The Portland Trail Blazers went to war against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, but the basketball gods were not in their favor. Memphis’ inside-out attack flummoxed the Blazers’ defense, resulting in a nail biting 111 to 106 victory for the road team despite a late surge from the heroes in red.
Desmond Bane and Ja Morant led the charge for the Grizzlies, combining for 49 points and 17 rebounds. While the reigning NBA Most Improved Player dominated on and off the stat sheet, Memphis emphasized a well-balanced attack. Six Grizzlies players scored in double figures.
Fresh off of a victory against an inexperienced Houston Rockets team, the shorthanded Blazers felt the absence of Damian Lillard. They were always one good decision, one turnover less, and one additional run away from taking over the game, to no avail. Their one bright spot was Jusuf Nurkic, who had a career game from beyond the arc. His 23 points kept Rip City in the game for three quarters, before Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant combined for 25 of Portland’s 34 fourth quarter points, but it wasn’t enough to stop a Grizzlies team intent on victory.
Ja Morant wasted no time putting his fingerprints all over the first quarter. He connected on two consecutive left handed layups at the rim, penetrating through an early 2-3 zone shown from the Blazers. On the other end, Portland settled for, and missed two midrange jump shots from 20 feet, the former of which was a contested shot from Jerami Grant. When head coach Chauncey Billups recognized Morant’s activity, he trapped the superstar point guard at the top of the key, leading to Morant splitting the defense with a bounce pass to Adams that drew the foul. A midrange shot that tickled the twine prompted the first timeout of the game, with good reason.
Once play resumed, Jusuf Nurkic scored eight consecutive points. It started with great ball movement that saw four Blazers touch the ball before the Bosnian big man got a wide open 3 at the top of the key. He scored on two near identical rim runs off bounce passes, the latter resulting in an and one.
On the other end, Billups put Grant on Morant, and continued committing two defenders at the top. It resulted in no points from the Murray State product for the rest of the quarter. Shaedon Sharpe displayed great athleticism and Kyrie Irving-esque finishing a the rim with a layup off of the top of the glass over Steven Adams.
Head coach Taylor Jenkins responded to the Blazers’ sophisticated defensive schemes by face guarding Anfernee Simons 94 feet inside the five minute mark. Dillon Brooks was the man for the job. After forcing a Simons miss from range, he came down on the other end and was rewarded for his effort with a 3 of his own. This set off a barrage from distance, where Memphis cracked Rip City’s defense — both man and zone — by penetrating into the middle of the half court and kicking out to shooters, where they made three consecutive long bombs. Portland ended the quarter by scoring 12 of their 23 points in the paint, but trailed 30-23.
Portland stuck with the zone, starting the new quarter in a 2-1-2 formation. Memphis in turn, swung the ball from side to side, making Nurkic — the middle man — scramble. The seven footer playing monkey in the middle opened up a 15-footer for Brandon Clarke. The Blazers had two and ones within three minutes. This included one in fast break off of a beautiful one-handed outlet from Big Nurk which found Grant for a step through layup through contact. However, Memphis just seemed to continue having their way both inside and out, in lieu of tenacious defense and different looks from Rip City.
Grant had a stretch where he had two consecutive point blank buckets at the rim, getting big on the weaker defender. Grant was the most aggressive player in the game not named Ja Morant for the first 18 minutes of the contest. His aggression may have been a tad zealous, as he got called for two travels in the quarter. That’s unacceptable.
Once Morant returned to game action, the Blazers continued stifling his every move. It seemed, every time he touched the rock, he was positioned on one wing, and would swing pass cross court to the opposite corner, trying to find shooters. This exact sequence happened several times throughout the period. Memphis made some, and missed some in this mode of operation.
Blazers fans started booing once a third walk of the quarter was called on Anfernee Simons. Coach Billups looked incensed inside, even through his attempts to remain stoic in countenance. Simons made up for it by appeasing his coach and the fans with a 3 in the left corner off of an offensive rebound from Justise Winslow. Second Spectrum calculated his 24-foot 3 from that area of the floor to be 41% effective. He released it as if it were 100% — pure water and straight confidence. He had the final seven points of the half for the team in red.
While the Blazers remained resilient through sound Memphis play, they couldn’t eat into the lead. Portland trailed 52-45 at the half. They lost the efficiency battle mightily, as Memphis shot a respectable 46.5 percent from the floor, while Portland shot a dismal 37 percent.
Jusuf Nurkic. That name’s been said a lot. Yet if his game could talk, it would’ve said, not enough. He opened up the third quarter with his second 3 of the game off of more great ball movement. This marked his fourth career game with multiple 3’s made. Portland dialed in their first three field goals and cut the lead the two. But, the lead ballooned back up to seven in 45 seconds with a Santi Aldama long ball and a Steven Adams dunk off of the Morant alley-oop.
When Portland ran Memphis off the 3 point line, they connected with cutters and rim runners inside for easy two’s. When Portland tried to contain the points in the paint, Memphis had an answer by proficiently hitting the distance shot. They were shooting 43.8 percent by the time of the first timeout of the quarter.
Ja Morant was sensational with his decision making throughout the frame. His ability to find open men in opportune positions was a major factor in the Grizzlies maintaining their lead. While Morant remained efficient and tactical, knowing when to attack and when to distribute, Portland was missing on most of their 3 point attempts, until Keon Johnson made two of his own at the tail end of the period. And that was the story for the third, by and large.
Desmond Bane worsened the bleeding with a 3 in the short corner off of a drive and kick from the high IQ point guard Tyus Jones. The very next play, Bane felt like getting in on sharing the love, driving and kicking to John Konchar for a 3 in the same exact spot. Memphis’ bench was jumping up for joy, and who could blame them? They were able to extend the lead to double digits off of a 9-0 run, and planted their flag in the proverbial soil.
An unreal lob from Konchar to Aldama was the high note on a song that sung domination up until that point. The lob, the three, the drive and kick. These were the three weapons in the arsenal of the Taylor Jenkins-led ball club that did the majority of the damage.
The Blazers found repeated success in scoring in the paint early and midway through the fourth, though, notably with a crowd pleasing lob jam from Johnson, showing off his bunnies.
Portland leaned on a full court press about halfway through the quarter, to try and do what Memphis was successful in exploiting all night — and that’s stopping the half-court offense from getting comfortable. They found success, which probably vexed coach Billups in not having gone to earlier. Soon, a 12 point lead became seven, and the Moda Center was in unison chanting “defense!” A bad blocking foul call which should’ve been a charge didn’t suck momentum out of the arena.
Portland went on a 19-2 run in 5 minutes of play tied the game, off of three 3s, one from Grant, and two from Simons. That brought flashbacks to Simons’ unreal game against the Denver Nuggets last week.
Fouls ultimately killed Portland, allowing Memphis to regain a seven point lead. But just when you thought it was over, Jerami Grant hit a four-point play with around 24 seconds left on the game clock. That brought Portland back within three. Time wasn’t on the side of Rip City, though. Forced to foul, Portland watched Bane put the final nail in the coffin that the vampire blazers fought tooth and nail to escape out of.
Keep your eyes peeled for an extended recap coming soon from Dave Deckard.
The Blazers will be hosted by the Phoenix Suns in their next matchup on Friday night. The game is slated to tip-off at 7:00 PM, Pacific.