The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 115-113 in overtime at the Moda Center on Friday night. The win provided plenty of excitement for the crowd, plus a 1-0 record in group play for the NBA In-Season Tournament, now underway for real. The game featured multiple momentum swings, plenty of running, some truly awful shooting, and a showcase for one of Portland’s brightest young talents.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Once you’ve perused it, have a look at some of the other key aspects to the game.
Defense is Everything
Whatever reputation the Blazers had as an offense-only team has been erased in the first half-dozen games of the new season. This incarnation runs by a simple mantra: defend or die. Portland did some of each in this one.
The first-quarter defense was passable. Malcolm Brogdon and Matisse Thybulle starting improved the quality of play at the defensive end for the starters. The Blazers looked solid, at times intimidating, when hawking the ball.
Quickness is a huge improvement in Portland’s defense this year. Not only are they staying with dribblers better, when help comes, it gets there instantly. It’s amazing to watch two relatively-inexperienced, but athletic, defenders become a wall of intimidation against opponents. I love the willingness to help and the crispness of movement.
That’s where the story ends, though. Blazers defenders are nowhere near as good at recovering from the double teams they throw. When the Grizzlies found open passing lanes, their offense ran all but unopposed.
At the start of the second quarter, we also saw how completely the game collapses when Portland doesn’t defend. As Memphis hit shots semi-continuously, Portland lost most of their quick-offense opportunities. Their shots turned difficult. They started missing. And missing. And missing. And missing. Bad “D” wasn’t just giving Memphis points, it was costing Portland all of theirs. The Grizzlies went +17 in just 7 minutes under the circumstances.
After that, the Blazers found defensive synergy again. All of a sudden, they erased the Grizzlies’ lead and crawled back ahead. It was more proof of the binary state of Portland’s attack: all or nothing, resting on the “D”.
The fourth quarter, and especially overtime, showed the power of a full-armed and operational Blazers defense. They weren’t perfect; Memphis still scored, often on easy buckets. But nothing was certain. Portland’s defense was disruptive enough to make the opponent think twice, use clock, and miss long enough to provide rebound run-outs.
You don’t have to watch long before you figure out that, as flawed as this roster may be long-term, almost any moment of defense from them is better than the vast majority played over the last two seasons. If this was a point of emphasis this year, mission accomplished.
From momentum-changing drives to clutch free-throws to a game-saving block at the end of regulation, Shaedon Sharpe led the Blazers tonight. He’s been pushing at the outer boundaries of his role already. This game solidified it. Inconsistent or not, right decisions or not, Sharpe is bound and determined to be the go-to player for this team on both ends of the court.
Sharpe’s defensive vision and effectiveness have grown exponentially since last season. His layups and the occasional three are icing on the cake. So, too, his passing (when it works). He shot only 7-17 on his way to 22 points, but he hit 6 of 7 free throws, exactly how he needed to score in an otherwise-fractured game.
Overall, this may have been the best game of Sharpe’s career. It wasn’t his most prolific, but he changed the momentum every time the Blazers started slipping behind. For a second-year player with little experience prior to reaching the NBA, that’s an achievement worth noting.
The Grizzlies hit a couple key three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Portland hit two in overtime. Around those vital shots came a flurry of awful misses for both teams. Each had open opportunities. Neither could connect with any regularity.
Portland shot 9-32 from distance, a painful 28.1%. The Grizzlies were hardly better, shooting 10-35, 28.6%. Sharpe hit 2-5 from distance, Jerami Grant 3-7, with many shots bouncing in and out. The rest of the team shot 5-20.
Sharpe saved the Blazers’ bacon from the foul line late. Malcolm Brogdon shot 10-12 from the charity stripe, the only way he was hitting reliably this evening. Overall the Blazers went 28-36, obliterating Memphis and their 9-13 production. This is the second straight game that Portland has outstripped the opponent at the line, a big turn-around from the first couple games of the year. Stay tuned.
Take it on the Run
It was a good news, bad news night for the Blazers in the running department. They forced 12 steals, which was phenomenal. The also scored a healthy 21 points on fast breaks. They gave up 26 fast break points to the Grizzlies, though.
A final, right-brained note. It’s impressive that the Blazers keep bouncing back from adversity, a quality nobody knew they had. Memphis had them down and reeling at least twice. After giving up big runs, the Blazers locked down, ran hard, and got back in it. They deserve huge credit for that.
The Blazers will take on the Grizzlies once again at 6:00 PM, Pacific on Sunday at the Moda Center.