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How They Got Here
• Portland: Coming off 54 wins and an unforgettable opening-round victory over the Houston Rockets, the Blazers largely stood pat. With one of the league's best big-minutes lineups in place and no picks in the 2014 draft due to past trades, general manager Neil Olshey bolstered the bench by signing veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake; beyond that, he banked on in-house development and roster-wide improvement in executing coach Terry Stotts' schemes.
For a while, it worked. The Blazers roared to a 26-7 mark behind All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, riding a surprisingly stingy defense that ranked third in the league in points allowed per possession. As the calendar turned to 2015, Portland owned the NBA's second-best record, sitting just a half-game behind the Golden State Warriors.
A post-holiday swoon coinciding with the loss of center Robin Lopez to a broken right hand and a tougher schedule brought the Blazers back to the pack. A torn ligament in Aldridge's left thumb seemed to spell doom, but he decided to put off surgery and play through the pain, continuing to confound defenses en route to a fourth straight All-Star berth. The Blazers entered March within hailing distance of the No. 2 seed ... and then things fell apart.
Midway through a March 5 victory over Dallas, Wesley Matthews — Portland's leading 3-point shooter, arguably its best individual defender, its heart and soul — caught an outlet pass, turned to dribble and immediately went down with what was later confirmed to be a torn left Achilles tendon that would require season-ending surgery.
Matthews' impact couldn't be replicated, but Stotts did have an attractive replacement — veteran Arron Afflalo, acquired at the trade deadline to round out Portland's still-lackluster bench. He fit well on the offensive end, as the Afflalo-Aldridge-Lillard-Lopez-Nicolas Batum group scored 109.2 points per 100 possessions after Matthews' injury, an elite offensive mark. The defensive dropoff, however, was staggering; they gave up 111.2 points-per-100, dead-last territory.
The Blazers ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency before Matthews' injury, and 24th afterward. Some of that may be due to a random increase in opponents hitting 3s, as Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote. But the ripple effect of replacing a very good defender with players who don't have the same level of individual skill or system familiarity can't be discounted.
Making matters worse, Afflalo suffered a right shoulder strain that's expected to cost him part of Round 1. Portland will also likely be without Dorell Wright, who broke his left hand, and enters the playoffs with Aldridge (left foot sprain), Batum (right knee bruise), C.J. McCollum (left ankle sprain) and Kaman (tweaked lower back) all hurting. The injury-induced losing dropped the Blazers to the sixth-best record in the West, giving their opening-round opponent home-court advantage despite Portland owning a higher seed after winning the Northwest Division.
Through 60 games, Portland looked like a title contender; after the past six weeks, they look ripe for the picking. Can three days of rest give Stotts the chance to find a new way forward? Or will the Grizzlies end a season that, for all intents and purposes, seemed over as soon as Matthews fell?
• Memphis: The Grizz made few changes to a 50-win team that pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games — a Game 7 lost without suspended Zach Randolph — and trusted that more health and continuity would lead to bigger, better things. (Well, once they kept Dave Joerger from going to Minnesota.) They watched Mike Miller head to Cleveland to reunite with his friend, replaced him with Vince Carter, and went to work.
The Grizz tenderized fools in the first half, holding the league's fourth-best record in early January. They boasted a top-10 offense led by perpetually under-the-radar point guard Mike Conley and an MVP-caliber Marc Gasol, who came into the season in fantastic shape after spending the summer with Spain's FIBA World Cup team. The calling-card defense slipped some, owing to Gasol's increased offensive workload, but still sat near the top 10 thanks to Conley and Tony Allen. They weren't a juggernaut, but they were really good — perhaps one move away from contention.
So Memphis took a chance, shipping out Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince and two draft picks to land Jeff Green, viewed as an upgrade in athleticism at small forward, a spot-minutes solution as a small-ball four, and the sort of shot in the arm that could complete the team. The move looked like an instant hit, as the Grizzlies rippedoff 13 wins in Green's first 16 games, entering the All-Star break with the NBA's third-best record. But it soon became clear that something was off.
Allen received a one-game suspension for an alleged practice fight with teammate Nick Calathes. Some speculated that Allen's act-out stemmed from frustration at moving to the bench to give Green time to jell with Gasol, Randolph, Conley and Courtney Lee. That never happened; the starters with Allen outscored opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, while the same group with Green got outscored by three points-per-100, per NBA.com. Most of the drop came on offense, with Green seeming to siphon shots from Z-Bo, Gasol and Conley.
Joerger insisted, however, that Green was "the least of [Memphis'] problems," leading to glances in the direction of Gasol (whose aggressiveness seemed to wane, which isn't new) and Lee (whose hot pre-All-Star shooting fell off a cliff in March, perhaps due to a hand injury). Green wound up asking Joerger to pull him from the starting lineup, but found himself back in to end the season, after Allen strained his left hamstring. (Green's actually been OK for the last five weeks or so.)
For all the stat-diving and psychoanalyzing, though, nobody really grasped the "why" behind the Grizzlies' struggles. Gasol's deceleration, Green's insertion, Allen's displeasure, injuries to Lee and Conley, the perennial lack of shooting ... maybe it wasn't one thing, but rather all of them combining to turn the Grizz into an also-ran that gets embarrassed by real contenders in three straight games and finishes the season playing barely-above-.500 ball for two months.
With the promise of November and December now nearly gone, Grizzlies fans will take hope where they can find it. Sure, Memphis finished 4-3 in April. But they hung tough without Allen and Conley and with a limited Gasol against the Clippers and Warriors, handled the Thunder and Pelicans, and knocked off the Indiana Pacers with Gasol and Randolph combining for 51 points and 22 rebounds. They'll begin at home, since they finished with a better record than the Blazers.
They're facing an opponent even more banged up than they are, and will get a few days to help Gasol, Conley and Allen heal. Plus, if this goes the distance, they get Game 7 at The Grindhouse. If the pre-swoon Grizzlies are ever going to re-emerge, this is the time.
The Grizzlies swept the season series 4-0, outscoring Portland by 10.2 points per 100 possessions — their highest net rating against any team they played more than twice — and holding the Blazers' offense to just 98.6 points-per-100, which is good for body temperature but bad for scoring.
Memphis' 13-point November win came before the Green trade. Lopez, Conley and Portland's Joel Freeland all missed the Grizzlies' 102-98 win on Jan. 17. The Blazers didn't have Aldridge, McCollum or Freeland for February's six-point defeat. Lee and Kaman missed an 11-point Grizz win last month. Each meeting carries caveats; still, trends emerged.
Lillard got his points, averaging 22 per game against Memphis, but needed more shots to get them and shot lower percentages against Conley and Allen. In fact, the Blazers' offense in general struggled when Allen was on the floor — Portland outscored Memphis by 16 points in the 76 minutes he sat, but got outscored by 50 in the 116 minutes he played, shooting just 35.5 percent from the field and committing more turnovers with Allen in the game.
Gasol and Randolph feasted on the interior, as lineups featuring the tag-team champs roasted the Blazers for 113.5 points per 100 possessions. On the other end, Aldridge got his, averaging 22.3 points in 31 minutes per game on 47.2 percent shooting.
Conley had the game on a string, making the Blazers respect his jumper enough (8-for-17 outside the paint) to be able to blow past defenders and get to the rim (11-for-17 inside the restricted area). He also paired well with Gasol and Randolph in the pick-and-pop while hunting opportunities to hit Lee and Green for open 3s; he dropped 26 dimes against just two turnovers against Portland. And while Matthews flourished — 18.3 points per game, 46.7 percent from 3 — Batum faltered, shooting just 32.4 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from deep.
Again, past performance doesn't necessarily predict future returns. But the tape and the numbers suggest that if Conley and Allen are right, and Gasol and Randolph get their opportunities, Portland's in trouble.
Likely Starting Lineups
Allen missed the Grizzlies' last nine games, Conley the final four. Joerger said neither would've played Wednesday even if it had been a playoff game, and that he's unsure if either will be available for Games 1 and 2. If they can go, Joerger would be well-served to roll with Gasol-Randolph-Allen-Lee-Conley. Gasol facilitating from the elbows, Z-Bo posting up and ducking in, Conley keeping everybody honest, Allen making off-ball cuts, Lee spacing the floor ... it's not always pretty, but it works.
If they can't, we'll likely we'll Gasol and Randolph up front, Green and Lee on the wing, and backup Beno Udrih at point. That unit shared the floor for 178 minutes over 20 games, and held up well offensively, averaging 106.3 points scored per 100 possessions, right around where the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs finished the season. Without two elite perimeter defenders, though, they hemorrhaged points, allowing a disastrous 110.9 points-per-100.
For Portland, with Afflalo likely still sidelined, the key is whether Batum and McCollum can be ready for Game 1. If so, Stotts will probably slot them in alongside Lillard, with Aldridge and Lopez up front. It's not a lineup that's seen much floor time — just 30 minutes over 13 games all season — but it's got offensive potential, as McCollum has improved as a secondary ball-handler, penetrator and off-ball release valve, shooting 40.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per SportVU, and ranking in the 90th percentile in points-per-possession produced among spot-up shooters, per Synergy.
With Memphis' backcourt not featuring enough size or scoring to make starting him alongside Lillard untenable, McCollum might be Stotts' best bet for generating enough firepower to make up for Portland's defensive shortcomings.
Matchups to Watch
• Conley vs. Lillard. If Conley's healthy, his length, quickness and defensive smarts make him a fantastic match for Lillard, who needs to have a big series. If Conley's a step slow or unsure on his ailing foot, though, Lillard will pounce, possibly forcing Joerger to sic Allen on him ... provided Allen's available.
On the other end, if Conley's able, he'll look to put Lillard in pick-and-rolls and force him to fight through screen after screen, which is not Dame's strong suit. Lillard swears he'll show up on D; even so, the more energy Conley can force him to exert, the less he'll have for pull-up 3s and drives to the basket. (That stuff about Joerger switching Allen onto Lillard goes for Stotts, Batum and Conley, too.)
• Aldridge vs. Randolph. When you review the tape, you see Z-Bo hustling to front the post and prevent easy entry passes. He puts a forearm in Aldridge's back whenever he can get away with it. He uses his nimbler-than-you'd-think footwork to avoid getting beat on fakes, and gets his long arms up to contest as soon as he's sure Aldridge is shooting. If he's lucky, all that might make Aldridge miss half the time.
The 6-foot-11 Aldridge is deadly from midrange, with an excellent back-to-the-basket game and all sorts of evil pivots, feints and counters, and can shoot over the top of everybody. If you bring doubles, he's a good enough passer to spot the opening and initiate ball reversals to find open shooters. If you play him straight and he's feeling it ... well, ask Houston how that ends.
The Grizzlies have mostly lived with letting Randolph check Aldridge alone, allowing everyone else to stay home. It's worked, with Memphis going 7-1 against Portland over the past two seasons and Aldridge tending toward point totals in the 20s rather than the 40s. If that continues, the Grizzlies will feel good about their chances. If Aldridge goes Human Torch again, though, everything changes.
• Bench production. Injuries have left Portland's cupboard pretty bare; we could learn whether Allen Crabbe or Alonzo Gee can make big plays in big moments. If Blazer bigs get into foul trouble or Kaman's back flares up, Meyers Leonard will get the call; he's become an intriguing piece, an athletic 7-footer who can spread the floor (42 percent from 3) and rebound.
Memphis looks to have the depth advantage, with Udrih, Green, Calathes and center Kosta Koufos all capable of contributing. The key, though, could be whether the 38-year-old Carter — a resounding disappointment this season, shooting just 29.7 percent from 3 — can knock 'em down when it counts.
“They brought me here to make shots,” Carter told Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “That’s what I’m here for and I plan on delivering for them.”
How Portland Could Win
Their dinged-up dudes get healthy and the Grizzlies' don't. Aldridge and Lillard shoot the lights out. Stotts gets the Batum of the last 20 games rather than the one who disappears. A Grizzlies club that ranked 23rd in offensive efficiency after the All-Star break can't score enough to take advantage of bad D.
How Memphis Could Win
Their dinged-up dudes get healthy and the Blazers' don't. Z-Bo and Gasol run the jewels and Lee gets his stroke back (7-for-11 from 3 over Memphis' last five games). Conley creates clean looks, Allen creates chaos and the Grizzlies' bench outclasses Portland's.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 7 out of 10. I'm excited to see what desperation and necessity invent here. Aldridge and Lillard can go nuclear with no warning. Anything can happen whenever Tony Allen is involved. Z-Bo jabstepping dudes to death is America's favorite dance craze. Engaged Gasol and Batum are two of the NBA's most fun players to watch. And underneath it all, there's the stylistic clash between wanting to bury your opponent with jumpers and wanting to choke you out with your own necktie. It's not as fun as it could've been — get well soon, Wes — but it's still pretty fun.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 7.
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