The Portland Trail Blazers entered the NBA season restart needing to stay within four games of the 8th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in order to earn the right to play for a spot in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Deepening the drama, Memphis was Portland’s scheduled opponent for Game 1. A win would turn the eight-game season conclusion into a dogfight. A loss would make the outlook bleak.
Portland stepped up to the occasion, riding a team effort to a 140-135 overtime victory. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points, but incredible efforts from Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Trent Jr., and Carmelo Anthony—plus a fine defensive scheme against Memphis rookie Ja Morant—proved just as critical to the complex, yet ultimately satisfying, story.
Jusuf Nurkic joined Zach Collins in the starting lineup, leaving season-long starter Hassan Whiteside relegated to the bench. As expected, interior defense was tight behind the seven-footers. Memphis countered by going to center Jonas Valanciunas early and often. He started inside, but soon headed to the perimeter...bringing along most of his teammates.
As has been true throughout the restart, Portland had trouble covering the arc. Memphis does not normally rely on the long ball, but it provided them a steady diet of points in the first period. Jaren Jackson Jr. would hit 3 of 4 in the period, the Grizzlies 4 of 8.
The Blazers looked rusty on offense to start. CJ McCollum was the only starter playing anything close to loose. But Portland kept at it, screening on most plays and sharing the ball. Basic, smart offense helped them shake off their individual rust. Carmelo Anthony hit mid-range jumpers; McCollum and Damian Lillard snaked inside when their jumpers weren’t falling.
The Blazers were aided by plenty of whistles. Drawing fouls is usually a weakness for them, but they took ten free throws in the first. Sadly, the refs taketh away as much as they giveth. Hassan Whiteside drew two fouls in four minutes after subbing in for Collins at the 7:11 mark. He’d pick up a third before the period ended. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies shot 15 foul attempts in the first, outdoing Portland by half.
The surprise of the quarter came when Mario Hezonja checked in. He promptly hit a three and a contested layup while nabbing a steal. He and Gary Trent Jr. pushed the bench to 14 points in the period. Behind that moxie, Portland led 35-30 after one.
The second period took a pivotal turn when the three-pointer deserted Memphis, forcing them to play into the teeth of Portland’s defense. The Blazers sent help whenever Ja Morant touched the ball, but seemed content to guard the other Grizzlies straight up. Memphis connected against one-on-one defense, but their shots came slower and harder. The Blazers generated plenty of steals in traffic. That got them out into a faster, more open offense.
CJ McCollum benefited from the flow; he’d register 19 before the half was done. With Trent and the bench remaining strong. offense was not an issue.
Fouls once again haunted Portland, particularly the bigs. Collins and Whiteside had 3 fouls each—Nurkic 2—by the 8:30 mark. Throughout the quarter, the whistles kept going...and going...and going.
Despite that, Nurkic blocks, wing steals, plenty of points (including some from the heretofore quiet Lillard as the half ended) pushed Portland to a 68-60 lead at intermission.
The Blazers went to a 1-2 punch to begin the third. Nurkic got rewarded for all his good defensive work with a few set plays on offense. Lillard’s three-pointers remained off target but his driving was superb.
The otherwise-solid plan foundered on Referee Rock once again. With every big for the Blazers in serious foul trouble—including Carmelo Anthony, by this point—Portland had to back off on interior defense. Memphis drivers who had been met by swarming defenders and blocked shots in the first half now found open seams. Their inside shots started falling, followed by hits from the perimeter once again.
Portland’s built a double-digit lead behind Nurk and Dame, but it shrank to just two points with 6:52 left in the third, then foundered entirely under a Morant layup with 5:40 remaining.
As the Blazers came under pressure, their offense became more predictable. They attempted fewer passes; nobody but the dribbler moved. McCollum and Lillard still got their shots, but quality diminished. As the Blazers charged into congested lanes, the turnover battle—their ally in the first half—went solidly to Memphis.
As often happens, Portland’s defensive effort sank right along with the offense. Their energy seemed to filter away. Instead of attempting covered, mid-range shots, the Grizzlies started running and dunking. Playing back on their heels didn’t help the Blazers cover the arc any better either.
Portland did rally as the period ended. Collins provided signs of life with inspired defense. He also hit a three late. Lillard added a three of his own, plus a trio of free throws on another attempt. Despite the dismal performance from Portland, Memphis led just 96-93 headed into the fourth.
The Grizzlies came back with Valanciunas to start the fourth. He had scored 14 points in 14 minutes at that point, looking all but unstoppable. Before 120 more seconds had ticked off the clock, he picked up his fifth foul on a ticky-tack play. (The Blazers weren’t the only targets of the officiating.) That hobbled Memphis’ chances.
With the opposing big man gone, the Blazers took the opportunity to work through Nurkic instead of just letting Dame and CJ go right at it. The extra wrinkle helped the offense, but Portland was still too much into standstill mode. They trailed by 5, 108-103, with 6:33 remaining.
At that point, whichever team found a push would win the game. The question was, whether Portland could muster one, and, if so, where would it come from?
The answer turned out to be Nurkic. He hit a huge turn-around, then spun for a dunk a minute and a half later. Memphis started missing mid-range shots, which the Blazers vacuumed up off the glass. Portland’s bigs drove the show until Nurkic fouled out with 2:01 remaining.
Instead of coming back with Whiteside, Terry Stotts went with Trent and a three-guard offense. Anthony and Collins manned the frontcourt. With the small lineup in play, the final two minutes of regulation became a scoring fest. ‘Melo hit a three and McCollum a pull up. But the revamped lineup couldn’t contain Memphis in the paint any better than their predecessors had. The lead yo-yo’ed repeatedly between the teams.
McCollum hit Anthony for ANOTHER three with 37.5 seconds remaining. By that point, ‘Melo was in full superstar mode, strutting and cutting like Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. The triple game Portland a 124-122 lead, Memphis ball.
The Blazers shut down Morant on the ensuing drive, but Brandon Clarke picked up the bobbled ball and converted for a 124-124 tie. Anthony couldn’t hit the last-second shot, nor could Morant after the rebound. The game went to overtime.
The Blazers stormed out hard in the extra period. Lillard hit a three, then dished to Trent for another. Memphis tried to go inside against Portland’s smaller lineup but couldn’t quite connect, with balls rolling in and out. When Lillard converted a layup on the next play, Portland held an eight-point lead. McCollum hit another triple on the next possession, pushing the lead to 11. More free throws—including a tough technical foul on Trent after an enormous blocked shot on Morant—and a three off of a careless turnover brought Memphis close again, but Portland’s early scoring spree held. The Blazers emerged with the 140-135 victory.
Damian Lillard’s form was off for most of the game. He only rounded into rhythm late. Because he’s Dame, the timing was perfect. He ended up scoring 29 on 10-22 shooting, 7-9 from the foul line, but only 2-9 from distance. It’s worth noting that though Lillard could, and did, take over the action during isolated stretches, his teammates held him up and drove through to the win.
CJ McCollum showed almost no rust at all, looking for all the world like this was the 67th game of a perfectly normal season. His offense kept the Blazers in the game during the first half and he remained a reliable outlet throughout. He tied Jackson, Jr. for the Grizzlies with a game-high 33 points.
Jusuf Nurkic did EVERYTHING for Portland: scoring, rebounding, defending, passing, and providing passion. He had 18 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 6 blocked shots while hitting 8-8 from the foul line in 33 minutes. His screens were frequent and superb, reminding the Blazers what they had been missing with him on the sideline. Like McCollum, Nurkic appeared to be in mid-season form...remarkable, as this was his first game back since March of 2019. Without Nurk, the Blazers aren’t even close in this one.
Zach Collins went “Baby Nurk” with 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. He played better defense than any big man on the court. He’s now rounded into a complete and normal-looking NBA player, give or take needing a bit more offense and a few less fouls. He wasn’t just a part of the team today, he was a key part.
Hassan Whitside, was the opposite of all that. His timing was suspect, his contributions intermittent except for a whole lot of fouling (which the Blazers definitely did not need). He did register 2 blocks and 7 points in 18 minutes, but he was little help on defense and just...ugh.
Gary Trent, Jr. came up HUGE in this game. He shot 4-5 from the arc, scored 17 points off the bench, and played monstrous defense, especially on Ja Morant. Portland keyed hard on the rookie with multiple players, but Trent was the spearhead, slowing down Morant and allowing the bigs time to get in helping position. Trent ERASED a Morant layup attempt with 18.2 seconds left in the game, showing one-on-one defense that’d make any specialist proud. (Morant shot 7-22 for the game.)
Mario Hezonja had a fantastic first-half stint himself, completing the bench circle. He scored 8 points with 4 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists in 23 minutes.
Carmelo Anthony bided his time, hitting the occasional angle jumper and keeping momentum alive, until Nurkic fouled out in the fourth and the team needed him to step up. Sinking two three-pointers in the period preserved the game. It was so fun to see ‘Melo confident and deadly in a supporting, off-ball role instead of praying for possessions where the play centered on him. He was no less effective, finishing the game shooting 7-10 from the field for 21 points.
Portland had a hard time guarding the three-point arc early. Statistically the trend corrected as the game progressed; Memphis ended up 13-41, 32% from the arc. That’s a little bit illusion, though. The Grizz took ill-advised deep shots and they’re not that proficient in the first place. This will definitely be an area to watch going forward.
The Blazers attempted 34 free throws in the game, the Grizzlies 50. This has become a hallmark of Orlando play. One assumes the refs will normalize as everyone gets back into rhythm, but 84 free throws in a single contest is...a lot. Several calls came on marginal contact, working for and against each team at different junctures.
Watching the two teams side by side, it was apparent that the Blazers spent their hiatus productively. Almost to a man, Portland’s players looked thinner, stronger, and more durable than the March version of themselves. They appeared to have a physical advantage on most of the Grizzlies as well.
This game was huge for the playoffs race. Losing it would have been disastrous. With 7 games remaining, Portland now sits 2.5 behind Memphis. They need to finish within 4—and no worse than the Sacramento Kings or New Orleans Pelicans—to force a play-in for the 8th seed.
Portland now sits a game ahead of the Pelicans, tied in the loss column. They’re a half-game ahead of the Kings, but own one more loss than Sacramento. Today’s win helped ensure that the race to stay ahead of the teams behind them will be critical. Maybe they don’t have to scramble so hard to stay in contact with Memphis.
The Blazers will face the Boston Celtics on Sunday at 12:30 PM, Pacific.