Portland lost both Jusuf Nurkic and Jerami Grant to injury in the first half, but Damian Lillard refused to give up and willed the Blazers to a much needed 122-112 victory.
The Grizzlies had only lost three games at FedEx Forum so far this season before tonight - the best mark in the NBA.
A rare 2023 road game for the Blazers, as the team has been grounded in PDX for the better part of January. 10 of Portland’s last 12 games have been within the mostly friendly confines of the Moda Center going back to Jan. 8. Memphis was the first of three stops on a mini-Eastern swing before the team will return to play another home-heavy schedule to close out February.
Lillard was The Man for Portland tonight, finishing with a near-triple-double of 42 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds. Anfernee Simons added 26 points and 4 assists. Drew Eubanks filled in for Nurkic big time with a double-double of 11 points and 11 boards.
It was a rough start for the road team, as the Blazers began the game with a Simons layup, but followed it up with back-to-back turnovers with errant passes out of the pick-and-roll. Then, things went from bad to concerning as Nurkic appeared to re-aggravate his nagging left calf injury on the next possession and immediately left the game. He did not return.
After Chauncey Billups called an early timeout, things began to settle down. Although Portland didn’t have an effective answer for Ja Morant attacking the basket with the fervor an an actual grizzly bear, the team responded by giving Memphis a taste of their own medicine.
The Blazers started to run - after make or miss - putting pressure on the Steven Adam-less Grizzly D. Grant was was the most aggressive, scoring 9 points in the quarter, mostly just by putting his head down and taking it to the cup.
Simons chipped in 8 points of his own and after a shaky start, Portland trailed 35-26 after one.
With Morant recharging on the bench to start the second, Billups went with a lineup of Lillard alongside the second unit of Eubanks, Gary Payton II, Shaedon Sharpe and Trendon Watford. It paid off. Dame was quiet in the first, scoring only 4 points as Dillon Brooks and the Memphis defense wisely zeroed in on the Western Conference Player of the Week. But with those guys out of the lineup, Lillard gave the Grizzlies fits, continuing to get downhill and to the rim, or at least towards the rim, as Memphis couldn’t keep him off the foul line. 9 of Dame’s 16 first-half points came from the charity stripe, and much of them early in the second period.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies’ second unit looked like they were in hibernation, with Tyus Jones, Danny Green and Desmond Bane each ice cold on attempts from deep. The Blazers were able to slowly claw their way back into contention behind Lillard, and after a rainbow triple from the angle by Sharpe, the deficit was only 3 points at 44-41.
Portland even briefly held a small lead for a short time, as Grant checked back into the game and picked up right where he left off, scoring 7 straight points.
But again, misfortune. With two and a half minutes left in the half, Grant went down hard after being fouled by Jaren Jackson Jr. underneath the basket. When he landed, he was almost horizontal and banged his head strongly against the hardwood. He ended up finishing the quarter, but remained in the locker room after halftime under concussion protocols.
Memphis finished strong and went into the break holding a 57-52 lead.
Now down two fellow starters, Lillard had to go from ball dominant to hard carry. But with dwindling numbers of ancillary threats to help keep the Grizzly defense honest, that task become even tougher. Nevertheless, Lillard rose to the challenge as he is wont to do.
Dame was magnificent again, shaking off double and even triple-teams on his way to another 17 points in the third quarter alone, including a Tracy McGrady-like 7-point possession. This was accomplished by virtue of Lillard landing on the foot of Ziaire Williams after a three-point make near the top of the arc, which was ruled a flagrant 1. He knocked down the free throw, then followed it up with, you guessed it, another three. In 8 seconds of game time, the Blazers erased a 7-point deficit to tie the game at 67. Simply incredible.
Lillard added 6 more points in the final minute, but Morant remained unstoppable in his own right and kept Memphis on top 90-84 heading into the final frame.
The fourth was tense and exciting. Sharpe and Jones traded threes to start the period, and from there trading buckets became the norm. Next it would be Simons and Bane, then Payton and Jackson. For every call there was a response, and for much of the period, the score wobbled between just a couple possessions as neither side would give an inch.
Portland would break the stalemate first. Simons knocked down a midrange pull-up, and followed it up with free throws the next trip down. A couple more empty possessions from the Grizzlies and suddenly a wide-open angle three from Lillard gave the Blazers 109-107 lead.
Memphis couldn’t handle the heat and squandered several pivotal possessions away with contested shots at the rim and ill-advised three-point attempts. Meanwhile, Portland was almost perfect down the stretch, quickly inflating the lead to 8 points on a fast-break and-1 slam by Eubanks with just under a minute to go. From there, all the Blazers had to do was waste clock to seal the ball game.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon!
The Blazers will get a day off before heading to the nation’s capital to face the Washington Wizards on Friday evening. It will be another early 4 p.m. Pacific tip.