The Grizzlies and Trail Blazers are separated by just 4½ games in the standings but far more in public estimation. Memphis is respected if not feared. Years of physical, playoff-worthy basketball have set the Grizzlies as a different class of competitor, no matter their early-season struggles. So it has been echoed by reporters across the league that the Grizzlies are the team that no one wants to play in a seven-game series, while Portland -- per ESPN.com's Marc Stein -- is the playoff opponent of choice for Western Conference contenders.
One wouldn't think from that characterization that Portland would have the better seed, the better record and the far better point differential between the two. Nor would it be readily apparent in that comparison that the Blazers would be safely qualified for the postseason while the Grizzlies try desperately to force their way in. Those big-picture indicators aren't the only pertinent factors in play, though, and therein Portland and Memphis provide the basketball world a study in contrast.
At the crux of the Blazers' palatability as a playoff opponent is their slow-churning regression. Just three months ago Portland had the best offense in the league and the best record in the West. Neither was an outright illusion; the Blazers only accomplished what their smooth offensive designs and soft schedule would allow. Coach Terry Stotts put sharp players in a position to make reads for themselves and was rewarded with a level of chemistry that seemed impossible from a recently overhauled system. All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge anchored, Portland's shooters thrived and the team took a flexible framework to sudden, staggering heights.
Then came the fall. No one factor brought about a turn in Portland's season, but opponents did shift how they defended the Blazers. In a sense, Portland's offense is a tactical counter to modern trends of NBA defense. It punishes opposing big men who hang back on the pick-and-roll by working through Aldridge for mid-range jumpers. It attacks from the wings through Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, both of whom can slice into the lane and read the floor. It uses point guard Damian Lillard's shooting touch to both break down the defense and exploit it after the fact. It leads to volume three-point shooting even against opponents who aim to take those shots away, creates extra possessions through offensive rebounds by pulling opponents from the paint and draws on Aldridge's ability to hit difficult shots from the low block.
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When at its best, that's a scheme-busting combination. But coaches realized that they could slow the Blazers' offense by refusing to overreact to any one threat. Part of Portland's advantage lies in its balance. If too much attention is paid to Aldridge, then another capable creator will likely be left unattended. Double-teaming him feeds the flow. Aldridge is among the best in the league at converting contested jumpers, but on balance teams can live with those shots provided that they limit whatever else they can.
Even then, Portland is still a good offensive team. It just hasn't been so consistently good, though, to overcome what it surrenders defensively to the conference's best:
Such matchups are in part to blame for the fact that Portland is 3-13 against the West's other playoff contenders since Jan. 1. More efficient offenses have outscored the Blazers since their scoring dip. Stingy defenses have controlled the game by channeling the Blazers toward less desirable shots. And those teams -- like Houston -- with the personnel and commitment to make Portland beat them one-on-one have limited even what the Blazers do best.
One element that could work in Portland's favor: The postseason should give the Blazers an opportunity to trim their rotation, heightening the influence of their starting lineup while weaning dependence from their fading bench. If Stotts could come to rely on a stable seven or eight players, there's a solid chance that Portland could outperform its defensive numbers and narrow the gap against playoff competition.
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More broadly, though: This isn't the same team that began the season on such an amazing hot streak, as can be seen in its spottier shooting and shakier continuity. There are little hiccups in moving from one action to the next that just weren't there previously and that can't be solely attributed to defensive shifts. Perhaps minor injuries tug at the seams of the Blazers' offense more than has been acknowledged. Maybe the tweak in how the team has been defended changed the Blazers' collective mindset in some subtle, inappreciable way. There's quite a lot of potential explanation to untangle -- so much so that the knots in Portland's flow seem likely to remain.
With that, the profile comparison between the Blazers and Grizzlies isn't a matter of preference between facing an elite offense vs. taking on an elite defense. It's a preference to play against a vulnerable team as opposed to a reliable one. Since Jan. 1, Portland is barely a top-10 team in scoring efficiency. Memphis, by contrast, ranks a solid third in overall defense. Leaning on recency has its own pitfalls, but these are the same Grizzlies who have three postseason's worth of defensive precedent in their favor. Theirs is the sturdier case as suggested by their loftier regard.
There isn't much evidence to suggest that the Grizzlies would beat any of their possible opponents in a first-round series, but that stops well short of claiming an upset is impossible. Memphis is quite good when healthy. Just as relevant: This team is a load in a way that the Blazers are not, to the point that I wonder if the aversion among potential playoff opponents is essentially a worry of attrition. If the challenge of keeping the Grizzlies at bay wasn't enough, the toll that Memphis takes within and between games surely would be.
Center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph are the NBA's mortar and pestle -- two big, physical players who break their opponents down by posting up and boxing out in rhythm. Grappling with either demands energy and strategic resources, creating a cumulative effect. Their size advantage is one of slow, deliberate gains, with every bump or bruise taking just enough out of the Grizzlies' opponents to slow their next drive or urge their next defensive mistake. Memphis makes it all add up so that by the fourth quarter every action seems like a chore.
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It's for that reason that the Grizz are a characteristic example of a post-early, drive-late team. Gasol and Randolph push and strain opposing big men on both ends of the floor. Then, by game's end, those worn-down bigs are forced to handle point guard Mike Conley streaking around a high screen -- a tough task under any circumstance, and especially so following such physical and mental wear.
No team with title hopes wants to fight through such an ordeal in the first round, even if it isn't too concerned about a potential Grizzlies upset. Consider Memphis' performance against that same group of top West teams:
The Grizzlies can realistically do no better than the seventh seed -- a placement that would land a matchup against the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers. Keeping pace with any of those opponents would be incredibly challenging for Memphis because of its struggles against fast-breaking opponents. The Grizzlies lack standout athleticism. Memphis plays bigger and slower than most of its opponents by design, though the problems of that setup are complicated by a lack of explosion throughout the rotation. Conley is a blur, James Johnson a specimen and Gasol nimble for his size. But those caveats don't make up for the fact that this is a team of underwhelming pro-level athletes (particularly on the perimeter) that sinks in toward the rim. The transition game has been and will be a chore.
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That's the kind of weakness that the West's top three could attack consistently. The natural stall of the postseason's pace would favor Memphis in handling its own dearth of athleticism, but lately the half-court has provided little respite for a team that earned its reputation through defensive lockdown. The greatest problems facing Memphis over the last three years have come on the offensive end, where a lack of adequate spacing lent ardor to even the most basic play actions. Half-court defense provided the means to subsist through those jams; if nothing else, the Grizzlies could be assured that while they scored little their opponents would likely score even less.
With Memphis' season on the line, though, that hallmark defense has taken a worrisome hit:
Offense is included in this chart as a gauge of Memphis' overall performance.
This is the reason why the Grizzlies, with their postseason chances on the line, have gone just 2-4 over their last six games. At fault for Memphis' standing are the offense, the injuries and the decision to let Dave Joerger (who has done an impressive job in all, it must be noted) learn on the fly as an NBA head coach. At fault for the Grizzlies' inability to keep or make up ground in a photo-finish playoff race, on the other hand, is the defense that is so often taken for granted. For once it's the Grizzlies who look as if they've been ground down -- witness their flat-footed swipes at the ball, step-slow rotations inside and consistent trailing on the break. Sluggishness doesn't suit Memphis at all.
For all the talk of matchups and preferred opponents, the simple fact remains that Portland is a playoff team and Memphis is not right now. It would be a shame if a few games of lackluster defense broke the Grizzlies' postseason chances, but such is the way of this year's playoff cut. The margin for error in the West sits on a razor's edge, and no amount of respect or fear from the playoff pool can widen it.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.