The Trail Blazers knew exactly what makes the Memphis Grizzlies most dangerous. Terry Stotts mentioned it during pregame media availability, and Norman Powell singled it out first while chatting about the matchup with Brooke Olzendam on the court before tipoff.
The numbers, of course, are telling. But even if they weren't quite so indicative of Memphis' unmatched transition prowess, all you'd have to do is watch Ja Morant with a head of steam in the open floor to know that's where the Grizzlies separate themselves most.
Come time to play Friday's game, though, the Blazers seemed completely caught off guard by Memphis' consistent commitment to pushing the ball in transition. Does this seem like a team prepared for Morant's open-court speed and finishing ability?
Morant, maybe the fastest player in basketball, isn't close to full speed on the possession above. Still, at least his otherworldly burst, ball-handling flair and vertical explosion give Portland's porous transition defense an excuse.
Powell quickly identifies Morant here, and Damian Lillard does, too. The Blazers certainly could have done more to prevent him from catching the ball on the move unencumbered. Once they didn't, though, there's only much a defense can do to prevent a blur like Morant from getting all the way to the rim.
It wasn't just Morant, though.
On this sequence from late in the first quarter, Brandon Clarke realizes that he has an angle to the basket on Enes Kanter as the ball changes sides. He attacks immediately on the catch, taking two dribbles before launching for a layup from just inside the restricted area.
Why Robert Covington doesn't leave Jaren Jackson Jr. to stop the ball before Clarke gets to the paint is anyone's guess. The same goes for Kanter's casual approach to getting back against a team that adds more points through transition play than any other in the league, per the Cleaning the Glass.
Again, Portland knew exactly what was coming before the game. Memphis running the ball down their throat early should have been a forceful enough reminder for the Blazers to tighten up their transition defense, too, especially in crunch-time with playoff implications at stake.
Instead, Portland lost a late lead due in large part to its continued inability to keep Memphis out of the open floor. Not even a Blazers make or Morant only getting the ball past halfcourt prevented the Grizzlies from making huge plays in transition as the game hung in the balance.
Stotts, obviously, wasn't able to stop his team from letting Memphis get out on the break in the clutch. At least he made clear how unacceptable that was after the game.
"As far as the fourth quarter goes, we got a lead and they had two transition baskets after makes – that can't happen," he said. "They pushed the pace on us the entire game...We really didn't take away their transition at all for most of the night."
There are a limited number of facets in an NBA game that a team has even just marginal control over. Getting back on defense, fortunately for the Blazers, is one of them.
Is that alone enough to slow down Morant and the go-go Grizzlies? No way, but it's especially imperative for Portland regardless – not just due to its lacking defensive talent, but the major stakes of this ongoing three-game series with Memphis.