The Portland Trail Blazers will be sporting a shiny two-game win streak after a 2-1 road trip to face the winless Memphis Grizzlies at the Moda Center... and they play again - same team, same location - just two days later. For a normal Blazers fan, this would be great! Lunchmeat, as the kids say. For the chronically pessimistic among us, this has “trap game” written all over it, as much as a team like Portland - projected to be near the bottom of the league - can be trapped by a team that had a non-laughable preseason argument as a Conference Finals contender.
This also has the distinction of being the first game of the Portland Trail Blazers’ Group Play in the NBA In-Season Tournament.
But woe is Memphis! They lost Ja Morant for 25 games to a series of unwise personal decisions and starting center Steven Adams to season-ending knee surgery. They got smacked by 24 points in their last game. They just signed Bismack Biyombo, which in 2023 sounds a lot less impressive than it would have in 2016. And as of the time of writing, they have the unenviable distinction of carrying the NBA’s worst point differential at -11.4 points. Ouch. This is leading to some Grizzlies fans to question whether coach Taylor Jenkins is the right person for the job, while Jenkins explained away yet another loss in a monotone cadence oddly lacking urgency.
But NBA players have NBA talent, and there’s no such thing as a free win, especially since Scoot Henderson isn’t ready to play after spraining his ankle and leaving the game during the Blazers’ win against the Detroit Pistons. On a brighter note, Shaedon Sharpe - himself nursing a thumb sprain - will look to bolster his candidacy for Most Improved Player, responding well to being benched in the second quarter against Detroit en route to a 15-point third and finishing with 29 points, seven boards, five dimes, two blocks, and a steal. While the Blazers are clearly the club on the upswing, it’s still early in the NBA season, and small sample size theater is still largely carrying the day.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trail Blazers - Friday, November 3 - 7:00 p.m. PDT
How to watch on TV: Root Sports, NBA League Pass
Trail Blazers injuries: Ish Wainright, Anfernee Simons, Scoot Henderson (out); Shaedon Sharpe (probable).
Grizzlies injuries: Derrick Rose, Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke (out); Santi Aldama (doubtful).
What to Watch For
- Shaedon Sharpe. After arguably the best game of his career, Shaedon gets to face an opponent who ranks 28th in halfcourt defense (per Cleaning the Glass) at home in Portland. And with Henderson sidelined, Sharpe has even more leeway to explore the studio space with lead guard duties. While the Blazers’ own spacing issues on offense don’t make his job easy, we saw what Shaedon did down the stretch of last year with sub-optimal surrounding talent. There’s a better-than-usual chance that we could see Sharpe’s career high of 30 points be topped tonight.
- Ayton vs. whoever the Grizzlies play at center. DeAndre Ayton is beginning to find his way with this ragtag bunch of RipCity ruffians. He followed up grabbing a career-high 23 rebounds with a 16-point, 11-board, five-steal effort last game, and who’s going to be guarding him? Yes, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and for good reason. On an emaciated Grizzlies team, however, his switchability is both needed and also over-relied upon, and not even he can be in two places at once. He also operates better as a roamer than stuck to a big in the paint. Besides him and the aforementioned Biyombo, the only other player over 6-8 on the Grizzlies and available to play are Xavier Tillman and Jake LaRavia. If Ayton wants to continue his steady slide into darkest recesses of Blazers fans’ cold, dead hearts, he has that chance tonight.
- Progress. The season is early, the Blazers roster will likely be different at the end of the season, and injuries to two of your most important players - either for winning games or for developing their talent - make trendspotting difficult. But as Halloween has given way to early frosts, we should be seeing signs of progress. More cohesion on offense. Fewer mistakes on defense. Players more aware of their teammates, where they are on the court, where their spots are... and maybe fewer guys running into each other (yes, it’s happened). Take whatever you saw happening in Games 1 and 2 and hope that when you watch Game 6, it looks perceptibly better, smoother, and more effortless. It doesn’t have to come all at once, and progress isn’t linear, but especially at home against a team that’s badly struggling, you want to see those flickers of growth.
About the Opponent
Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports pulls no punches when it comes to his evaluation of the Grizzlies’ current state:
The Grizzlies can’t shoot, can’t control the offensive glass, can’t get stops at the point of attack, can’t keep opponents from firing from deep, can’t consistently set one another up without turning it over and can’t get some of the below-the-fold depth pieces they desperately need healthy and on track. Outside of that, though, everything’s going great.
Damichael Cole of Memphis Commercial Appeal also does his best to pull apart the mangled wreck that has been the Grizzlies’ 2023-24 season:
Every problem has a solution. But right now, it seems like finding the answers to the Memphis Grizzlies’ problems is as complicated as a physics formula. In three games this season, the offense looked like the bigger issue. But the past two games have shown historic holes in the defense, and the coaching staff is pulling all types of strings.
While the signing of Biyombo didn’t trigger any emergency podcasts, CBS’ James Herbert argues they just need him to soak up minutes at center to stabilize Memphis’ ailing frontcourt:
Memphis cannot expect Biyombo, a 13-year veteran who specializes in rebounding and rim protection, to singlehandedly save the season... Biyombo is not Adams. He’s not the passer that Adams is, he fouls more frequently and his hands have always been an issue. If he were a better offensive player, he wouldn’t have been a free agent... The job is simple: Protect the paint, set solid screens and hit the glass.