The Portland Trail Blazers yo-yo’ed like a pack of 70’s variety show guest stars in their 111-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies tonight. Brilliant play alternated with head-scratching silliness in the back-and-forth affair. Memphis had their rough moments too, but in the end, their guard power proved just enough to eke out the victory.
If you haven’t read our quarter-by-quarter breakdown of tonight’s action, it’s right here. After you’ve got that down, here are other observations from the evening.
Jusuf Nurkic likes to play against the Memphis Grizzlies. He torched them for a season-high 32 points in 34 minutes last year. He followed up tonight by scoring Portland’s first 10 of the game, raising it to 15 by the half. As we’re about to see, the Blazers gave huge emphasis to the inside game against Memphis. Nurk was at the heart of it, screening, rolling, diving, and even hitting a couple of threes. He finished the game with 23 on 8-14 shooting, 3-3 from distance, and 13 rebounds, an incredible 6 offensive.
Nurkic also earned bonus cookies on both ends of the floor. He dished four assists while leading the team in scoring for most of the game. He stood stoutly in the paint on the defensive end, even trying to draw charges up high during the Blazers’ big fourth-quarter rally. The refs weren’t kind to him in the latter instances, but this was clearly the highest-effort, highest-result outing of Nurk’s season.
Nurkic appears to have lost a little weight or gained a little spryness since the start of the season. This version is certainly more appealing than the one we saw in Portland’s first three games.
Paint Between the Lines
The Blazers had a mission for the rim tonight. It’s not that they didn’t shoot threes; they went 13-33 from distance, a more-than-respectable 39.4%. But most of those attempts came late as Portland tried to rally. They spent most of the evening treating Memphis like a tough cut of meat: pounding and slicing with abandon. They tattooed the restricted zone with attempts and counter-attempts off of offensive boards. That they only scored 40 total in the paint shows how the Grizzlies defense adjusted. But it wasn’t for lack of trying on Portland’s part. Until they needed the desperation quick threes, it seemed like they were intent on getting 60 in there.
In what seems like a broken record at this point, the Blazers had real trouble recovering to the three-point arc on defense against any kind of Memphis action. They’re actually decent when the opponent holds the ball. But one pass across the floor or cut down the lane is enough to bend Portland’s defense away from weak-side shooters. Once abandoned, they never retake that territory. Memphis shot 13-28 from the arc, an astonishing 46.4%.
One of the ways the Blazers have made up for their three-point issues this year (both shooting and defending) has been foul shots. The refs were not favorable to them tonight. Portland did attempt 26 free throws, but that was one fewer than the Grizzlies got. With all the focus inside, the Blazers should have had a bigger edge.
Fast and Loose
Transition offense seemed to be an emphasis in this game. The Blazers were eager to push whenever they could. 2 on 2, 1 on 3...it hardly mattered. When a player had the rock on the run, he was headed to the hoop no matter what. The outlet pass was the first option off of every defensive rebound.
Even so, Portland scored only 10 on the break. They were hampered by a team that was just as fast on defense. Memphis did a more than credible job getting back, preventing the attack from turning fatal.
Maybe Too Loose
Unsurprisingly, turnovers accompanied the fast play for the Blazers. They just can’t seem to conserve their possessions. Traveling calls reared their heads, much to the chagrin of the home crowd. But honestly, most of Portland’s turnovers came off of awkward plays. Sometimes they just get bottled up and they’re not great at worming their way out. Instead plays devolve into isolation looks for players who aren’t able—or aren’t yet able, in some cases—to handle them. Portland committed 20 turnovers on the night.
Memphis looked like they had the game in hand, up 15 in the fourth. Portland put on a huge rally—spurred by the quiet-up-to-that-point Anfernee Simons—to close the game to a single possession with 23.7 seconds remaining. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies had the ball, forcing Portland to foul. Desmond Bane sank the shots, putting the win out of reach.
Portland should be credited for not giving up under dire circumstances. They kept at it, played fairly smart down the stretch, and almost took the game to a shocking ending.
Three-point shots played a huge role in the comeback. Portland hit five of them in the period, three by Simons alone. Memphis had been hawking Ant throughout the game, but he finally busted loose late. Nods of respect to him for biding his time and not over-playing to try and get his points or get his team back in it all by himself early. He finished with a game-high 31.
Speaking of hawking: Portland did fairly well with their zone defense until the Grizzlies broke it. Then it didn’t matter what scheme they threw. Memphis was waltzing to threes and dunks. Their switch back to man defense was helped mightily by Keon Johnson, who played throughout the fourth despite being nowhere near the starting lineup. Johnson’s athleticism and nose for the ball helped turn an otherwise vanilla defensive performance into something special.
That said, the Grizzlies guards were way too much for the Blazers to cope with, especially when Nurkic got whistled out of plays he tried to help on. Ja Morant scored 20, Bane 29.
Jerami Grant started shaky but looked good as the game wound on. He scored 23 with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.
After that, contributions fell short. Josh Hart didn’t look like himself. He scored 5 points on 1-4 shooting with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 turnovers. Fellow starter Shaedon Sharpe shot 1-6 in 24 minutes, finishing with 2 points. Portland’s bench couldn’t stop anyone and totaled only 22 points for the game, 10 of those coming from a surging Johnson. It was one of the more anemic showings from the supporting cast this season.
The Blazers travel to Phoenix for a rematch with the Suns this weekend, baseball-series style. Their first game in the desert comes Friday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.