The Portland Trail Blazers came into the NBA Summer League Playoff Bracket as the 16th seed, seemingly destined for a quick exit to the Consolation Round and the end of their run in Las Vegas. Five days and four games later, Portland now stands ready to play in the Tournament Final to determine the Summer League Champion. Though they never say die, the underdog Blazers had to at least think it today, down 19 points in the second quarter of their Semi-Final game against the Memphis Grizzlies. But interior play from Caleb Swanigan and Jarnell Stokes, great rebounding and defense, and a persistent commitment to unselfish offense brought them all the way back for an 87-82 victory. Either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Dallas Mavericks will await in Monday night’s championship game. Whomever the opponent, the Blazers have shown that they’re in for one heck of a fight.
The Grizzlies jumped on Portland early, smothering the lane-bound Blazers inside and closing out quickly when passes hit the perimeter. With Memphis also hounding Portland dribblers with stiff pressure, the Blazers found little daylight in which to score. The tight defense produced foul shots. Other than that, Portland’s offense was catch as catch can...and the catching was sparse. Memphis had no such trouble on the other end, scoring from all ranges against players whose lateral quickness has been a tournament-long weakness. Memphis passes and feet moved faster than the Blazers were able to. A three-pointer by Rade Zagorac made the score 11-5, Memphis with 6:18 remaining. Portland continued to pound inside but they faced a team with bigs as capable and big as they. Every time rookie sensation Caleb Swanigan caught the ball deep, he was surrounded. The combination of pressure up high and tight pinching in the lane forced the Blazers into bail-out shots from the perimeter at angles. This is not their strength. Memphis led 23-15 after one. Given how the Grizzlies had the game clocked, the Blazers were lucky to be that close.
Portland’s inability to cover space laterally on defense killed them again as the second quarter started. They fouled Dillon Brooks on a three, then gave up a jumper, a dunk, and a three-pointer in succession. The Grizzlies pushed the lead to 33-17 without blinking. R.J. Hunter and Jake Layman tried to keep the offense afloat, making a three-pointer each. They were bailing the boat with a colander. Memphis continued to score. Portland produced more turnovers than made field goals. The resulting Grizzlies run-outs shoved daggers into vital organs. The Blazers kept passing, but outside of a couple of great inside moves by Swanigan, they seldom found space available for scoring at the end of their passing chain. The Grizzlies pushed the lead to 19, appearing in complete control. Then Memphis paid the price for their defensive aggressiveness as their starters collected fouls and had to sit. When their bench came in during the closing minutes of the quarter, Swanigan and Layman torched them, slipping through widened defensive cracks to score in the lane or on foul shots. Portland’s stars spearheaded an amazing 11-2 run that brought Portland back within 7. The score read 45-38, Memphis at the half.
Jarnell Stokes brought his frame and his game into the fray as the third quarter commenced, scoring twice right at the cup. Swanigan followed suit with a lane shot followed by an and-one from almost the same position. With just three minutes gone, the Blazers had already tallied as many paint points as they did in either of the two previous quarters. Their inside scoring game had returned. With the big men reinvigorated, rebounding followed suit. When Hunter and Antonius Cleveland each stroked threes—this time supplementary to the main attack instead of an all-or-nothing gamble—Portland took the lead, 54-53. Then Swanigan rebounded a Memphis miss, ran the floor, and hit Cleveland for another three. The Grizzlies didn’t know which way to look. Suddenly they became the turnover-prone, defensively-hounded team that couldn’t put together a coherent possession. Memphis regained a semblance of poise as the quarter closed. A breakaway dunk in their final possession regained the lead for them after Portland held it the whole period. But the margin was slim: 63-61, Grizzlies.
The Blazers’ defense remained stiff inside at the start of the fourth. Memphis couldn’t connect at the rim off of layups or rebounds. Swanigan and Stokes had no such trouble. Whether from shock or fatigue, the Grizzlies were noticeably slower on defense. The Blazers, by contrast, seemed to get stronger as the game went along. Halfway through the period the Blazers had made exactly five field goals. Every one was right at the rim. Memphis hit shots too, but they were contested and difficult, coming from odd angles. Meanwhile the Blazers continued to dominate the boards. Their defense became slightly more lenient as the clock wound down but the lane scoring continued unabated. Jorge Gutierrez sparked the offense with passing and cutting. Memphis had no analog. If they couldn’t score off a quick dribble drive, they couldn’t score. If given possessions remained in doubt, the outcome did not. Portland vanquished the Grizzlies 87-82 to advance to the Las Vegas Summer League Finals.
The secret is out on Swanigan's effectiveness in Las Vegas, and the Grizzlies deployed a high-pressure attack to thwart the rookie from the outset of this contest. Facing constant double-teams and denials, Swanigan was unable to bend the defense to his will initially, forcing his teammates to operate in less space most of the first half.
Luckily for the Blazers, Swanigan gained his footing as the game progressed, settling into some of his more traditional post moves. A fading over-the-shoulder shot might be in big fellas' future, but he’s clearly more effective when he is bull-dozing towards the rim. When he is able to score, the defense is forced to adapt, creating high-quality looks for his teammates.
Unlike Swanigan, Layman was never able to recover from his slow start. He was on the receiving end of a few open looks from beyond the arc, but he was unable to capitalize. If Layman is going to become a regular rotation player for Portland, he has to prove he can operate in the areas created by the Blazers' primary options.
It is only slightly concerning that Layman, a likely member of Portland's final roster, looked like the fourth-best player for the Blazers against the Grizzlies. On the plus side, he was moved down the pecking order by the stellar play of Jorge Gutierrez. After some early turnovers, the former Cal standout was able to settle into the offense. Once acclimated, Gutierrez consistently put his teammates in position to succeed. He was able to deliver in a multiple ways, each one more impressive than the last. From behind-the-back passes to a halfcourt alley-oops, Gutierrez looks like he is worthy of a training camp invite at worst.
Gutierrez wasn't the only unlikely hero from Portland's victory over Memphis, as Jarnell Stokes impressed once again in the void created by Zach Collins' injury. The crafty power forward plays as if he has magnate in his possession, as loose balls appear to go his way by a force of nature.
The combination of Stokes opportunistic offense and Gutierrez's floor vision helped carry the Blazers past the finish line. Both players are perfectly equipped to operate in the space created by Swanigan, which has become the driving force behind the Blazers' run to the Summer League finale.
Turnovers put the Blazers on the ropes early in the game, contributing significantly to their 19-point deficit. They corrected as the game went along and ended up with 22. That’s still a bad number for a 40-minute outing but Memphis committed 17 so it didn’t tell.
The Blazers obliterated the Grizzlies 13-5 in offensive rebounds and 41-29 overall.
Points in the paint went Portland’s way, 30-22. Free throws followed suit, with the Blazers connecting on 24-33 while the Grizzlies went 12-20. Inside points decided this one.
Portland shot a measly 5-21 from distance but that beat Memphis’ 2-10.
Five Blazers scored in double figures, led by Stokes with 22. Both Stokes (22 pts, 15 rebs) and Swanigan (15 pts, 11 rebs) posted double-doubles.
The Blazers will play the winner of today’s Dallas Mavericks - Los Angeles Lakers game in the 2017 NBA Summer League Finals tomorrow evening at 7:00 PM in Thomas & Mack Center.