It’s March 12th, somehow we’ve blinked and the whole NBA season has gone by. The Blazers have two runs of more than two home games in a row left before we say farewell to 2012-13 and start putting together mocks for the 2013 draft and casting about for narratives of the future.
The first of those two home stands begins tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies, a team with a trajectory from the bottom of the Western Conference to very near the top that Portland should try to emulate. Memphis is a game up on the Denver Nuggets for the fourth seed (and home court advantage in the first round) in the West and a game back of the L.A. Clippers for the third seed.
One and two are all but locked up by the Spurs and Thunder, but that doesn’t mean the West is kind of wide open. If Memphis holds on to the four seed and avoids meeting Denver in Denver to start the playoffs, or climbs to the three seed, skipping the Nuggets entirely and going head-up with the Golden State Warriors in Round One and squaring off with San Antonio in the conference semi-finals, the Grizzlies could find themselves in the Conference Finals and nobody would bat an eye.
This is the same Memphis team that made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons in 2010-11 as an eight seed. Portland may will miss the playoffs this season, but if they’re in the mix for 2013-14, there’s no reason to believe that like the Grizz, the Blazers have a legit shot at the conference finals two seasons after that.
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 Tayshaun Prince, PF Ed Davis, C Marc Gasol
This is the second time in two weeks that Portland and Memphis have played. These two teams play for the fourth and final time in two more weeks. That the Blazers will be facing the same team two times in short succession will give head coach Terry Stotts an opportunity, of sorts, to simulate the playoffs.
Winning a seven-game series is about which coach and which team adjusts first. Tuesday’s game will turn on whether or not Portland can figure out a way to avoid the pitfalls that led to their loss less than a week ago in Memphis, a loss that came after the Blazers squandered an early double-digit lead.
Portland will avoid the come-back trap against the Grizzlies on Tuesday if they can play an up and down style of offensive game, the kind of game they played against San Antonio and failed to play against the Hornets in New Orleans.
Match-up wise, the Blazers focus needs to be on wing play. Last Wednesday, Nicolas Batum shot 4-of-10 from the field, slightly better than Wesley Matthews’ 4-of-11. For Portland to beat the Grizzlies for a second time in 2012-13, those shooting numbers have to go up.
LaMarcus Aldridge needs to improve his shooting too. The difference between the impact LA will have on Tuesday’s game as compared to the impact Matthews and Batum can have on the game is that Aldridge can have a greater impact on the game on the defensive end. Marc Gasol will be the Grizzlies primary offensive weapon. Last Wednesday Gasol led all scorers with 23. If LA can get that scoring number down (under 20 would be best) Portland can win regardless of how Aldridge plays on offense.
What to Watch for
- Meyers Leonard. Meyers is reported to be back. His sprained ankle (sustained in San Antonio) will end up keeping him out only one game. His last ankle sprain kept him out significantly longer and set his development back by about a month maybe more. Leonard has played his best ball as of late, hopefully this recent injury won’t negate any of the good we’ve seen recently. Having somebody who can score easily inside with the second unit is about the most important thing for the Blazers right now.
- Momentum. Portland has been able to cash in on momentum from time to time this season (home wins against the Heat and Celtics stand out in my mind), but they’ve also failed to cash in on momentum just as often, maybe even more often. Sunday evening in New Orleans, the Blazers were unable to build on an early lead or consolidate big offensive possessions with big defensive stops down the stretch. Some of that is based on momentum. If Portland can find a way to get a lead early or get hot and can carry that through to defensive stops, extended runs, or double digit advantages, they can beat the Grizzlies. The opposite is true too. If the Blazers are unable to take advantage of their opportunities and thus fail to build or leverage some momentum, this game goes to Memphis.
- Defense and rebounding. Ryan Anderson sunk the Blazers with a lay-up and a free throw on NOLA’s final possession. But he really sunk Portland on the Hornets’ second to last possession, a possession kept alive by an Anthony Davis offensive rebound. Fewer offensive rebounds, more completed defensive possessions, those two things (which are really the same thing) will be the difference maker for the Blazers on Tuesday.