With Damian Lillard home to attend to the birth of his first child, the Portland Trail Blazers knew they had to play a little harder tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies. Except they kinda...didn’t. CJ McCollum did his part, pouring in 42 points in just 25 shot attempts, but the rest of Portland’s band was de-tuned. Bad three-point shooting and lackadaisical defense conspired to keep the Blazers on the wrong side of the scoreboard, falling to Memphis 108-103.
A Shaky Start
The Blazers announced their intentions early in the game, coming out slow and sloppy. Their defense looked a step late. The offense was great in form, but finishes seemed distracted and lackadaisical. Rebounding was spotty too. It hardly mattered when CJ McCollum caught on fire to the tune of 16 points in the period. Portland’s second unit provided energy where the starters had not, and the Blazers exited the first with a nice 28-20 lead.
Portland could not extend the lead in the second, as Chandler Parsons and the Grizzlies started canning threes over a still-lethargic defense. Memphis buckets started coming easy, while the Blazers’ reserves struggled to find the range. The un-creative offense got a lift when Jusuf Nurkic proved he was bigger than anyone on the floor, rebounding and hitting up close. Then McCollum returned and poured another 9 points into the mix. Portland never recovered completely from the Memphis barrage but they still led 58-53 at halftime.
Big Men and No-Names
Nurkic continued to assert himself on both ends in the third. For a while it looked like he’d be the missing ingredient to put Portland over the top. But he couldn’t defend everywhere. Despite Nurk’s dominance in the middle, the Grizzlies hit even more three-pointers, which Portland could not match. After Nurkic sat, Memphis also made free inside. The Grizzlies came within 74-73 with 1:17 remaining before McCollum rode to the rescue a third time, pouring in 7 points in the final 62 seconds to push Portland back to a five-point lead, 81-76.
The fourth period started with a battle of the “Hoozat?” Club. Wade Baldwin IV scored Portland’s first eight points of the quarter, getting to the hoop like Wormtongue into Theoden’s ear. He staked the Blazers to an 89-82 lead at the 8:48 mark.
But as the period passed its midpoint, MarShon Brooks—a ten-day contract signee in his first game back from China—made Portland’s defense look silly. Brooks hit four three pointers on his way to 14 points in the frame, rocking the Blazers back on their heels. As Brooks was hitting from range, the lane opened up for the rest of the Memphis No-Name Crew, as both Portland game-long ills struck at once.
The Grizzlies took the lead for the first time all game at the 3:18 mark, courtesy of a Brooks three that put them up by one. Portland turned over the ball and Memphis converted again, giving them purchase. By the time the clock hit 1:00, they were up 5. With the Blazers facing the yawning maw of a loss, you know who it was time for...
That’s right, Zach Collins! Replacing Nurkic, Collins hit a three-pointer, then made an impressive defensive stand on the other end, leaving the Blazers down just 2, ball in hand, with 35 seconds remaining.
NOW it was time for McCollum to save the day for the fourth and final time. Except he couldn’t hit either of the shots he attempted in the final 30 seconds. Plus Evan Turner made only 1 of 2 free throws, and by the time Pat Connaughton missed a desperation three, it was already too late. Memphis won by 5, with the fitting final points going to Brooks, who saved the game for them.
On one hand, this was a disappointing loss. Even without Lillard, the Blazers should have been able to handle the second-worst team in the league. On the other hand, the loss was pretty typical. Portland looked as if they knew they could win with one good quarter, one great player, and a bunch of isolation shots in between. They almost did, if it weren’t for that meddling Brooks. Basic NBA Lesson #1: If you leave the door open for the other team, they might step through it. At no point did the Blazers have a firm grip on this game, nor were they particularly interested in finding one. They knew McCollum would save them in the end. He tried. It didn’t work.
A couple huge disparities stick out. The Blazers shot 8-30 from the arc (27%) while Memphis shot 13-25 (52%). That’s an exact inversion from their season trends. The Grizz average 35% on the year. Different Memphis personnel played a role, but so did Portland’s defense...an aspect which Lillard’s absence shouldn’t have affected that much. The Blazers were bad against perimeter screens and closed out without rhythm or pace. The Grizzlies had zero chance of keeping up with McCollum in individual scoring. Those three-pointers allowed them to stay tight even when they weren’t playing right, turning a potential blowout loss into a victory.
The Blazers also carried huge weight in the paint most of the night, especially via offensive rebounding. But first-half dominance became third-quarter spurts, which became a complete reversal of fortune in the fourth.
Between these two factors, the Blazers lost control of all the valuable real estate as the game wound down, settling for mid-range misses and free throws. At that point the odds were no longer in their favor. When Memphis followed through, it was over.
CJ McCollum busted out 42 big ones on 16-25 shooting with 5 assists. He did everything except bring home the win in crunch time. At that point Memphis probably felt comfortable letting anyone but CJ free, so it’s understandable. It’s not like the Blazers were offering a ton of ball movement and play running to generate options. Go easy on McCollum for the non-finish and concentrate on the 42 that preceded.
When Jusuf Nurkic’s defense was on point, the Blazers were a different and dominant team. He carried them through a couple quarters, tallying 3 steals, 3 blocks and 4 offensive rebounds in the process. 5-6 shooting wasn’t bad either. But when push came to shove and Portland needed to cover the whole floor, Nurkic was on the bench.
Both Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner struggled. Each shot 2-9 from the field with nary a three-pointer between them. Worse, their vaunted defense was slightly de-vaunted.
They didn’t struggle as badly as Shabazz Napier, who responded to his starting role with 2-11 shooting, 1-6 from distance. Caveat: Napier needs the ball in his hands and most of the time it was in McCollum’s.
Wade Baldwin IV had a heck of a night off the bench with 15 points on 5-6 shooting, drawing 7 foul shots, nabbing 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 21 minutes of play. His performance at the start of the fourth was knockout.
Zach Collins also showed well...one of the few Blazers who defended at full speed and energy. He hit 4-6 shots, including that late-game three, for 10 points with a block.
Pat Connaughton looked lost on both ends, shooting 1-5, 1-4 from range, with an amazing out-of-bounds save and two blocks providing his high points.
The Trail Blazers sit at 46-29, 2 games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Playoffs race.
The Blazers return home to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night at 7:30 PM, Pacific.
—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / firstname.lastname@example.org