MEMPHIS -- The Trail Blazers finished up a two-game road trip and the unofficial first half of the season with a 123-119 victory versus the Memphis Grizzlies in front of a crowd of 16,834 Wednesday night at FedExForum.
“I’m just happy for our dudes,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “You know, things that we’ve been preaching all year about how we want to play and as a staff, we’re just doing it and we’re doing it together. It’s incredible what you can do together. We’ve got everybody on one accord.”
The Trail Blazers are now 25-34 overall, good for 10th in the Western Conference standings with 23 games to play, and 9-18 on the road this season. Portland has now won four-straight, matching their longest winning streak of the season thus far, and have won the season series versus Memphis 3-1.
“I think we played the right way and it gave us a chance to win,” said Jusuf Nurkic. “Tonight was playoff type of basketball because it was super scrappy. It was great to compete and be out there. Everybody was playing great from top to bottom.”
Portland entered Wednesday’s game on a three-game win streak after besting the Knicks and Lakers at home before besting the Bucks Monday night in their first win in Milwaukee since 2013. But all three of those teams were either struggling mightily, missing key players or a combination of both, prompting some to wonder if this current iteration of the Trail Blazers, a team that traded away a significant portion of their previous starting lineup last week, was just catching teams at the right time.
However, none of those things could be said about the Grizzlies, a team sitting in third in the West that entered Wednesday’s contest having won six-straight and nine of their last 10. Sure, they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back after defeating the Pelicans in New Orleans Tuesday night, though Ja Morant, who will get the start in his first All-Star appearance this weekend, sat that contest out, ensuring he would be fresh for the Blazers the next night.
But while Morant more than held his own -- he set a franchise record for free throws made (21) and attempted (25) -- the Trail Blazers got quality production up and down the roster in the first half -- Nurkic, Josh Hart and Anfernee Simons each had 13 points while Justise Winslow and Ben McLemore each had 12 -- to go up by as many as 14 before taking a 68-57 lead into the intermission.
Though as you would expect from a good team playing in front of their home crowd, the Grizzlies started to chip away in the second half. They outscored Portland by seven in the third quarter to cut the lead to 94-90 going into the fourth, and would take just their second lead of the game at 110-108 with just under five minutes to play. And considering that three players who saw significant minutes Wednesday night weren’t even on the roster this time last week, it seemed as though Portland’s surprising win streak might come to an end.
But two of the longest tenured Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons, delivered timely plays to ensure the victory. Nurkic, playing some of the best basketball of his career in the last few weeks, scored nine-straight points for Portland between the 3:46 and 1:19 marks, with the last two coming by way of the free throw line to give the Blazers a 119-117 advantage.
“(Nurkic) was unstoppable tonight,” said Billups. “He was going up against one of the best defensive centers in basketball in Steven Adams. Not many times he goes against guys that are as big as he is. He just had his way tonight. He had his way with their team.”
Nurkic would come up with a steal on the next possession, Simons sized up his defender, used his dribble to create the slightest amount of space in order to get off a stepback three-pointer that found the bottom of the net to give Portland a 122-117 lead with 44 seconds to play.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get a three in, I was trying to get the game right there,” said Simons. “I got a good move, was able to get my feet under me. As soon as I let it go I knew it was pretty much going in. I’m glad I got my feet under me and got a good rhythm into it.”
Morant added two more free throws to his total after Desmond Bane missed a three and CJ Elleby turned the ball over, but Winslow would go 1-of-2 from the free throw line versus his former team on the next possession to secure the victory.
“When I came in the huddle, they made their run, I called a timeout and I said, ‘We’re in good shape, man. They made a heck of a run, as they should, they’re at home. They’re a really good team, but we can’t lose our composure. Let’s keep playing the way that we play,’” recounted Billups. “We did that. We got some of the shots that we liked late in the game. I thought Ant obviously hit a big one in the right wing, or I guess he came in the corner. That was a big, big shot. We got the match ups that we wanted. I was happy about our composure.”
Nurkic led Portland with 32 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field and 7-of-10 shooting from three, eight rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal in 34 minutes. Simons wasn’t far behind with 31 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field and 5-of-10 shooting from three to go with six assists, three rebounds and a steal in 34 minutes.
Hart also shot better than 50 percent from the field and went 3-of-6 from three for 22 points to go with seven rebounds, six assists and a steal in 34 minutes. Winslow added 16 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in 33 minutes and McLemore posted 14 points off the bench.
Morant led all scorers with 44 points while handing out 11 assists for the double-double. Bane finished with 30 points and five rebounds in the losing effort.
The Trail Blazers will now go their separate ways for the All-Star break before meeting up again in Portland next week for the beginning of the stretch run, which starts with a tilt versus the Warriors at Moda Center on February 24. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.