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Healthy bodies sparse as Memphis, Portland meet

Series Preview: Trail Blazers vs. Grizzlies

POSTED: Apr 16, 2015 9:43 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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If the NBA playoffs were a playground pickup game, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzlies might have been chosen last and next-to-last, then told to guard each other (without ever seeing the ball) like a pair of nerdy brainiacs. The thinking is, neither the Blazers nor the Grizzlies currently are healthy enough to acquit themselves sufficiently in a best-of-seven series, so having them square off might give one of them enough time to heal and properly represent by the Western Conference semifinals.

Memphis (55-27) hobbled to the end of the regular season without its starting backcourt. Point guard Mike Conley missed the final four games with a right foot sprain and defensive ace Tony Allen was out for the last nine of the regular season with a left hamstring pull. Center Marc Gasol scared everyone with a left ankle sprain in final week, but he showed up and performed just fine in game No. 82 (33 points, 13 rebounds).

Arron Afflalo Injury

Arron Afflalo said he felt like he torn something on the back of his right shoulder and did not return to the game.

Meanwhile, Portland (51-31) has been even more banged-up. Let's name names, since the list is long: Chris Kaman (low back pain), Nicolas Batum (right knee bruise), C.J. McCollum (left ankle sprain), Arron Afflalo (right shoulder strain), Wesley Matthews (left Achilles surgery) and Dorell Wright (right hand fracture). The first three might have played had the Blazers' needed them in their finale against Dallas. Afflalo and Wright hope to be back in the playoffs, while Matthews will be on the court again in October.

The injuries have thrown off the Blazers' tactics and rotations as well. Last season, coach Terry Stotts used just two different starting lineups; this season, he patched together 20 different combinations.

Thus, this Nos. 4-5 clash will be one of attrition and/or recuperation. The team that gets healthier, faster, might be the one that advances to the face the winner of Golden State-New Orleans. And that prospect might be enough to have either side feeling poorly again.

Five quick questions (and answers)

1. Memphis swept the season series, 4-0. How much does that matter? Look, the Blazers can puff out their chests and say it doesn't matter all that much, but it does. Besides controlling the season series, the Grizzlies have won nine of the last 11 meetings. Portland playmaker Damian Lillard had a pithy quote once his team's first-round opponent was known -- "It's hard to beat a team eight times," Lillard said -- but it's even harder for a team that hasn't beaten a foe at all to suddenly win four out of seven.

Gasol Forces Overtime

With 2.5 seconds left in regulation Courtney Lee finds Marc Gasol who drains the deep 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.

2. Who takes the crunch-time shots for the Grizzlies? The message in this question hints that Memphis doesn't really have a go-to guy for such moments. But just as some MLB teams use a closer by committee, so tpo have the Grizzlies in the clutch. Nine times they have hit shots in the final 10 seconds to either tie the game or take the lead, and the duty has been handled by five different players: Gasol (three times), Conley (twice), Courtney Lee (twice), Allen and Vince Carter.

3. Why don't the Blazers sound worried? You might expect them to be, not just losing all four to Memphis this season but closing out 2014-15 with four straight defeats, giving up 442 points along the way. But Portland remembers the skeptics who surfaced last year at this time, after they came in as underdogs to Houston but managed to startle the Rockets in the first round. Said LaMarcus Aldridge: "I think things just change in the playoffs. I feel like everybody is ready to take on that challenge of going to Memphis, or whatever. So I feel like that don't matter now."

4. How does Portland -- the West's fourth seed with the conference's sixth-best record -- not have home-court advantage vs. Memphis? That's your NBA conference and division rules in action. The Blazers won the Northwest Division, so they were guaranteed no lower than the No. 4 spot, but the playoff rules didn't assure them of any home-court edge. That's their first challenge, taking at least one of Games 1 and 2 at FedEx Forum, after going 19-21 on the road this season.

5. Which Grizzlies team shows up? The injuries suggest that it might be the homely post-All-Star break version, the guys who went 15-13, averaged 94.2 points and gave up 94.3 over the schedule's final two months. But the Grizzlies believe that, if they can get Conley and Allen back and playing without limitations, they'll look more like the crew that went 39-14 before the February break, outscoring opponents 100.6-95.7.

When the Blazers have the ball ...

Both of these teams play pretty slow and deliberate relative to their Western Conference brethren. The Blazers will often get the ball to Aldridge in the mid-post and let him go to work. His bread-and-butter is a turnaround jumper off his right shoulder. He attempted almost 200 more mid-range shots than any other player in the league and only 49 percent of his buckets were assisted, a low rate for a big man. Damian Lillard is a dual-threat on pick-and-rolls. He'll pull up from deep if you go under the screen, but he also ranked in the top five in drives. Roll man Robin Lopez will clean up the glass if Lillard has his man's attention.

The Grizzlies can guard Lillard with both Conley and Allen (assuming both are healthy) and Aldridge with both Zach Randolph and Gasol. Lillard may pull Gasol further from the basket than he'd typically like to go on pick-and-rolls, but the Grizzlies' other defenders will still stay at home on shooters. Matthews used off-ball movement to break free and shoot 14-for-26 from 3-point range in the first two regular season meetings, but Afflalo doesn't provide the same range of skills.

When the Grizzlies have the ball ...

GameTime: Grizzlies Offense

Rick Fox and Brent Barry break down and discuss the Grizzlies offense against the Blazers.

Grit. And grind. What, you expected something else? This team is built for playoff basketball, with its Clydesdales up front doing the heavy lifting. Gasol has had a breakout offensive season, scoring 20 points or more 27 times and at least 30 on five occasions. That's something the big Spaniard did just once in his first 436 NBA games. Gasol's work out of the high post allows him to shoot his mid-range jumpers or find cutters or Randolph. And Randolph's presence in the low block is essential: not only does he rank among the league leaders in second-chance points (3.9) and points-in-the-paint (9.9) but the Grizzlies shoot better from 3-point range (37.8 percent to 29.9) when he's on the floor demanding defensive attention.

Aldridge is no slouch up front to counter the Memphis bigs, and Lopez has boosted the Blazers' work on the glass since returning in late January from a hand fracture. Assuming Batum and Afflalo are healthy, their defensive work on the ball with Lillard will be Portland's best chance of limiting touches for Gasol and Randolph.

In the clutch

Most teams put the ball in the hands of a guard on most of their late and close possessions, but the Blazers will continue to work the offense through Aldridge, who took more shots in clutch situations (score within five points in the last five minutes) than any other big man this season. Lillard has hit some huge shots in his three seasons, but shot just 9-for-40 from 3-point range in the clutch this year.

Only James Harden (13-for-25) shot better than Conley (12-for-26) on clutch 3-pointers this season (minimum 20 attempts). A Conley/Gasol pick-and-roll is the play you're most likely to see on an important Memphis possession, and Gasol will be put in a position to make shots and make plays from the elbows. But Randolph will get his post touches when he has it going or has a favorable matchup.

Wild cards

Memphis fans might be a little down about the fifth-place finish in the West standings. But they can take solace in their team, should the Grizz advance, not having to face either the Spurs or the Clippers in the conference semis. And it has to feel good to see Oklahoma City, last year's thorn in their side, fail to qualify. Memphis still boasts a lot of good numbers: 30-10 at home, 35-17 vs. the West, 33-3 when scoring 100 points or more, 39-5 when shooting 45 percent or better and, since the start of 2011-12, 62-7 when the Grizzlies make at least half their shots.

During the season, the Blazers launched 27 3-pointers and made about 10, with 44 games this season in which they hit at least that many (going 28-16). Their total of 807 was a franchise record. And yet, Aldridge -- the master of the long 2-pointer -- doesn't necessarily see the long guns as Portland's only hope against Memphis. He thinks his club can muck it up inside with the Grizzlies. "They grind it out and we can do that type of game too if we have to," he said.

Prediction

As common as it is to proclaim the postseason as a whole new start for everybody, it really isn't. Teams learn and acquire a lot during their first 82 games, and when one demonstrates the sort of mastery over another that Memphis did against Portland, that's hard to ignore. Factor in the Grizzlies' home-court edge and what the loss of Matthews' consistent threat from the corners means, and the likely outcome takes shape. Grizzlies in 6.

NBA.com's John Schuhmann contributed to this report.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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