Protect your neck, RoLo. (Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Grizzlies led wire-to-wire, jumping on the Blazers with eight points in the game's first two minutes and never letting go. The game-opening blitz was punctuated by Zach Randolph running the floor, filling the lane on the secondary break, then taking a feed from Tayshaun Prince and rumbling to the rim with nary a Blazer in his vicinity to offer any resistance, forcing Blazers coach Terry Stotts to call a timeout to figure out what the heck was happening. While Portland looked asleep, Memphis was wide awake and looking to drop some bombs.
Portland took a couple of swipes at making a game of it, thanks largely to the near-inevitability of LaMarcus Aldridge's high-release jumper; the shoulda-been-All-Star-starter finished with a game-high 27 points and 16 rebounds. For the most part, though, this was a one-sided affair — Memphis led by double figures for the final 35 1/2 minutes of the contest, with Randolph's muscle (a team-high 23 points and 10 boards, including five on the offensive glass), Mike Conley's side-to-side shake (19 points on 14 shots, seven assists against one turnover) and Marc Gasol's everything (15 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block) contributing to a full-fledged beatdown that saw the Blazers trail by as many as 24 points in the third quarter.
It was probably the worst performance of the season by Portland, one that center Robin Lopez felt merited a fairly grisly (no pun intended) turn of phrase, according to Ben Golliver of Blazersedge:
"I wasn't giving the effort I should have been," said Lopez, who posted 14 points (on 4-for-10 shooting) and 5 rebounds. "We shed a little blood, [Memphis] lunged for the jugular. Those were really self-inflicted wounds. We cut ourselves in the throat." [...]
The dream part of the dream season is officially in the past, and the present, everyone seemed to agree, is problematic enough that it requires addressing. "We've got to be willing to challenge each other," [Damian] Lillard said. "The intensity wasn't there," Lopez added. "We've got to stop the skid, stop the bleeding," [Wesley] Matthews concluded.
Blood-and-guts chat aside, the Blazers big man and his teammates aren't wrong. As Stotts noted in his post-game comments, Portland struggled with keeping the Grizzlies' ball-handlers, most notably Conley, out of the middle of the floor and out of the lane, which is where the problems started.
That sort of direct offensive attack presents a challenge for Portland's defense, with Blazers defenders shifting to try to stem penetration or rotating to pick up a beaten colleague. Such help, and often over-help, at times led to rotations that Memphis was able to beat with good ball movement to find open looks. (It really is so nice to see Gasol back and giving the Grizz another smart playmaker.) And yes, as Aldridge said after the game, some Blazers missed shots that they've been making throughout their march to the West's third-best record, which could be attributed in part to some tired legs stemming from Portland playing eight games in 12 nights against a pretty brutal schedule (San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, Denver, Minnesota, Golden State and Memphis). Context matters.
Still, though, Tuesday saw the Blazers put up their lowest point total of the season in their second straight game; they lost those two contests by a total of 32 points. That's obviously not good, and it's noteworthy because, while the losses to the Warriors and Grizzlies featured one dominant scoring performance (Stephen Curry hanging 38 on 23 shots) and a better-than-usual night for the Grizzlies' 19th-ranked offense, the Blazers' defense in these two games was basically, y'know, the Blazers' defense.
The aggregate shooting percentages were a bit higher than normal (Portland allows a 45.8 percent opponents' field-goal percentage on the season; Golden State and Memphis shot 46.6 percent), especially from 3-point land (36.9 percent for the season, 42.1 percent for the Dubs and Grizz). By and large, though, this was the Blazers — a team ranked 19th or worse among 30 NBA teams in opponents' field-goal percentage, opponents' 3-point percentage, offensive rebounds allowed per game, second-chance points allowed, opponents' turnover percentage and points allowed per possession. They can get busted up inside by gifted high-low bruisers like the Randolph-Gasol and Andrew Bogut-David Lee tandems, they can let opposing point guards (especially excellent ones like Curry and Conley) get comfortable and start dealing, and they can let teams locate and remain in rhythm from outside.
You can get away with that stuff when you're scoring at a league-leading rate of efficiency, with the ball swinging from side to side and open shooters everywhere canning rhythm jumpers. You can't when you're not, and that's the world Portland's found itself in these last two games. This is why many of us were skeptical of Portland's playoff potential heading into the season, and remained skeptical of their championship chances even as they were racing out to a 22-4 start behind MVP-level play from Aldridge. While this isn't an "I told you so" — you don't get to say "I told you so" when a team you thought might finish below .500 has won 72 percent of its games past the midpoint of the season — it is something to keep an eye on as the Blazers play 11 of 12 February games against teams either squarely in their conferences' top eight or scrapping to get there, with five of the team's seven games before the All-Star break coming away from the friendly confines of the Moda Center.
Also worth keeping an eye on? Memphis rounding into pretty terrifying form. Some of Portland's wounds might have been self-inflicted, but the Grizzlies damn sure didn't seem to mind inflicting some themselves.
The Blazers could not hold Zach Randolph's Grizzlies down. (Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports)
Memphis is now 6-1 since Gasol's return to the lineup after nearly two months on the shelf with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, but after a sluggish start to the season, they've been playing better ball for longer than that.
The Grizz are 13-5 stretching back to Dec. 21, they've had the NBA's third-stingiest defense (behind only the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls) in January, and they've been just a tick below middle-of-the-pack offensively, too. The uptick comes thanks in part to the stellar play of Conley (19.5 points, 6.1 assists per game in January, shooting 48 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3-point range) and major jolts of energy from recent trade acquisition Courtney Lee (55.6 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from deep since coming over from the Boston Celtics) and D-League call-up James Johnson (career-best per-minute scoring, rebounding and playmaking combined with stingy work on the wing to help make up for the absence of injured off-guard Tony Allen).
All told, Memphis is outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions in 2014 — only the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs have had better "efficiency differentials" this month. Context matters there, too, though, and it favors the Grizz.
While the Clips have worked without injured All-Star point guard Chris Paul, they've had a very favorable (read: East-heavy, plus the Lakers) slate to feast on this month. And while the Spurs have multiple notched blowout wins (over the Clips, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Bucks and Hawks) to inflate those margin-of-victory numbers, they've also continued their season-long trend of flunking the stiffest tests on their schedule, posting losses to the Rockets, Heat, Thunder and Blazers. Memphis, meanwhile, has strong wins over Oklahoma City, Portland, Phoenix (twice) and Houston (twice) on its January résumé.
The Grizzlies have played, and beaten, tough competition, steel sharpening steel as they try to claw their way into the West's top eight. This could be the start of something big, and perhaps the dawn of the new day that the Memphis brass envisioned when making their change at the top this offseason, as Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer writes:
[...] last night wasn't just about the Grizzlies' defense clamping down in a way that it hasn't often done this season — it was also about the offense, coming close to 100 points for the second time in two games after spending the first five games after Gasol's return hovering around 90. The Grizzlies' offensive efficiency last night was 107.4. The Grizzlies shot 51.8% from the floor and 46.2% from beyond the arc. [...]
This is what we were promised when the [Dave] Joerger Era began, though, isn't it? The same suffocating defense, augmented by an offense with the ability to go on big scoring runs when the conditions were right, bolstered by outside shooting and driven by ball movement run through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?
If this really is promise becoming practice, it couldn't have come at a better time. Memphis' remaining pre-All-Star schedule is full of winnable games, including matchups with one team alongside the Grizz in the battle for the eighth seed (Minnesota) and the team presently holding down that spot (Dallas). If Memphis can maintain the brand of two-way play they've turned in throughout this month and used to bully the Blazers on Tuesday, there could be many more Western teams worrying about protecting their necks, both in the short term and come playoff time.
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