For the Portland Trail Blazers and its fans—who have grown accustomed to the lucky stroke of Damian Lillard—facing the defensive-minded Grizzlies in the first-round of the NBA playoffs is far from good fortune.
Season Series: 4-0, Grizzlies
Portland (Off. Rating: 8, Def. Rating: 10, Net Rating: 5)
Memphis (Off. Rating: 13, Def. Rating: 4, Net Rating: 11)
For the Portland Trail Blazers and its fans—who have grown accustomed to the lucky stroke of star point guard Damian Lillard—facing the Memphis Grizzlies in the first-round of the NBA playoffs is far from good fortune. The Grizzlies’ superior defense has heavily outweighed Portland’s efficiency on offense throughout the season (Memphis swept the Blazers 4-0), while they've also found a way to spike on the offensive end.
After starting the season on a 30-8 tear, Portland plummeted back to earth, finishing with a 20-17 record since the midway point. Part of the reason for the Blazers’ downfall can be attributed to the loss of sharpshooter Wes Matthews, who was averaging 15.9 ppg before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. Matthews was also one of the few players on the Blazers’ roster who actually played better when facing the Grizzlies. With Matthews out, Portland will have to find a way to overcome the regression its roster experiences when matching up with the No. 2 defense in the league.
For the Grizzlies, the focus will be on providing the offensive production needed to pair with one of the best defenses in the NBA. Since the All-Star break, Memphis has the No. 24 ranked offense, just ahead of the Nets, Bucks and Timberwolves. The Grizzlies proved in their season series with the Blazers that they can show up on the offensive end when it counts. If this team expects to move beyond the first-round, however, that offensive spark will be paramount to its success going forward.
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The Case For The Grizzlies
Even while posting a meager 98.3 ppg, Memphis still managed to put up an average margin of victory of 8.5 over Portland in its season sweep. Part of the reason for the jump in offense is the play of Jeff Green and Courtney Lee, who exploded against the Blazers, accounting for an increase of 10.5 ppg for Memphis. Even if the Grizzlies can extract half of that production from those two players, while keeping up their defensive prowess, they’ll be in good shape to close out this series in a matter of five or six games.
The main reason to believe in the Grizzlies in this series, however, is their defense. This season, Memphis has held teams to 95.1 ppg (second only to Utah’s NBA-best 94.9 mark), 35.1% from three-point range and 44.2% from the field. Forcing turnovers has also been key in Memphis’ ability to control games, getting teams to turn the ball over an average of 15.3 times per game, good for No. 8 in the league. Against the Blazers, it’s been a similar story this year: Portland’s points, assists and steals per game are all down when it faced Memphis.
Even with history on their side this season, the Grizzlies have an added advantage due to the injuries that have plagued the Blazers. Matthews is lost for the season and LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo, Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum have all been banged up or injured at some point this year. After that, Portland’s bench becomes incredibly thin, giving Memphis yet another opportunity to take over the series.
The Case For The Blazers
After getting swept this season, the Blazers’ chances of thwarting that pattern of ineptitude are slim, but if they’re able to lock down a few key players on Memphis' bench and improve their shooting percentages, they have a shot at stealing a few games and competing for a second-round berth.
The main factor holding Portland back is their offensive slumps when facing the Grizzlies. With the No. 9 ranked offense in the league, this team has the tools to hit shots from downtown and has proved it throughout the season—just not against the Grizzlies. At this point, Portland controls its own destiny. Injuries on the Grizzlies side may also provide the Blazers with enough of an edge to steal a game or two: Mike Conley and Tony Allen are both questionable heading into Sunday’s Game 1 matchup and are critical on both ends of the floor. That coupled with the fact that the Grizzlies are coming into the playoffs having lost six of their last 11 games gives the Blazers a chance. And if they can slow down Green and Lee, who have been key to the Grizzlies' success against Portland this season, they’ll put themselves in position to move on to the second round.
Jeff Green. With the No. 24 offense in the league since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies need to find a spark if they’re going to go deep into the playoffs. This season, Green has been on fire when facing Portland, putting up 17.3 ppg (up 4.3) on 51.3% from the field (up 8%) and 57.1% from downtown (up 20.5%). If that pattern continues, expect the Blazers to get bounced out of the first round sooner rather than later.
Telling stat: 8.9
When facing the Grizzlies, the Blazers have seen their average scoring total drop from 102.9 to 93.8 ppg, a difference of 8.9. That fall off is indicative of how much of an impact Memphis’ defense has on almost every player on the Blazers’ roster: Lillard’s three-point percentage dips from 34.3% to 26.7%, and he’s not the only one who experiences lulls on offense: Aldridge, Batum, Lopez, Kaman all exhibit similar slumps across the board.
Grizzlies in six. Defense is the key to winning championships, and Memphis has that part covered. As we’ve seen in each of their matchups this season, the Blazers just aren’t able to play their way and hit enough shots from downtown, as they’ve done all year. Without that part of Portland’s offense clicking, the Grizzlies capitalized and will continue that trend all the way into their second-round matchup.