The Portland Trail Blazers fought through a slow start, but ultimately couldn’t overcome a hungry and energized Memphis Grizzlies squad Friday, falling 130-128 in another heartbreaker at the Moda Center - their fourth loss in row.
Damian Lillard overcame a challenging first half to lead Portland with 27 points, and Jusuf Nurkic delivered one of his best games of the season with 26 points, 17 rebounds and 5 assists.
Sophomore sensation Ja Morant proved too much to handle, turning in game-highs of 33 points and 13 assists.
The Blazers were their own worst enemy for much of the opening period, coughing up the ball six times and making the Grizzlies’ overly-tenacious defense look brilliant. Many of the errors were unforced - a Lillard leap before thinking where to go with the ball here, Nurkic trying to thread an impossibly thin needle there - your daily dose of hair-pulling frustration. CJ McCollum had his shooting stroke going, but there wasn’t much more wind lifting the sails. Memphis didn’t look totally in tune themselves, but rallied enough behind the relentless energy of Morant (and maybe the polar opposite of that in Kyle Anderson) to seize an early 28-23 lead after one.
Portland’s offense started showing signs of life despite Lillard laboring through one of his rougher halves of basketball. He missed his first six shots from the field and went only 2-9 for 8 points with as many turnovers (2) as assists. Nurkic finally realized his man-amongst-boys status with Memphis playing only one true, undersized, 6’-8” rookie center in Xavier Tillman. Nurk became a rebounding machine, exiting the half with a near-double-double. He looked to be the Blazers’ best bet at pushing any sort of advantage. A couple threes from McCollum and Robert Covington briefly stole a one-point lead for Portland late in the quarter, but the a flurry from Morant and Dillon Brooks in the final minute gave the Grizzlies a 62-56 lead heading into the locker room.
As he is wont to do, Lillard didn’t let a little bit rain spoil his picnic and came back with vengeance. Dame bombed away for 15 points in the quarter - 9 coming from behind the arc - as the Blazers exploded for 43 points. Nurkic continued to box below his weight class in the post, but also flashed some of his best playmaking chops he’s shown all season, orchestrating 3 assists in a run that saw Portland pull ahead by 6 points. But it was again Morant and a suddenly on-fire Dillon Brooks who helped Memphis close the quarter strong and head into the final frame holding a 100-99 advantage.
Portland’s offense kept cranking in the second-unit portion of the fourth, but their defense remained putrid. Every turnover or missed offensive rebound seemed to lead to a Memphis run-out. Worse, Memphis was now stroking their threes (a quality lacking all game for them). Terry Stotts got the non-Nurkic starters in early, but without the big guy, the defense didn’t get much better. Portland’s only remaining edge was at the foul line, where they took, and hit, more shots than the opponent. It was a thin thread. Then again, so was the scoreboard margin.
Both teams dueled back and forth with neither able to escape from the other no matter how many shots they hit. The Grizzlies turned up the defensive effort, but Portland’s firepower was too much for them. Portland never mustered much defense, but Memphis’ offense was just a tick off. The game was knotted at 117 with 4:30 remaining.
The return of Nurkic gave Portland more defensive power and a little bit of interior scoring as well. Memphis overplaying perimeter scorers left him open to receive passes and convert layups. This allowed him the best game we’ve seen from him all season.
The game remained within a 2-3 point margin down into the latest moments. As soon as Lillard would convert a critical layup, Morant would return the favor. When McCollum and company stroked a three, Brooks would as well.
The score read 126-125, Memphis, with the game clock below 30 seconds and the ball in Damian Lillard’s hands. Memphis went with the “Anybody But Dame” defense. He kept the ball anyway, drove into the lane, and attempted a tough, turn-around spin shot. It missed everything. Nurkic got the offensive rebound but Memphis stripped him out-of-bounds with 10.7 seconds left, only 2.1 on the shot clock. The Blazers needed a miracle and a stop.
Powell got a quick pass into Nurkic right at the rim on the inbounds. He missed the shot. The Blazers fouled for possession with 3.6 remaining. De’Anthony Melton hit both free throws, leaving the score 128-125. The Grizzlies fouled Lillard on the inbounds, on the floor, not letting him attempt a three. That gave him two free throws. He made one. Jaren Jackson, Jr. converted the ensuing free throws, making CJ McCollum’s last-second layup meaningless. Portland scored a ton, but still lost by two.
Both teams will get a day off before a rematch in Portland Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. Pacific.