Staving off marquee nights from Ja Morant (42 points, 11 assists) and Desmond Bane (30 points, seven 3-pointers), the Blazers survived a thriller in every sense of the word during their 124-119 win, countering with a 32-point game from Jusuf Nurkic, a 31-point game from Anfernee Simons, a 22-point performance from Josh Hart, and double-figure scoring from both Justise Winslow and Ben McLemore.
The win — the Blazers’ fourth in as many games — adds to their impressive recent ledger of wins against top-tier teams. It moves them to 25-34 heading into the All-Star break with added cushion for that No. 10 seed out West. Here are a few quarter-for-quarter thoughts on tonight’s win.
Six minutes in, Wednesday looked like it was going to be “one of those nights” for one Anfernee Simons. In between whirling around screens to set up teammates and working the give-and-go, dribble handoff game with Jusuf Nurkic, Simons accounted for 18 of the Blazers’ first 28 points, guiding a red-hot start. Unfortunately for Portland, Ja Morant all but ensured they wouldn’t be able to enjoy it; the first-time All-Star stayed in attack mode, with 20 points in the first quarter alone. Morant resides in Memphis, but he built a second home at the free throw line, taking advantage of the Blazers’ inability to defend without fouling. He helped get them in the bonus and feasted the rest of the way.
The Blazers showcased a lot of what they’ve shown over the last week or so: tons of hustle, energy, and ball movement. Portland’s bigs were of note, with Nurkic playing an aggressive, blitzing pick-and-roll style and playing the pseudo point guard role on the other end. As evidenced by the Blazers’ 36-32 lead, neither team did much stopping, though the Blazers, save for their foul trouble, positioned themselves for success after one.
One can’t help but crack a smile seeing the “Josh Hart: 25.0 PPG” statistic on the bottom of the NBA tickers this week. Albeit the two-game sample size, Hart has carried himself like that of a star since arriving. His ability and speed as a coast-to-coast scorer or facilitator has jumped off the screen, literally. Sample size in mind, the Blazers were No. 18 in terms of pace (98.5 possessions per game), but have tied for No. 4 since his arrival. There was one notable possession where the Blazers gave up a 3-pointer to Desmond Bane. Hart took an inbounds pass the length of the court, right into the teeth of the defense, scoring just five seconds later.
Tonight, Ben McLemore was among the beneficiaries of that breakneck speed, using his quick trigger to blast the Grizzlies’ transition defense with efficient scoring. Before you knew it, the Blazers had opened up an 11-point lead with Morant on the sidelines playing spectator.
On defense, the Blazers had some relative success mixing in different pick-and-roll looks and attempts at stopping Morant. There were more switches; in transition, they sought to sag off of the Grizzlies star, but as he showcased — bad ankle and all — there’s a reason why he’s a Most Valuable Player candidate. He was on pace for 28 free throws by the half’s end. To the Blazers’ credit, they weathered every potential storm, every potential comeback, and led 68-57 after two.
The Memphis Grizzlies aren’t 41-18 by accident. You sort of knew that at some point, they would go on one of those crowd-rocking runs to break back into this game. Though, the Blazers, for a brief period proved themselves as masters of the “backbreaker shot,” the momentum-killing shots that help play keep-away. It certainly helped that a few of Morant’s rim runs came up just short of scores, and that it took 17 minutes for Jaren Jackson Jr. to enter the scoring column. In response, they shored up their defense to create transition opportunities, cutting the Blazers’ 84-74 lead to just two as the quarter wound down.
Cue another Josh Hart sentence. The Grizzlies began to look the part of that No. 7-ranked defense, forcing the Blazers to search for offense deep into the shot clock, and time-and-time again, Hart — the 25.0 points per game scorer, might we remind you — bailed them out, first with a one-legged fadeaway 3-pointer, and then a contested and-one drive. The haymakers on both sides told themselves in the box score. Portland led 84-74; that soon became 84-82. They got their eight-point lead back, only to watch Memphis cut to 94-90 just 30 seconds later. The team with the momentum? Who knows at this point.
The Blazers positioned themselves for success over three quarters, but effectively tied an anchor to themselves by committing foul-after-foul on the defensive end. The Grizzlies spent the final nine-and-a-half minutes knowing they would be shooting free throws on every foul. Greg Brown III — overambitious and a bit overanxious in stretches — was the first to foul out, but he certainly wasn’t the only one struggling to defend without fouling.
In their comeback rally down the stretch, the backcourt of Morant and Bane proved effective beyond a superlative. Bane destroyed the Blazers with catch-and-shoot 3-pointers on pindowns all night long, and mixed in aggressive transition offense as the two put in 30+ points apiece. Here’s how weird this game was: the Grizzlies took a 2-0 advantage in the first quarter and then didn’t see a lead for the next 43 minutes despite it being close. Both teams traded buckets down the stretch, with Simons and Nurkic hitting two of the biggest to push the Blazers ahead in a competitive thriller.
Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s extended analysis of tonight’s win here shortly.
The red-hot Blazers will seek to keep their sizzle as they battle the Golden State Warriors in eight days time, on Thursday, Feb. 24 at 7 pm PT.