Congratulations to the Portland Trail Blazers on clinching a playoff berth this year by defeating the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, the berth was already clinched with a Minnesota loss earlier in the day, but everything feels better when it’s earned rather than given. The Blazers earned the victory over Memphis even though the second unit tried multiple times to give it away. That aside, Portland was the stronger team for enough of the game to come away with the 113-98 victory. If they sought revenge after the lottery-bound Grizzlies defeated them just last week, the Blazers got it tonight.
What a Difference a Dame makes
Portland started off the game looking more like the Blazers we know and less like the ones that lost in Memphis two games ago. The biggest difference was the return of Damian Lillard, who put up 11 points and 4 assists in the first quarter. The Blazers missed the Lillard-to-Jusuf Nurkic pick and roll in the last matchup; it was the weapon of choice early tonight. Portland didn’t shoot particularly well in the first, but still managed to get good looks all quarter long and put up 32 points. The starters were rolling defensively and it looked like the game could be over quickly as the Blazers headed into the second quarter with a 32-24 advantage.
Thin Bench looking Weak
Have you heard this story before? The Blazers starters play great, they build a lead, then it dissipates when the bench enters. Well, let me tell it again. Tonight the Blazer starters all ended up with positive plus/minuses and every member of the Blazers second unit not named Meyers Leonard, ended up with negative plus/minus. Injuries to Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless required extended minutes from other players on the bench. Very few capitalized. The reserves, as a unit, failed to put points up on the board. They combined to shoot 5-11 with 11 points in 43 first half minutes. That’s just not going to get it done. Portland finished the second quarter scoring only 23 points and carried just a slight, 55-51 lead heading into the break.
Lets Do It Again
As the second half commenced, Portland’s starters put in their best effort to put the game away. Lillard and CJ McCollum both found room to operate inside the Memphis defense, wreaking havoc. They found seams to score and got to the line, drawing help then finding teammates for high percentage looks. A 4-9 quarter from deep was a more-than-welcome sight. As shots started falling, Portland’s energy picked up. Defense followed suit as the Grizzlies high turnover count turned into more Blazers points. Portland put up 43 in the quarter and built themselves a 98-75 advantage heading into the forth. The bench just needed to close it out.
Spoiler Alert: They didn't
With that kind of lead, Portland’s starters paid their dues, earning the right to take a seat, grab a water, loosen their shoes, relax, and cheer on their teammates for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the Blazers bench thought otherwise. Meyers Leonard, Zach Collins, Wade Baldwin, Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier, came out and played like complete garbage. A 23-point lead was not enough as bad shots and turnovers dominated Blazer possessions. As a 20-5 run brought the Grizz within 10, Lillard, McCollum and the rest of the starting lineup put their water bottles down, laced up their shoes, and finally put the game away.
A win is a win, but this was not a positive game for more than a few Blazers. It’s ridiculous that Portland can be plus-37 when Lillard is on the court, but he still needs to come back in at the end of the game to clinch it. Especially as the season winds down, these players need some rest and it is the job of the second unit to be able to provide that. Portland’s bench was thin tonight without Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis, but the Grizzlies are not exactly overflowing with starter level talent. If it was only a matter of making shots, that would be a different story, but the energy of the second unit was low, the shot selection was disgusting and the overall play just looked sloppy and unfocused. I normally don’t like the plus/minus stat, but in this case, the stat was very telling of the actual story.
The positives of the game were that while half the team was abysmal, the other half looked terrific. It is a blessing to have a bench play so bad, but still walk out with a win because the starters were so dominant. While Davis and Harkless are out, the Blazers might need to intertwine minutes between first and second units even deeper to keep stability.
Meyers Leonard - With Ed Davis out and Jusuf Nurkic in early foul trouble, Meyers Leonard was in the on-deck circle. Meyers came out and did exactly what Portland would hope he would do in the first half. He kept things simple, made decent reads, defended well, and finshed a few strong dunks along the way. The fourth quarter was a different story, but a good first half showing from Meyers is something.
Shabazz Napier - This was a rough game for Shabazz. With Evan Turner playing the majority of his minutes with the starters, Napier becomes the unquestioned leader of the second unit, so at least some of this dysfunction is his to clean up. His shot selection was a big problem. That could be due to bad decision making on his part but it could also be the result of a lack of movement and better options within the offense. Baz finished 1-8 with 2 turnovers in 22 minutes. Portland needs better from him.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum - These two dominated the game. 9 assists each and 3 combined turnovers was a big part of the Blazers success tonight. Dame was able to get to line while CJ finished at the rim. With the bench thin and playing bad basketball as of late, it may be tempting to stagger their minutes, but these two are so dominant when they are on the floor together, that may not be an easy trigger to pull.
Evan Turner - Evan Turner brings a lot to this team and today was a clear example of it. The bench missed his leadership, but he fit in great with the starting unit. His midrange jumper was working all night, and he continues to be one of Portland’s underappreciated defensive weapons. No rebounds and no assists may seem surprising, but the ball movement was good while he was in the game. The lack of assists had to do more with role and missed shots than anything that Turner could control.
Jusuf Nurkic and Al Farouq Aminu - Nurkic’s early foul trouble was a problem, but overall the Blazers got good games from both of these guys. The defensive impact they make cannot be stressed enough. Their offensive contributions get noted plenty, but they also controlled the glass for the Blazers tonight, reeling in 18 of Portland’s 43 total rebounds. They had impact.
The Blazers head to Dallas to face the Mavericks at 5:30, Pacific on Tuesday night.