For one, crystalline moment the Portland Trail Blazers looked ready to pull out a victory after a mess of a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday night. CJ McCollum, his hands hot enough to melt asphalt, rose to meet destiny with the Blazers down one, game clock ticking to zero. Separation looked good, arc was fine, rotation perfect...but the ball just didn’t fall. That miss put a disappointing period on the evening, as Portland walked away on the wrong side of a 98-97 heart-breaker. Upon further review, though, the Blazers might want to celebrate being in position for the win rather than mourning the loss. When the usual heroes came up empty, contributions from unexpected sources kept the team close. The real story of this game wasn’t the final attempt, but everything that surrounded it, good and ill.
In what has become a distressingly common pattern, Jusuf Nurkic picked up two quick fouls to start this game. His early exit gave extra time and shine to Noah Vonleh, who took full advantage. Vonleh rebounded like a beast, set solid screens, and helped Portland maintain a surprisingly stout defensive presence inside the lane. The Grizzlies couldn’t hit a shot early, but the Blazers earned no separation. They opened up 3-15 themselves. CJ McCollum was the only Trail Blazer immune to Brick Fever, hitting three layups and a triple on his way to 10 points in the period. Memphis led the grind-it-out affair 23-21 after one.
The second period offered a bright dividing line between pre-Nurkic and post-Nurkic shifts. A Pat Connaughton slip or two aside, the Blazers continued to guard the lane zealously with Nurkic on the bench. As soon as he checked in, the interior opened wide. Memphis scored 29 points in the first and second quarters during Nurkic’s absence, 8 of those in the lane. They’d notch 16 over the final 8 minutes of the half with Nurk on the floor, every one of them in the paint. Fortunately Portland’s guards generated a late-quarter flurry and the Blazers led 50-47 at the half.
The litany of misses revived in the third period. It was old-school Grizzlies ball, with Portland getting snuffed in the lane repeatedly after semi-laborious possessions. The Grizzlies went on a 15-2 run mid-quarter because, well, somebody had to. Mike Conley accounted for many of those, scoring a baker’s dozen in the quarter. But Evan Turner and Portland’s guards once again came on strong late in the period and the Blazers trailed only 74-71 after three, despite their scoring woes.
The fourth quarter started out with Portland’s guards going crazy, as if making up for lost time. Memphis defended the cup like Starbucks baristas; McCollum brought a pocketful of gift cards. But the Blazers lost containment on the other end, turning the opening of the fourth into a Spy vs. Spy battle between the two backcourts. When defensive equilibrium returned, Portland trailed 88-87. Roughly 5:30 remained.
Instead of their usual lineup down the stretch, the Blazers went with their successful players, plus Damian Lillard. Nurkic sat. Turner, McCollum, Ed Davis, and Maurice Harkless joined Lillard on the floor. Portland started switching on all screens, an old tactic made successful by Davis’ spry perimeter coverage. The Blazers forced Memphis into tough possessions. The closing minute featured tons of fouls, with six free throws between the teams, all made. But Memphis had the better of it, leading 98-93 with 23 seconds remaining.
At that point the otherwise-heroic Conley fouled Lillard on a dead ball inbounds play, ceding the Blazers a free point. When McCollum drained a three 10 seconds later, the Memphis lead was down to 98-97 and a miracle was in the offing. When former-almost-Blazer Chandler Parsons couldn’t inbound the ball and Portland took possession, the heavens opened and a dove descended. McCollum got a great look from mid-range with 3 seconds remaining, but that darn dove must have pooped on the ball mid-flight because the shot inexplicably came up a hair short. McCollum got his own rebound but Memphis swarmed him and he couldn’t get off another shot. The Grizzlies walked away with a single-point win.
Despite all the unusual things in this game—and there were plenty—the outcome boiled down to Memphis forcing Portland to play Grizzlies-style. The Blazers are used to 87 field goal attempts per game, Memphis 81. Portland attempted exactly 81 tonight. Portland registered 11 assists (19 average), 19 three-point attempts (26 average), and 20 foul shots (26 average). Any one or two of those might happen on a given night, but when they all come at once, you’re out of your groove. Throw in 32% shooting from the arc and 17 fast break points given up, and it’s surprising the Blazers were in position to steal the win.
Two factors contributed to Portland almost walking away with another close victory despite playing relatively poorly.
First, this was the game of the no-names. Portland’s mid-rotation players were daydream-worthy tonight. Noah Vonleh rebounded hard in the first and his defense was impressively on-point. Ed Davis’ rebounding was just as destructive and his fourth-quarter “D” was even better. Evan Turner got huge time, coming through with points, nice rotations, and even a couple assists. Shabazz Napier played 20 minutes in dual-PG lineups, hitting 5-8 shots.
Second, CJ McCollum was pure, deep-fried magnificence on offense, hitting 14 of 26 shots for 36 points on a night when nobody else besides Napier was dependable. For reference, CJ and Bazz shot 19-34 while the entire rest of the team went 17 for 47. Anyone questioning whether McCollum should have taken the last shot should remember that. (Besides the fact that it was a pure and open CJ mid-ranger. After seeing the spot and the release, I was shocked when it didn’t fall.)
Other unusual developments include Damian Lillard scoring only 12 points, Jusuf Nurkic not playing down the stretch, the late-game lineup including Turner and Davis, and three dead-ball fouls showing up in the same game. A not-so-unusual development: Portland couldn’t stop the opposing guards. Mike Conley, Tyreke Evans, and Mario Chalmers combined for 17-34 shooting and 48 points. Hold them just a shade below 50% and the Blazers win this one.
Let’s go old-school Western here.
Noah Vonleh hit 3 of his 4 shot attempts and garnered 10 rebounds, 4 offensive, in 22 minutes of play. He was active and focused. He set screens like a champ. It was one of the best Vonleh games we’ve witnessed ever.
Ed Davis had 10 rebounds, 3 offensive, in 24 minutes and played utility on defense.
Shabazz Napier: 5-8, 12 points in 20 minutes. He played well on the offensive end whether on-ball or off. He looked as if he had been playing quality minutes in every game this season instead of basically debuting.
Evan Turner provided points in the lane via post moves and free throws. He played third guard but also assumed the quarterback role when called to. He was judicious. Like Napier, his transition into extra minutes seemed effortless. 4-10 shooting, 8-8 free throws made, 16 points, 3 assists, and 3 turnovers in 33 minutes.
In addition to his 36 points, McCollum added 3 steals and committed only 1 turnover. Ignoring opponent scoring for a moment, this was darn near a perfect game for CJ. If he hadn’t been otherworldly, the Blazers would have lost by 20.
Damian Lillard went 4-16 from the field, 0-5 from the arc, with only 4 free throws. Even his 6 assists (more than half of Portland’s total) were balanced by 5 turnovers. Lillard did contribute to the late-quarter guard runs and had an opportunity to do so again down the stretch. To his credit, he fed McCollum right down to the final play of the game. Not many #1 options will do that. It was absolutely the appropriate call, a credit to the relationship between the starting guards, and a sign that Damian is his own kind of star.
Jusuf Nurkic got destroyed in this game. It was like he sponged up the worst parts of Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, then distilled them into 140-proof gruesomeness. At some point this season he must have considered that “Instant Fouling: Just Add Opponent” is not a viable path to star status. He committed two unnecessary fouls in the first 90 seconds. When he returned his defense was miserable. His offense was disjointed; anything but an easy shot looked impossible for him. He got muddled up in the lane and couldn’t hold onto the ball in the fourth. If Nurkic is suffering some kind of physical ailment, it might be time to rest it. If he plays like this, Big Three is going to become Deep Six pretty quickly.
Grizzly Bear Blues will be tickled pink.
The Blazers welcome Allen Crabbe and the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night at 7:00 pm, Pacific.