The roller-coaster Portland Trail Blazers welcomed Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies to the Moda Center on Wednesday night, trying to even up their season record at 2-2 after alternating frustration-filled losses with a brilliant win in their first three games. The coaster went up and down in the first two quarters, but Portland rocketed to the moon in the third behind a huge offensive push from Damian Lillard. Once they gained momentum, they never looked back, cruising to a 116-96 win.
Lillard had 20 points and 10 assists in his best game of the season so far. He shot just 6-22 from the field but hit a quartet of three-pointers to boost his production. CJ McCollum added 25, shooting 4-9 from distance himself. As in their blowout win against the Phoenix Suns last Saturday, the Blazers took, and made, plenty of threes. They lofted 36 shots beyond the arc tonight, hitting 15, a 41.7% success rate. Just as significantly, they forced Memphis into 21 turnovers, committing only 13 themselves.
Call it a foreshadowing if you wish: a mere minutes before tipoff, ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco made mention of Damian Lillard’s uncharacteristically slow start, before quickly acknowledging that despite that, “Dame Time” was only a quick 35-foot shot away. Lillard was aware of such, kickstarting the game with an extra pep and aggression. That much was noticeable, as was how high the Blazers were using the screen actions, both on-ball and off-ball to get shooters space. Both teams entered Wednesday as top-six in points per possession on pick-and-rolls, and it helped tell the story of the first quarter.
Defensively, the Blazers’ effort was, in some ways, statistically inspiring. They held the Grizzlies to just 10-of-29 from the field. Though, it’s arguable Memphis provided them the “get out of jail” card with countless missed 3-pointers in those deep corners, save for Desmond Bane. So, why did Portland still trail 27-24? Because Memphis had more offensive rebounds (9) than they did defensive ones (8) by quarter’s end.
Portland opened the second frame with a three-guard lineup of CJ McCollum, Dennis Smith Jr., and Anfernee Simons (with Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller), and if we weren’t tech savvy, you might’ve thought you were watching a game at an accelerated speed. That’s saying something, particularly for a Blazers team that entered tonight No. 1 in pace. To offset Lillard’s historically slow shooting, Simons continued to score efficiently, working off dribble handoffs, staggers, however you’d prefer it. There were questions about if he had the requisite handle to create without the star guards, and he’s answered it resoundingly.
Speaking of Lillard: the Blazers were still awaiting the return of his shooting, the trait that made him an NBA 75th Anniversary nominee. In the meantime, they relied on the next best thing: the fear defenses have of it coming back. Whether Lillard shoots 2-of-24 — as he was to start the season from deep — or 24-of-24, he’s still taking two defenders with him on nearly every ball screen, which made the two-man game with Jusuf Nurkic a power play. On defense, Portland matched a zone defense with physicality to stay within reach. After a bit of back-and-forth, they trailed 57-51 to close the half.
Folk tales claim the best way to foil Grizzlies is to lay down and play dead. The Blazers came out in the third quarter with the opposite tactic, spanking them repeatedly instead. Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum scored at the rim three times, evening the scoreboard almost instantly. Memphis didn’t know what hit them.
Unfortunately, the Blazers couldn’t sustain. Running faster and playing harder quickly turned into putting up...well, a bunch of shots. Most of them outside of zero feet missed. But Portland had the answer for it: another big dose of Deep Dame. A trio of three-pointers made up for the general lack of offensive execution. When Memphis spread out to the perimeter to cover, Nurkic and McCollum dove inside again.
On the other end, the Blazers weren’t exactly special, but they did get back in transition “D”. That was enough to keep the Grizzlies from easy scores. As a result, the Dame Explosion was enough to stake the Blazers to an 87-77 lead after three. Portland scored 36 in the period, the Grizzlies only 20.
If Memphis wanted to make a comeback, they had a funny way of showing it, letting Portland get away with a layup and a corner three in the first two minutes of the fourth. With the lead at 16, every bucket became important to the Grizzlies. You wouldn’t know it by the number of turnovers and run-outs they allowed. When they weren’t doing that, they allowed Portland to pass fairly easily to McCollum, who followed Lillard’s example, hitting an onslaught of three-pointers. The Blazers topped 100 before the Grizz hit 80. Their 14-1 run sealed the game, another quality victory over a decent team.
When the final horn had sounded, Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons had scored a combined 34 points—17 apiece—on just 18 total shots. That kind of efficiency makes them hard to beat.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon!
The Blazers will try to avenge Monday’s 30-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, this time on their home court at 7:00 pm PT.