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Grizzlies Take Down Blazers to Gain Edge in Playoffs Race

Memphis and Portland are both gunning for the same seeds, but only one team showed firepower tonight.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In a battle between two fringe playoff teams in the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies emerged victorious against the Portland Trail Blazers by a score of 111-104. The Blazers fall to four games back on the Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the West.

Damian Lillard, who scored 20 points and added 10 assists, left the game with a right groin strain with 3:22 left in the fourth quarter. He will have an MRI, according to Coach Terry Stotts. Anfernee Simons stepped up throughout the game, especially once Lillard exited, to try and keep Portland close. He tallied a season-high 22 points on 7/12 shooting and six three-pointers.

Anfernee Simons Breaks Cold Spell

As his sophomore teammate Gary Trent Jr. shined during the Blazers recent run of wins, Simons struggled on both ends of the floor. In 15 games before tonight, he converted 38.6% of his field goals and 26.3% of his triples for seven points in 21.4 minutes per contest. Tonight, he broke that cold spell in dramatic fashion by making six three-pointers and scoring 22 off the bench.

His first three came on a drive and kick by Lillard to end the first quarter. Because of his shooting drought, Simons hasn’t fire up outside shots as confidently. But after sinking that first jumper to trim Memphis’ lead to four, any and all hesitation disappeared.

He came out and hit a pull-up triple to start the second quarter around a high screen, then added another one late in the second quarter to once again decrease the Grizzlies lead to four by halftime.

A late surge from Simons gave the Blazers some life in the fourth quarter before Lillard’s injury stripped that hope. Nonetheless, the team benefited significantly from his offensive production off the bench; hopefully he can carry the momentum through the All-Star break.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony put together his worst performance as a Portland Trail Blazer — he made just one of 15 shot attempts. Many of those misses came in the midrange and with a hand in his face. The Grizzlies sport several athletic, defensive-minded forwards like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson, both of whom Anthony tried to score on in the post too frequently.

When Portland’s offense moved the ball around and capitalized on the defense swarming Lillard in the paint, Anthony failed to connect on the open three-point attempts. As part of his 1/15 shooting, he missed all four heaves from deep. And he missed them badly, sometimes not even grazing the rim.

On the defensive end, Memphis attacked Anthony in the pick and roll like it was the playoffs. For a stretch at the start of the fourth quarter, a Grizzlies ball handler found Brandon Clarke on several consecutive possessions on the roll for an uncontested dunk. Clarke finished the game with a career-high 27 points on 12/14 shooting — none of the shots came from outside the paint.

Interior Defense

Clarke wasn’t the only Memphis player having his way in the paint. The Grizzlies as a team recorded 76 points in the paint. Jonas Valanciunas outworked Hassan Whiteside time and again on the offensive glass for easy second chance points, and nearly every pick and roll resulted in an open shot at rim for either the dribbler or the screener.

Whiteside, the team’s last line of defense, was constantly caught out of position on the pick and rolls, leading to no resistance at the hoop. He sagged back because Ja Morant and De’Anthony Melton aren’t knock down three-point shooters but still came out too far and got burnt off the dribble or sacrificed a slip pass to an easy dunk. Uncharacteristically, Whiteside recorded zero blocks on the night.

Backdoor Cuts

An newly-added dimension to Whiteside’s game, as well as Caleb Swanigan’s since he last played in Portland, is finding backdoor cuts. Blazers fans enjoyed Jusuf Nurkic’s development in threading the needle to Lillard or CJ McCollum on the baseline last year, and Whiteside and Swanigan are starting to add that same fold to their game.

Defenders don’t want to give up a handoff to either Lillard or McCollum on the perimeter because both can rise up quickly to hit a triple. They therefore stand between the guard and the half court line (where the big man is waiting to set a screen), which frees a lane to the hoop and a small zone to slot a bounce pass — or over the top pass — in. When Portland struggled from deep tonight, the offense used these backdoor cuts to revitalize the offense.

These passes are susceptible to turnovers, especially for inexperienced playmakers like Whiteside and Swanigan, who may force the issue occasionally. Against fast-paced teams like the Grizzlies, turnovers with Blazers players stacked on the baseline and only a big to retreat in transition is a recipe for sacrificing fast break buckets. Memphis outscored Portland 21-16 in transition tonight.

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The Blazers have nine days from the All-Star break to recollect themselves and bounce back from tough back-to-back losses. The break also provides Lillard extra time to recover from his groin strain.