The Trail Blazers survived a second half push from Ja Morant and the Grizzlies to emerge with a 126-122 victory on Saturday. Led by 60 combined points from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers completed their postseason push and eliminated the Grizzlies from the bubble. Outside of Portland’s star-studded backcourt, Jusuf Nurkic produced an eye-popping 22-point, 21-rebound double-double. It was a back-and-forth contest that supplied a perfect ending to the Blazers’ exciting run through the seeding process.
Before the Lakers arrive, here is a look at how the Blazers punched their ticket to the postseason.
The Blazers opened play ice cold from the field. Nearly five minutes clicked by before Damian Lillard netted Portland’s first three-point conversion. Luckily for the Blazers, they were not in a deep hole when their first field goal finally dropped. Focused on winning one-on-one matchups inside the arc, Portland’s scorers found themselves at the free throw line early and often. Defensively, Nurkic and Zach Collins baited Ja Morant into shooting three-pointers off switches.
Once the Blazers started rolling from the field, they reeled off a 16-2 run before the Grizzlies got back on track with just under two minutes remaining. Portland converted 13 of its 14 free throw attempts, a figure that laid the groundwork for a 31-19 lead through the first frame.
Old School Post Play
The Blazers’ lead evaporated quickly in the first two minutes of the second quarter. Kyle Anderson, a smooth-operating forward, took the reins of the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll attack. Feasting on both Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside, Anderson combined with Jonas Valanciunas to dismantle Portland with tight passing and post finishes. Facing foul trouble, Whiteside exited the game to make way for Nurkic’s return.
Nurkic’s presence, combined with willing passing from the Blazers’ backcourt, halted the Grizzlies’ momentum. The big fella stretched the floor with his shooting and hustled for loose balls on both ends of the floor. In a quarter that felt like it was in a different era, Valanciunas notched 14 points and Nurkic produced 11 of his own. In a much tighter run of 12 minutes, the Blazers emerged with a 58-52 lead.
The Grizzlies notched just four three-pointers in the first half. In the third, talented rookie forward Brandon Clarke would connect on four of his own. The Blazers’ drop-heavy defensive scheme was finally exposed after 24 minutes of relatively successful play. Instead of barreling into the paint, Memphis switched to a perimeter-oriented attack. Outside of Clarke’s shooting, the Grizzlies outworked the Blazers in transition. In rhythm, Morant exploded for 10 points in the third quarter.
In an all-too-familiar pattern, the Blazers’ surrendered their lead in the third quarter. The Grizzlies claimed a 94-89 advantage prior to the fourth quarter.
Better Late Than Never
Morant and the Grizzlies picked up right where they left off in the third quarter. Instead of focusing on finding shooters outside of the arc, Morant utilized high-flying and decisive moves off screens. If Gary Trent Jr. got hung up on a Valanciunas screen, Nurkic was left as the last line of defense. With the pressure on, Nurkic encountered his first brush with foul trouble. After avoiding the whistle for the majority of the game, Nurkic was leveled with three fouls in in the first four minutes of the final frame.
Facing foul trouble and an explosive attack from the Grizzlies, the Blazers turned to a familiar duo. It wasn’t always pretty, but Lillard and McCollum battled through their respective matchups to earn open looks and trips to the free throw line. Memphis would not go quietly, though. Trailing with just over three minutes remaining, McCollum stepped up to provide eight game-swinging points. The former Lehigh star notched two three-pointers and absolutely broke down Morant off the dribble for one of his textbook midrange conversions. Melo, who was 0-for-5 from deep prior to the final minute, connected on a dagger three-pointer with 21 second remaining—pushing the game just out of reach for Memphis.
Putting away a plucky NBA team in an elimination setting is never easy. Thanks to clutch play from the guards in the final moments and a heroic performance from Nurkic, the Blazers escaped with a 126-122 victory.
Broad Shoulders on the Big Fella
Nurkic’s performance in the first half was some of his finest work in a Blazers uniform. He contained Morant effectively on switches and managed to contain defensive rebounds while doing it. The latter is no small task, especially when you factor in that Valanciunas was close behind on most of those plays that featured Morant crashing to the rim. Offensively, Nurkic was comfortable taking advantage of the space Memphis afforded him outside of the post. Nurkic connected on two of his three attempts from beyond the arc and continued to look comfortable operating from the high post—he even produced positive result working alongside Wenyen Gabriel in the high-low game.
In the second half, Nurkic was clearly gassed. But the big fella stuck with it. By avoiding foul trouble early, Nurkic allowed himself to stay on the court when his lateral movements lost speed. With Zach Collins sidelined (ankle) and Whiteside virtually unplayable when facing high screens from the Grizzlies, Nurkic’s presence gave the Blazers just enough of an edge down the stretch.
Nurkic finished with 22 points, 21 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
Gary in the Clutch
From a pure output standpoint, this was far from Gary Trent Jr’s best game in the bubble. That said, it might have been his gutsiest outing. He didn’t convert a three-pointer until just over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and he saved his best defense on Morant for the final set of possessions. Producing positive outcomes after coming in cold is a veteran trait that often evades first and second year players. Trent has proven he is up to the task in big moments, regardless of his play outside of crunch time.
Use the Whistle
The Blazers’ march through the seeding process was nothing short of an entertaining grind. Six of Portland’s nine games in the bubble were decided by five points or less. On Saturday, the Blazers used their veteran craftiness to control the pace and add to their point total by earning trips to the free throw line. Fully intentional or not, Portland’s work at the charity stripe was crucial to slowing down a Memphis team that was focused on pushing the tempo. Led by Lillard’s perfect 14-of-14 shooting performance from the line, the Blazers converted 35 of their 41 free throw attempts as a team.
The Blazers will face the Lakers in the opening round of the Western Conference Playoffs on Tuesday.