to show their colleagues and the rest of the world what scoring is supposed to look like. Mike Conley twisted CJ McCollum around so badly that the jersey read "JC" by the time Conley was done. MC scored 15 in the quarter, including a four-point play. But Damian Lillard scored 8 (including a four-point play of his own) and McCollum added 4 to balance Conley's output. Lillard's outburst looked easier and ended up more productive than most of his recent efforts against the Grizzlies. This shows the value of McCollum. Facing a dual ball-handling/scoring threat, Memphis couldn't lock down on a single guard. Thanks to Dame, the scoreboard read 51-49 for the Blazers at the half.
The Grizzlies missed Gasol most in the third period. Forced to go small, they had trouble keeping up with Portland's athletes. Randolph prospered, scoring 14 in the frame, but as he became the predictable outlet the Blazers were able to zero in and make him work. Despite the gaudy scoring, this began the tempo decline that would eventually rob the Grizzlies of their chance to compete. As Randolph toiled, Portland rebounded, ran, and riddled the Grizzlies with layups and foul shots off of same. The Blazers pushed the margin to 5 before a pair of three-pointers brought Memphis back as the quarter closed. The fourth period began with the two teams knotted at 78.
The final quarter and overtime were typified by three trends:
1. Defense spoke louder than offense. Both teams buckled down hard; easy layups and open jumpers evaporated. Almost every bucket followed individual brilliance: sheer talent putting points on the board against incredibly stiff opposition. This wasn't New NBA ball. This wasn't a system. This was players looking each other in the eye and saying, "Let's go." Not every shot went in, but every possession had you on the edge of your seat.
2. As the game wore on, the Grizzlies seemed to tire while the Blazers remained relatively strong. The difference wasn't even half a step...maybe a quarter of a heartbeat on some plays. But it was enough. Every loose ball was 50-50, every rebound an extended battle that would make Peter Jackson's Hobbit Trilogy blush. That quarter of a second created extra offensive rebounds, slightly-more-open shots, and thus the ability to control tempo for Portland. This became critical in overtime. The Grizzlies eventually found themselves working against the shot clock consistently, impairing their ability to get quality looks. (They wanted to slow down the game, but not that much.) The Blazers had no such issues, scoring at a comfortable pace throughout.
3. The number of contested plays at the end of this game was staggering. Many of those plays ended up as officiating judgment calls. The referees got a couple calls right, multiple calls wrong, and hesitated either way. It's a mark of how hard the two teams fought that whistles didn't end up deciding the game and that the contest remained exciting. A disaster in the making was (mostly) averted.
The Blazers spent the fourth quarter forcing Randolph into tough shots, willing to live with production from anybody else. They met the Memphis game plan head on and turned it aside just enough to prosper. Gerald Henderson rode to Portland's rescue on offense in the early part of the period, McCollum in the latter stages. ("Me vs. You" offense suited them just fine.) Tony Allen could have leaned on the door with 7 seconds remaining as he stood at the foul line with his team up a point. He made only 1 of 2 free throws. When Lillard missed a game-winning three with 2 seconds left it looked like the bear had escaped the trap, but Henderson, Allen Crabbe, and Jeff Green went up for the rebound in a jumble of arms. The ball ended up bouncing off someone's fingertips and into the hoop. Crabbe was eventually credited with the tip-in, but you tell me. Whoever did it, regulation closed in a 102-all tie.
Overtime was somewhat less tense as McCollum scored 6 straight points before the Grizzlies hit a single bucket. Memphis ended up with only 4 points in OT, victims of their slow-down approach and perhaps fatigue. They weren't making any excuses as the final horn sounded. They walked off the court sweaty and dejected, appropriate of a game for which they sold their hearts and came up just short. A buoyant air surrounded the Blazers, of course. This was a feather-in-cap moment for them.
Meanwhile the refs just left, and that was fine.
The Game Flow section contained several nuggets we should re-emphasize.
1. Marc Gasol couldn't play beyond the first 11 minutes. There you go, Grizzlies fans. Approximately zero people in Portland think this win means the Blazers are the better team. We understand that you field no true centers outside of Gasol and were forced to run with a Puppy-Monkey-Baby frontcourt tonight. We still get to celebrate the win though.
2. Portland ended up winning this game with defense that matched the Grizzlies blow for blow. There's an asterisk beside that. The Blazers shot over 49% and Memphis shot 50%, so this wasn't exactly classic Bluff City Brawling. But when the fun was through and the game got serious, the Blazers didn't just try to win it with dazzling offense. They matched up against opposing personnel and exploited their tendencies. For the most part they succeeded. The Blazers had control of the game heading down the stretch while the Grizzlies were scrambling. That's a huge development for Portland against a good team. Whether it's repeatable is anyone's guess, but for one night the Blazers looked like a committed, veteran squad that knew how to win.
3. Memphis succeeded in limited, key ways. They shot 50%, scored 52 points in the paint, and held the Blazers to only 8 offensive rebounds. Portland absorbed all that and countered with near-50% shooting themselves despite their usual deluge of three-point attempts. Portland scored 46 points in the paint and reduced Memphis to only 5 offensive rebounds. Plus the Blazers scored 12 fast break points and forced 15 turnovers. Both evaporated as the game progressed but Memphis never looked wholly secure out there...half the battle won.
4. Both teams committed shocking blunders: missed layups on the break, basket interference, clanked free throws from good shooters. Portland didn't play perfectly; they overcame their imperfections by hustling and sticking to a smart plan. That's nice.
No matter who won or lost, this was a glorious game. If every NBA contest looked like this, the league would be knocking on the door of the NFL for popularity.
Side Note: I talk about referees maybe three times a season and it's usually in measured tones. Count this as one of the three and forget the measured. The league should probably consider not letting this particular crew work together again. Split them up and get them help. Chemistry, decision-making, and control were all absent from the guys in gray tonight.
Damian Lillard played 42 minutes tonight. Forget his 9-22 shooting. The 5-13 rate from beyond the arc plus 10-12 free throws tell the story. He scored 33, mated with 5 assists and 4 turnovers. Things didn't come easy for Dame, but he was still effective.
Nobody encapsulated Portland's turn-around tonight like CJ McCollum did. He began the evening shaky on offense and spent the second quarter getting roasted alive by Conley. Instead of pressing or deferring, he waited for his spots and brought the hammer down. He was the rocket that gave Portland escape velocity from the insidious Grizzlies gravity. 10-24 shooting, 21 points, 6 assists, 3 steals.
Both starting guards earned 5 personal fouls, by the way. The Blazers escaped by the skin of their teeth.
Al-Farouq Aminu played 40 minutes and was too busy defending anybody remotely hot to think about anything else.
Mason Plumlee didn't fare too well against Gasol early on. He might have done better against Gasol's smaller replacements but all of them had range, pulling him away from the bucket and thus rebounds. Nor could the Blazers take advantage of his height and bulk by running offensive plays through him because...Mason Plumlee. He played 24 minutes with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers, 3 fouls, and 4 points.
Poor Meyers Leonard. He entered the starting lineup with the same authority as Ben Carson entering Saturday's Republican presidential debate. Except he wasn't content to stand backstage. He walked into the spotlight and tripped directly into the doghouse. 3 points, 2 rebounds, and no focus in 13 minutes.
We're used to Gerald Henderson and Allen Crabbe producing big lately. They didn't disappoint. Henderson went Big Star on the Grizz, shooting 7-12, 2-3 from distance for 16 points in 35 minutes. No Gerald, no win. Crabbe found (or created) his usual open spots, perhaps buoyed by a slight lack of respect from the Grizzlies who appeared to think that if they shadowed Lillard or McCollum, their job was done? Crabbe disabused them of that notion, hitting 6-8 shots for 13 points in 21 minutes. He added 4 rebounds and 3 steals, upping his defensive reputation.
Despite handing over his starting job to Leonard, Moe Harkless made his mark on this game every bit as much as Henderson and Crabbe did. He shot 5-7 for 11 points and did his usual "Active Moe" bit. The bench role couldn't dim his light. Getting 23 minutes instead of 8 probably also helped. Henderson and Harkless look much more comfortable warming up to the game instead of producing instantly when they enter.
Ed Davis played big crunch time minutes, defending to mixed success and rebounding to great success. He accumulated 8 rebounds and 4 personal fouls in 26 minutes before his lack of free-throw shooting (and Memphis' willingness to exploit it) caused Coach Stotts to turn once again to Leonard, saying, "You're grounded! Except for right now because I need you to
go to the store and get bread go into the game and not get fouled. But you come right back here when you're done, young man!" And he did. It was, like, one play.
The second-quarter defense against Mike Conley was so bad (and the foul situation so precarious) that Stotts inserted Tim Frazier into the game during non-garbage time. It wasn't a fair test. By that time Conley was so hot that Aminu in a liquid nitrogen suit couldn't cool him down. Frazier played 2 minutes.
Links and Such
If you are reading this, you should know that Blazer's Edge Night donations just reached 1400 tickets. That's phenomenal...and we're trying to send a full 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play
George Karl and the Sacramento Kings on Monday, March 28th. If you loved this win and want to give someone else a chance to experience something similar live--a chance they'd not have otherwise--then help us out!
Donating is easy. Just click here and use the promo code:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
Grizzly Bear Blues will be crying them tonight.
The Blazers face the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m., their last game before All-Star weekend.