The Portland Trail Blazers have been awash in a sea of woes over the past three weeks, clinging to the flimsy life raft of, “At least we can’t fall past 10th place in the West, so we’ll be playing for a playoffs seed no matter what.” Twin losses at home to the Memphis Grizzlies over the weekend left them singing the blues as they eyed the integrity of that raft with suspicion. A blowout win versus the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night inflated their spirits. Then darned if they didn’t hire a marching band to parade their way through the Grizzlies’ home arena on Friday...a tour de force that had to be seen to be believed.
Seemingly intent on correcting all their problems at once, the Blazers drove, screened, shot, and defended their way to a 130-109 victory which was nowhere as close as the 21-point margin would indicate. CJ McCollum led Portland with 26 points on 10-15 shooting, but he owed much of his success to Damian Lillard and Norman Powell, who drew the defense while scoring 23 and 24 respectively. Jusuf Nurkic also had a big night on both ends. It was everything the Blazers could wish in any outing, let alone a season-restoring Revenge Game.
Marlow Ferguson, Jr. gave us a quarter-by-quarter recap of the action earlier. You can check that out, then come back for these observations about how the Blazers pulled off the victory.
Lillard, McCollum, and Powell started this game in full Rihanna Mode: Shut Up and Drive. They did not attempt threes. They barely tried a jumper in the opening four minutes. Instead they went to the cup hard. Doing so, they left only three possible outcomes: a bucket, a shooting foul, or Memphis playing incredible defense.
Memphis did not play incredible defense.
The opening attack pretty much set the tone for the game. The Blazers were going to make the Grizzlies take this one instead of handing it to them. Memphis was unwilling to do it.
As Many Times As It Takes
Though the Blazers scored without assists off of those drives, the plays themselves were not unassisted. Portland committed to a simple philosophy on offense: set as many screens as necessary to get somebody free. It was like Sesame Street out there. “One! Mwah hah hah hah hah! One high screen! Two! Mwah ha ha ha ha! Two high screens!” If a defender broke through the first attempt, the big simply set a pick on the other side of that defender’s body, immediately and with devastating effect. Single, double, even triple screens on each play wore down whatever resolve the Grizz displayed. When a Portland guard wasn’t free in the lane off of a pick, a rolling big was. If neither of those things happened, it was because the Grizzlies sent both defenders down into the paint. You know what happens then. SPLASH! Wide-open jumper.
Nurkic was the screen master, but Enes Kanter also played along during reserve minutes. We have not seen this kind of dedication, persistence, and just plain synergy between the backcourt and the bigs at any point this season. It was a damn good look.
Eventually the Grizzlies caught on and decided to send off-ball help to shut down Portland’s lane attack off of screen plays. Unfortunately for them, that third man had to come from somewhere. Since the primary defenders came from the top of the arc. that “somewhere” was usually the side. This is where sporting a third guard in the lineup helped Portland.
As soon as the Grizz vacated the corner, the spare guard headed to the three-point line. One pass later—and Portland made plenty of them—and a triple hit home. If Memphis dove to the sideline with the desperation close-out, a simple pass found another shooter open at the 45-degree angle, still beyond the arc. Either way, the result was the same: three points.
How Many Can You Score?
The cumulative result of all this offense was 74 points for Portland at the half and, for the second straight game, over 100 after three. Not only did all three of the starting guards top 20 points, Powell had 4 assists, Lillard 5. and McCollum 6. That’s how freely the ball was moving.
None of this would have mattered if the Blazers couldn’t inhibit the Grizzlies on the other end. Sure, Portland scored 100 after three quarters, but they’ve been known to give up that many too. Not tonight, though. Nurkic stepped up HUGE in the paint, contesting nearly every Memphis drive and rebounding with aplomb. With the middle covered. the Blazers could then extend their defense towards the perimeter. Memphis ended up shooting 9-32, 28.1%, from the arc. They scored only 42 points in the paint, and most of those came off of fast breaks, not halfcourt play.
Transition Woes Continue
Speaking of...transition was the one place where the Blazers still didn’t contain well. Memphis ended up with 33 fast break points. They are tailor-made to expose Portland’s lack of team-wide speed. (Although it should be noted that Portland kept their quicker players in when Memphis subbed in their slower bench unit. Portland’s fast players played bigger than Memphis’ bigs.) Still, this remains a concern. The best way to address it may be the way the Blazers did tonight. Score on every possession and make the opponent take the ball out of the net instead of running it back.
Nurk Watch Continues
For those counting. this marks a solid week, pretty much five games, of good play from Nurkic. Last week’s outing against the Nuggets a was better individual effort, but this was as integral as Nurkic has been in a team setting all season. He was big in a lot of ways that you wouldn’t notice, except through the final result. From setting devastating screens to timing the rolls...he hit opportunistic shots, shaded the right direction, contested interior attempts, and grabbed boards, Nurk was there in every way the Blazers needed him. This is a huge development, almost the only thing that has a chance of making Portland relevant as the playoffs approach.
Powell’s Booking It
After a two-week slump, Norman Powell was back tonight. The initial game plan benefited him. Driving to the hoop is a great way to start Powell’s offense rolling. He scored 24 while attempting only 6 threes and making only 2. As mentioned above, his passing game was also pure. Nurkic playing well is a bigger deal overall, but Powell shining isn’t that far behind.
Covington Hates Memphis
There must be some kind of pollen coming off of those teal Grizzlies jerseys, getting into Robert Covington’s eyes. He just posted his third straight miserable offensive night against Memphis, scoring 0 points on 0-6 shooting, 0-4 from the arc, 0-0 from the foul line. Oregon, Ogden, and Oakland are all suing for copyright infringement.
Fortunately, Covington can defend. As we often say, defense doesn’t raise your ceiling as much as it secures the floor beneath you. Even in an 0-fer outing, RoCo morphed into WinCo, helping Portland keep down the Grizz on the scoreboard until it was too late.
Ruh roh, Raggy. The Blowout Express threatens to derail on Friday night as the Blazers face the Brooklyn Nets at 5:00, Pacific. Let’s see if they can keep the Perfect Road Trip alive.