Mike Conley will probably give Damian Lillard headaches on both offense and defense Friday night in Memphis. Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Game Preview: Portland Trail Blazers (16-15) Vs. Memphis Grizzlies (20-9)

The Memphis Grizzlies are the kind of team that in 2012-13 should drive long-term Blazer fans absolutely insane. Their rise exactly mirrors Portland’s fall, which in and of itself isn’t maddening. But add where Memphis was when Portland was on their recent rise to the disparity between these teams that now exists, and then you have the kind of thing that keeps Blazer die-hards tossing and turning in their beds at night.

Let’s review: Last season the Grizzlies finished 41-25 and were nominally upset by the LA Clippers in a pretty epic first round Playoff series; Portland spun out of control, fell apart, and ended up in the lottery. In 2010-11 Portland recorded 48 wins and 34 losses, and made the Playoffs for the final time in the Nate McMillan era, falling to the eventual Champion Dallas Mavericks; the Grizzlies finished 46-38, grabbed the eighth seed, and finished one game shy of the Western Conference Finals.

Although their Playoff finish was better in 2010-11 than in 2011-12, the Grizzlies were coming in as the Blazers were going out, that much we can all probably remember.

But do you remember this. 2006-07 Portland 32-50 Memphis 22-60. 2007-2008 Portland 41-41 Memphis 22-60. 2008-09 Portland 54-28 Memphis 24-48.

While the Blazers were rising from the basement of the Western Conference, the Grizzlies were languishing in the Draft Lottery. The sea change began in 2009-10. That season, Portland’s win total dipped for the first time in five seasons while Memphis jumped from 24 to 40 wins and basically announced that they were coming to play.

Portland fans should be frustrated by this because there was a time not so long ago when playing the Grizzlies was a good thing for a team needing a win. That time is not only over, if the Blazers should find a way to get a win in Memphis Friday evening, it will certainly be considered an upset.

If Portland hadn’t done themselves a disservice by beating the Knicks in Madison Square Garden to start this current trip (this will be the last time I talk about that win I swear), winning on the road against one of the top four teams in the Western Conference would easily be on the short list of biggest wins of the season.

Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson

Grizzlies Starting 5: PG Mike Conley, SG Tony Allen, SF Rudy Gay, PF Zach Randolph, C Marc Gasol

Can Portland beat the Memphis Grizzlies? Yes, of course they can. Any NBA team can beat any other NBA team on any night of the week. If you don’t believe that to be the undeniable truth, then you haven’t spent much time watching the NBA.

Will the Blazers beat the Grizzlies Friday night in Memphis? Well, that’s a very different question. Memphis is coming off a big win against the Celtics in Boston. We just saw Portland forget to show up for a game they could probably have won after winning a game they should have lost. Applying the transitive property of mathematics, Portland wins big road game then loses to an inferior opponent, Memphis wins big road game therefore they too must then lose to an inferior opponent.

There are some significant differences, of course, between what can be expected from the Grizzlies at home against Portland and what we basically knew was going to happen with the Blazers on the road in Toronto. Memphis wins big games. They’re one of the best teams in the West, top five in the league. A decent Playoff position, and the Grizzlies could take a serious shot at the Finals (that is if they don’t have to face the Clips until the Conference Finals).

Portland on the other hand, hasn’t beaten many good teams, they’re young, they (rightly so) have little to no expectations beyond competing and growing through 82 regular season games. They can be forgiven for taking a game off after winning at MSG (sorry that’s the last time I’ll bring it up). In fact, as I said previewing and recapping their loss in Canada, we should have expected it.

Should we also expect Portland to be checked out in Memphis? No. Will that change the outcome of Friday’s game? Probably not.

Memphis is the kind of team Portland matches up with just well enough to hang. But they simply do not have the depth needed to beat a Grizzlies team that is on their game. If the Blazers want to get their second win on this road trip, their margin for error is tiny. Turnovers, bad shots, poor defensive rotations, missed free throws, any combination of those things above and beyond what can be considered within the realm of normal, and Portland ends up on the wrong side of a blowout.

What to Watch For

  • Zach Randolph versus LaMarcus Aldridge. The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick took a long look at this match-up the other day. LA probably circled this game on his calendar prior to the start of the season. Z-Bo is, for my money, one of the very best power forwards in the game. He’s also one of the most difficult guys in the league to game plan for or to stop. Z-Bo’s a match-up nightmare because he knows what he’s good at and sticks almost exclusively to doing it. The best way to beat Zach Randolph is to hope he beats himself, which he barely does at all anymore. LaMarcus can and usually does get the better of Z-Bo. They are very similar types of players, with LA getting an important edge in the athleticism category. LaMarcus has been on a shooting tear as of late. If he wants to cement what I think is a deserved second straight trip to the All-Star Game, putting up big numbers against Randolph is very important.
  • Damian Lillard. I mentioned in a post game wrap up last week (I think) that I can sense an advanced statistics backlash against Dame brewing. This will come in part because some Internet writers hate to agree with mainstream writers/talking heads/ex-players who they believe don’t understand the minutiae of basketball in the same nuanced way they do. It will also come because Lillard’s advanced stats (notably his stats on the defensive end) aren’t as great as some of his co-rookies, and some people will undoubtedly point out that Dame is getting a lot of notice because he’s a much more important piece of the Blazers than say Andre Drummond is of the Pistons and not because his PER and Offensive Rebound Efficiency Rate (I think I made that one up) are off the charts. Even if it may sound like it, I’m not anti advanced statistics. For the sake of full disclosure, I’m not a stat guy in any sense of the word. I understand Damian’s negatives. I also understand (at least somewhat) what numbers can and cannot say about the impact a player has on his team or where they fit within the frame work of the NBA writ large. All that is a long lead-in to my saying that Damian Lillard might have his hands full defending Mike Conely and will likely be aggressively defended by everybody in a Memphis jersey. Damian has already shown that he struggles against tough, ball-denial, get up in your face defense, the kind of defense that makes Tony Allen more famous for his basketball than for his Twitter. Dame is also not a phenomenal defender, and Mike Conley is becoming a lethal offensive weapon. A big game against the Grizzlies could be big for Dame.
  • The battle of the benches. Portland’s bench we know. The Grizzlies bench consists of Darrell Arthur, Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Jerryd Bayless, Tony Wroten, and Hamed Haddadi. It’s not the Clippers’ bench. But on a good night, it can destory the Blazers’ bench. Keeping Wayne Ellington and Darrell Arthur from getting hot from deep will be important, as will keeping Marreese Speights out of the lane and off the glass. Luckily for Portland, the bench match-ups tend to lean toward more minutes for Joel Freeland. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Joel Freeland needs to play.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]




Tags: Blazers Damian Lillard LaMarcus Aldridge Memphis Mike Conley Tony Allen Zach Randolph

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