Monday, March 1, 2010

Trail Blazers @ Grizzlies: Game 63

The five-game road trip concludes tonight with Portland (35-27) heading to Memphis to take on the Grizzlies (30-29) in a crucial game for the 8th playoff position in the West. Portland has a 3.5 game lead over the Memphis for the 8th and final spot, but the size of the lead is misleading. Due to Portland playing so many more games up to this point in the season, 62 to 59, the extra wins can cancel out some of the losses. The Grizz are really only 2 back in the loss column, which is where you should be looking at in the standings this time of the year and if the Trail Blazers fail to get it done tonight, they would have lost the season series, 3-1, and lose all tie-breakers with Memphis.
A 3-2 road trip is now the worst case scenario and wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but if the Blazers are not only serious about making the playoffs but doing something once they get in there, they need to start winning some of these toss-up games. It will not be easy tonight as Memphis handled us pretty good both times this year in the Rose Garden, winning 106-96 in November where the score wasn't indicative of the butt-whooping they put on us and stealing a 109-105 victory as Portland failed to put away an eight point lead with three minutes to go. Back on November 10th, Portland got their lone victory against Memphis, 93-79, where it was a flurry of Oden plays on both ends of the court in the 3rd quarter to break open a close game and turn it into a comfortable win. Obviously G.O. is out for the season, which means Camby will have to make up for the missing defense on Gasol and Randolph.
Containing those two players is the really the only key to victory tonight. When Portland defeated Memphis, Gasol and Z-Bo were held in check for a combined 31 points and 20 rebounds. Without a true center earlier this year, both players wreaked havoc on our interior defense to the tune of averages of 42.5 points and 24 rebounds. Really the only way to neutralize both players is ball-denial defense and making sure to put a body on each of them at all times when a shot goes up. I would be hesitant throwing double teams at either player, as Gay, Conley, and Mayo all seem to drill the three at a high clip against us. A quick trap every once in a while would be a good defensive strategy to throw at either big man in hopes of flustering them into a turnover. Lastly, LaMarcus needs to man up tonight. In both games at the RG, Z-Bo powered and bullied his way to any shot he wanted in the paint and was a terror on the glass. I'm not blaming 100% of Zach and Marc's numbers on Aldridge, but he will get the defensive assignment on Randolph and he needs to use his length to alter some of Zach's shots.
Defensively we know what Portland must do in hopes of achieving a 4-1 road trip, but what about on the other side of the court? The bench is going to have to show up, but I've harped on that issue enough lately and really, it is always important to have strong bench play on the road. Tonight, I think Andre Miller could be the horse Portland rides for the win. Both Memphis point guards, Conley and Tinsley, are smaller in height and weight and neither known for their defensive prowess. If the Grizz decide to put the much larger, bulkier Gasol on Aldridge instead of Z-Bo, it may negate a little bit of LA's effectiveness. Miller should be able to take either point guard down in the post and start dissecting their defense. Also, it will be intriguing to see how Batum responds to his career-night in Minnesota. Does he play like his age, 21, and have an up and down performance or take the momentum a 31 point, 7 assist, and 7 rebound effort and run with it en route to another great night. Portland runs one play where Aldridge gets the ball about 18 feet away from the hoop. His back is to the basket near the baseline, and Batum comes from the top of the key, curls around Aldridge, and receives the ball. What ends up happening is he picks off his man on Aldridge and is free for a wide open jam. It seems to be open most games and would be a great way to get Batum rolling early during the game.
Going into this five-game road trip I mentally ranked each game from toughest to easiest. After their strong performances against us in Portland, I felt this one would be our most difficult task at hand due to their talent but also because it is the last game of the trip, it is our fifth game in seven nights, and guys are tired of being on the road and just want to come home. Without Joel and Greg, Memphis is just too poor of a matchup for our boys. Camby is a great weak-side defender, but to contain their bigs, a great man defender is needed, which is exactly what Gregzilla was and will be next season. Look for another back and forth affair, as we saw in Chicago, but our inability to grab the key defensive rebounds will be our downfall tonight.
Game 63 Prediction: Trail Blazers 97 Grizzlies 101
Post-Game Thoughts
After a first half which saw the Grizz run out to a 53-41 lead, it looked like a typical end to a long road trip. Portland played the part of Moses flawlessly and opened up the paint for Memphis like it was the Red Sea by allowing 34 points inside. All actions and body movements on the court all left Blazer fans and even Coach Nate wanting more. The Blazers were putting on a clinic how to lose a huge game in terms of playoff seeding, throwing passes into the 3rd row of Fed Ex Forum, settling for jump shots quick in the shot clock, and getting smacked around under the boards. Seeing a big lineup wasn't going to rebound any better than a smaller one, Coach McMillan inserted Dante and Jerryd off of the bench. The move ignited the team and they closed a double digit lead down to two, 35-37, solely on forcing turnovers and upping the tempo. Cunningham only had five points, but both were energetic finishes on the break (see photos below) to momentarily get Portland back into the game. As soon as the small lineup was taken out for the regular starters, the Blazers went back to their old lackadaisical ways, which was the last straw for Nate. He earned his paycheck tonight at halftime in the locker room.
``He's was (ticked off),'' said Portland rookie Nicolas Batum, who scored 21 points and is averaging 26 in his last two games. ``We did not play good. We did not play defense. We had too many turnovers. He said we have to wake up. We played their basketball. We had to play our basketball.''
``We were turning the ball over,'' McMillan said. ``I thought we were really loose the first half with the basketball. They (Memphis) didn't play well, but we played poorly that first half. In the second half, they came out and we got some stops defensively. We talked about not trying to get it back in one play, but slowly chipping away, and we ended up having probably our largest quarter this season.''
Whatever Coach said during the halftime break, it worked. The team took advantage of 21 Memphis turnovers, most in the 2nd half, to score a team-high 41 points in the 3rd quarter, the most scored in any quarter this season. It was a fantastic quarter that saw the Blazers outscore the Grizzlies 41-21 behind a barrage of three-pointers from the likes of Batum, Roy, and Fernandez and a lock down of the paint. In total Memphis scored 50 in the paint but only 16 came during the final 24 minutes of action. All was not perfect in the 2nd half, as the Blazers slipped back to their conservative ways of playing not to lose and nearly blew a 13 point lead with under 10 minutes to play. After a Z-Bo three-point play with 2:19 left, Memphis was nearly all the way back, clawing within one and 93-92.
Knowing the team could not allow this one to slip away again, especially to Memphis, Roy made the play of the game. Working one on one out top, Roy took it hard left, only to lose his dribble but before it could be chalked up as a turnover, he tipped the ball to Batum who streak down the baseline for a huge And-1 dunk. A flurry of huge plays from Camby and Batum sealed the deal. Marcus tipped in a missed Brandon lay-up and gave up his body to dive on the floor for a loose ball to call timeout. Nico hit a corner three, picked off a Conely pass on the fast-break, and after botching an inbounds pass, Batum saved the day by blocking O.J. Mayo's attack on the basket which preserved a late five point lead.
Batum definitely passed the first test of consistency for a young player. One game after having a career-night, he comes out like gangbusters to score 21 points, the 2nd highest outing this year, on an efficient 7-11 shooting from the floor, another sharp-shooting 4-7 from distance, 3 rebounds, and the games biggest block and steal of the night. Currently, there is no shot that Nico doesn't like right now. He's hitting the 3 at ridiculous 46.3% clip, shooting 57.1% from the floor, and an incredible 91.3% from the charity stripe. In fact, Nico is 21-23 from the foul line and his only two misses came at home against the Lakers. I realize 18 games is a relatively small sample size, but if he can play near this level for the rest of the season (19 games) the Blazers have themselves one helluva talent on their hands, but we all already knew that!
Official Game Photos
Box Score

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