The Portland Trail Blazers got the restart of their 2019-20 season off to a great start with a 140-135 overtime victory versus the Memphis Grizzlies in a back-and-forth contest Friday afternoon at The Arena on the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus on the grounds of Walt Disney World Orlando.
“We all knew coming in it was going to be a battle,” said Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. “They’re a really high energy, young team, they play fast, they play hard... We kept our minds in it and once it came down to it, I think we showed we was the team that wanted it more.”
The Trail Blazers are now 30-37 overall and 1-0 in Orlando. More importantly, the win, along with the associated loss, gets the Trail Blazers to within 2.5 games of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with seven “seeding games” to play.
“Everybody knew how important this game was,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I mean, to try and sugarcoat it and say ‘We don’t need this,’ this is playoff basketball for us. You need that pressure and the pressure is going to continue so you can’t shy away from it.”
Playing for the first time this season with both Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins in the starting lineup, the Trail Blazers got off to a quick start Friday afternoon by shooting 62 percent from the field in the first quarter quarter. Had the Grizzlies not shot five more free throws and made twice as many three-pointers, Portland would have entered the second quarter leading by more than the 35-30.
The free throw discrepancy only got worse in the second quarter, with the Grizzlies being awarded 15 trips to the line compared to just five for the Trail Blazers. Even with Memphis being gently guided to the charity stripe seemingly every offensive possession, Portland still managed to take a 12-point lead, their largest of the game, before taking a 68-60 advantage into the intermission.
“Obviously in the first half we fouled too much. They shot 30 free throws and we were still able to have a lead,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I thought out offense in the first half was really good, kind of kept us in the game because defensively, the fouls really hurt us.”
It had been over four months between their last game in March and Friday’s contest, but Portland’s poor third-quarter play, a persistent issue this season, unfortunately carried over to Orlando. The Grizzlies went on a 26-4 run, capped by a Grayson Allen three with 3:15 to play in the quarter, to take their largest lead at 92-81.
‘I thought we slowed down a little bit,” said Stotts of his team’s third-quarter performance. “I think particularly offensive, we slowed down. We threw in some post-ups, they doubled, we mishandled the ball, we had four or five turnovers in a short span of time that ignited their offense. They got in a rhythm penetrating and kicking out for threes. They got on a roll, and that happens.”
But Portland managed to rally in the last two minutes of the third, getting three-pointers from Collins and Lillard to cut Memphis’ lead to a much more manageable three points going into the fourth.
The Blazers completed the rally early in the fourth, with Hassan Whiteside hitting a nine-footer to give the Blazers a one-point lead. But once again, the Grizzlies were able to take advantage of Portland’s mistakes and the referees willingness to call even the slightest contact a foul to take a nine-point lead with just under six minutes to play in regulation.
Portland got the lead down to four with two minutes to play, and after a reverse layup from Lillard and two three-pointers from Carmelo Anthony, he last of which being a go-ahead to give Portland a two-point lead.
“I was just playing off of Dame and CJ,” said Anthony. “Those guys found me on the weakside and my job was to make the shots and I did that.”
Brandon Clarke would get an easy layup to tie the game with 32 seconds to play in regulation. Anthony couldn’t hit a third consecutive corner three with 7 seconds to play to end the game, and Ja Morant lost the ball while driving in the waining seconds of the fourth, with the result being overtime in Orlando.
Portland scored the first 11 points of overtime to take control of the game despite Nurkić and Collins fouling out. A double-digit lead is usually enough to come away with an overtime win, and that would prove to be true Friday afternoon, though the Blazers seemed intent on testing the theory. Memphis managed to get the lead to three with 14 seconds to play, but two Anthony free throws a few seconds later secured a two-possession lead and ultimately the game.
“I was really pleased with the way we kept competing, we made some big shots,” said Stotts. “We didn’t necessarily play with the lead very well in overtime, but it was nice to have an 11-point lead in overtime. We finally made some shots, I thought we made some good passes, spread the court a little. But to get through that game with Hassan (Whiteside) and (Jusuf Nurkic) and Zach (Collins) all in foul trouble, Melo (Anthony) had a little foul trouble, but we were still able to keep making plays.”
McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 33 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field, 3-of-6 shooting from three, six assists, three rebounds and two steals in nearly 46 minutes. The 6-4 guard out of Lehigh kept Portland in the game during their leanest times, and hit multiple shots from three over Grizzlies defenders in the process.
“I thought I played well, was aggressive,” said McCollum. “I thought I had some bad turnovers, but outside of that, I thought I did a pretty good job of balancing scoring and making the right plays. I caught Dillon Brooks on and island so I knew what I wanted to get to. And I got it done.”
Lillard scored 19 of his 29 points in the second half and overtime on 10-of-22 shooting while also added nine assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes. Anthony added 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds and Gary Trent Jr. came off the bench in a shortened rotation and made the most of it, going 5-of-8 from the field for 17 points while also playing tight defense on he perimeter.
But the difference for the Trail Blazers in Friday’s game might have very well come down to Jusuf Nurkić, who played his first game since breaking his right leg in two places in March 2019. The 7-0 center turned in the kind of stat line he had become known for prior to the injury, going for 18 points on 5-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds, six blocks and five assists before fouling out in 33 minutes. That alone would be an impressive performance, though it goes down as especially inspiration considering he revealed postgame that his grandmother, Hana, has COVID-19 and is in a coma in Bosnia.
“The reason we here is the pandemic, I think people take it for granted what’s going on out there in the world,” said Nurkić. “Last couple of days was hardest days of my life, my grandma got COVID, she’s in the hospital, in coma. I think people no realize this shit is real out there. We’ve been fortunate to be here in safe environment, we tested every day, but please, take care of yourself. Wear a damn mask because you need to wear it.”
Five Grizzlies players finished in double figures led by 33 points from Jaren Jackson Jr. Ja Morant had a double-double of 22 points, 11 assists and Brandon Clarke went 7-of-8 from the field for 21 points off the bench.
Next up, the Trail Blazers face the Boston Celtics in the second game of the 22-team restart for both teams. Tipoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.