Memphis Grizzlies (32-34) 135 - 140 Portland Trail Blazers (30-37)

It’s insane I am actually doing one of these again, let’s see how rusty I am. The NBA is back! And this is a game with real stakes with the Grizzlies fighting for their playoff spot, the only one in contention in the West, and the now-healthy Blazers have no margin for error with also having the Pelicans and their easy schedule standing between them and that disputed Grizzlies spot.

1st Quarter

Ja Morant is enough of an athlete to blow by any defender but the Blazers did a fantastic job containing the rookie. Terry Stotts likes having a classic big man protecting the rim and keeping the lane clogged up but the more disrupting aspect has been a strong discipline in getting back to stop transition and the help on drives coming from the wings, forming a wall meant to stop Morant’s drives. You can see the eyes of defenders all focused on Ja.

A testament to how effective the Blazers were making their opposition uncomfortable can be seen in how the Grizzlies being 6th in the league in running Pick and Rolls for a roll man to finish the possession but that was not noticeable at all if you were watching at this point.

Ja rested soon after Clarke subbed in for Valanciunas but space really opened up. With that one change, Memphis can now play 5-out and have Morant embrace his Russell Westbrook. This would be much clearer later in this game.

On the Blazers side, their backcourt is getting to the rim at will. Lillard in a side pick and roll, stutter step to get defenders on their heels or straight to the rim. Good luck. This is exacerbated by mistakes in Memphis’ defense – Jaren Jackson in particular stood out in a few possessions.

Whiteside comes in mid-quarter for a terrible showing. Picks up 3 fouls, allows 1 offensive rebound and gets called for defensive 3 seconds. It hasn’t been his worst year but for all the shots he blocks this way of giving back to the offense is to be expected of him.

Portland did seem without answers when it comes to how both Memphis bigs can spread the floor and shoot from the outside (especially Jaren Jackson with his near 40% outside shooting, freed up by Morant’s screening in this case, who finished the quarter with 3 makes from deep). Nurkic isn’t as capable to defend so far from the basket, Carmelo can’t keep up with a quick pop out to the line and Collins would be the best option but it would require staying out of foul trouble.

The end result between these strengths and weekends was a very tight first quarter, with teams exchanging leads often, and the game became nothing but trips to the line. Melton missed a bunch of free throws in a row (started 1-4) and we saw a bit of unleashed Mario Hezonja (the only bit this game).

2nd Quarter

Early in the second quarter we see a nice back and forth of Memphis looking to involve CJ in multiple handoffs until Dillon Brooks gets a good look and a response straight away.

The game continued to have little to no flow with constant whistles. Memphis was the biggest victim with a lot of quick possessions ending with ill-advised shots. I have no idea why Josh Jackson has the ball in his hands like a primary creator.

To their credit, this is a good defensive read: they go to double CJ since Nurkic staying out on the perimeter after screening isn’t a threat but CJ is in his sweet spot and JJJ’s feet can’t keep up so he’s late contesting.

I wanted to give a spotlight to this moment by Brandon Clarke. Grayson Allen gets lost in no man’s land, expecting rotations from his teammates, and that leaves a wide-open CJ McCollum in the corner. Clarke recognizes this before the pass is fired and makes a wonderful close out and CJ’s shot isn’t even close.

Morant with a very quiet half, only scoring 2 points. Even with the 5 assists, going under the screens and the double teams and 3-man walls in his path were quite a successful strategy.

You can also point out that Lillard wasn’t making any of his deep attempts, but the Grizzlies lack any real rim protection. Blazers up 8 despite 30 free throws attempted by the Grizzlies.

3rd Quarter

Pressure picks up on Memphis’ side. Strong double-teams in the paint and some speed in transition. Lillard creates a defensive breakdown here with a complete lack of effort. The Grizzlies newfound aggression on defense and rebounds changed the tempo of the game and the Blazers lead shrank to a one possession game after 13 up.

However, they still had no idea how to react to those Lillard PnRs and Brooks and JV, both important pieces so far in this game, have already picked up their 4th fouls with 9 minutes to go on the third. But forced with the Nurkic matchup again, that allowed Triple-J to catch fire. Even on defense: He would start doing a wonderful job hedging into the double, and here Nurkic just kinda hangs around and Lillard is forced to back up into a backcourt violation.

The increase in stops allowed for a ton more of Memphis transition game, where they are much more comfortable (top 5 team in transition possessions per game, while the Blazers are dead last in those rankings!), and the third became a one team spectacle. Portland had 5 turnovers in a 3-minute span. 26-4 scoring run. Ja Morant was now hunting Carmelo with no regard for the veteran’s feelings.

Lillard takes control and manages to lead the team back to within 3 to finish the quarter. Those last couple of minutes were crucial, with Grayson fumbling a couple of offensive possessions and the difference in that clip between Tolliver’s (and Melton’s) pressure on the double compared to what we saw from the Jackson clip is quite stark.

4th Quarter

Someone forgot how this zone thing works.

I enjoyed the ways they got Morant more space in the second half. Screens come less telegraphed with bigs only coming up just before they set the screen is used and, like preivously mentioned, Memphis is running lineups that can stay spread out instead of having someone near the dunker spot. In this case, the Portland bigs come meet Jaren and Toliver, with both apparently preparing for a screen ending up with an empty paint. Collins goes up towards Jackson for some reason I can’t understand and you don’t have to invite Morant twice.

Portland was uninspired at this point but still scoring out of free throws and Memphis was in the bonus with over 7 minutes remaining.

As crunch time approaches, Nurkic goes on a run. First to the line for a couple of points, the following possessions scores over Jaren and the exclamation point is this fantastic swerve, faking the handoff and leaving JJJ to eat his dust with a spin.

Collins does a great job on Morant (note how Lillard goes under the screen), but Jaren once again attacks Nurkic from the outside with his dribble for the and-1 slam. Melo can do better with the help. This was the foul that ejected Nurkic from the game. He sits after a wonderful performance on both ends, with a total of 6 blocks and moving like he never missed a beat. It's great to see him back.

And if it wasn’t Anthony himself with a huge pair of clutch 3s, one where he was left open from a broken play but in the second Lillard gets Brooks behind him too easily, draws the help, hits CJ and now Melton has to commit on the close out. Then the simple pass to an open 3 in the exact same position as the first. The Blazers backcourt, that played, carried this home stretch and the game goes to overtime.

Carmelo would have a third shot attempted, also totally open and in the same spot but missed what might have been the game winner.

OT

The battle to stop Morant PnR game continues. Now the Blazers will bring help whether there a player on the strong side or not. CJ warns Lillard to cover both Brooks and Melton and is there to be an extra body deterring the drive, before recovering to his spot. On the other side of the court, Melton should have stunted but committed and left Gary Trent open in the corner. This was the sequence for which Memphis never came back from.

The Blazers were close to a full choke when Lillard turned over the ball, Melo got again stuck 1v1 against Morant and would get cooked and, when he tried to inbound, he gave the ball away. In a blink of an eye it went from a sealed game to a 3-point lead. Lillard settles them down with this incredible finish in traffic.

Blazers took full control of OT until they almost screwed it up. It was a brilliant call not to overreact to Nurkic leaving the game and playing a ton of Whiteside (how did he blow that final layup?). He had to be taken out for the final 30 seconds after playing for minute.

The Grizzlies missed Tyus Jones. Kyle Anderson wasn't awful but the usually lively Grizzlies bench was nowhere to be seen. The most mobile unit with Jackson at the 5 is offensively impressive but the Blazers can get to the rim at will. The fight for the 8th seed is now a lot more interesting.

Notes:

Gray Trent Jr. came off the bench, had a nice shooting performance and was out there in the crunch line up after Nurkic was gone. He was the main force for the great bench contribution Portland enjoyed this game.

Stay Me7o

So many whistles… I hate the techs on “showboating”.

CJ made every shot you would expect of him and some he probably shouldn’t have made as well. In a game where the two main starts of each team weren’t at their most efficient, a second in command that can execute this well is decisive.

I really missed the crowd reactions in those clutch shots.

JAAAAAAAAAA.

Valanciunas leads the Grizzlies in “how the hell did he save that possession?!” made shots. And watching him a Nurkic fighting for rebounds is like two gladiators fighting for survival. And it’s that type of matchups, with other physical bigs, that only JV can provide in this team. They are also a much worse defensive rebounding team without him – 98th percentile in on/off effect on offensive rebounding this year according to Cleaning the Glass.

Is there a big with a nicer floater than BC?. Morant’s chemistry with him opened up a lot of better chances for the guard to finish at the rim in the second half.

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