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How the Blazers countered the Grizzlies with Meyers Leonard

Meyers has parted the Grizzlies defense.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Easy premise: the playoffs bring out the best in NBA basketball. But it's not just about pitting the best rosters against each other. It's also a meeting of the minds, when the world's greatest hoops thinkers are put to work against each other across seven games. Matchups are dynamic – teams prepare, execute, and react. The Memphis Grizzlies were never coming in waiting to be steamrolled by Damian Lillard. They came with a plan. The fun starts when the Portland Trail Blazers counter, nitpicking through obscurities until they find a solution.

Those are the circumstances that led to Meyers Leonard going cult-hero in a 99-92 Game 4 win, just a single game removed from a 5 MIN-CD in Game 3. With his back against the wall and a four-game sweep pressing up on him, Blazers coach Terry Stotts unleashed Leonard for 35 minutes in Game 4, and Leonard earned his keep with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Leonard was the Blazers' answer to a game plan that has worked all series for the Grizzlies, and that flips the burden of re-scheming back to Dave Joerger and friends.

A three-point shooting seven-footer is always a tricky thing to deal with, and Leonard went 3-of-3 from deep in Game 4. His first make illustrated his quirkiness, with Marc Gasol just never remembering that he had a guy to pick up at the three-point line.

Leonard's ability to draw Gasol away from the action – or else – is what makes him so dangerous in this series. Gasol's brand of rim protection has always been predicated upon savvy off-ball positioning, and the Grizzlies had counted on his help defense to hold LaMarcus Aldridge to midrange looks while throwing a two-man trap at Damian Lillard out of pick-and-rolls.

The key there was that Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman were complete non-threats past 18 feet. Gasol could zone up, watching two guys himself while both pick-and-roll defenders swamped Lillard. Aldridge was within close-out distance, and the Grizzlies were okay with giving up otherwise open midrange jumpers.

Early on, that plan did a fine job of limiting the Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-roll, one of the core staples to Portland's offense. In Game 1, Lillard recorded 14 points on 24 shooting possessions, while Aldridge used 36 possessions to score 32. Similar story in Game 2, with Lillard scoring 18 on 20 possessions and Aldridge notching 24 on 25.

But Leonard was a problem. Gasol has to be aware of him out to the three-point line, giving the Blazers more spacing than they could've gotten out of Lopez or Kaman. Suddenly, the Grizzlies couldn't trap the pick-and-roll anymore, because their helping big man was yanked off to chase a three-point shooting seven-footer. They changed their scheme up, but without advantage in numbers it was a lot harder to keep Lillard out of the lane. He could turn the corner on Zach Randolph and gut a vulnerable Grizzlies defense:

Dave Joerger tried some in-game quick fixes, defending Leonard with Randolph and Jeff Green at different points. Neither really worked – rejiggering the matchups didn't solve the extra spacing or help contain the Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-rolls. The key had been Gasol patrolling the post, but with Leonard the Blazers could run four-out pick-and-rolls with nobody in the paint. Lillard finished with 32 points on 26 scoring possessions, and after the game, Terry Stotts made a point of mentioning Leonard's spacing contributions, aiding dribble penetration even during his scoreless second half.

He also acknowledged what Leonard did beyond three-point shooting. Leonard earned his keep on the floor by not being bullied off by Gasol or Zach Randolph on the other end; he roped in 13 boards and held his own defending the low block (he ranked near the median on Synergy's post-up defense tracking in the regular season). Without a performance like that, the Grizzlies could've broken even by beasting through Leonard with brute physicality.

Now leading up to Wednesday's Game 5, Leonard is suddenly a player of significance. How the Grizzlies prevent him from doing it again will play a big hand in the outcome. The best bet may simply be to dare him to do it again, particularly on defense and the boards. Without Mike Conley, the Grizzlies are missing their best pick-and-roll slasher, but Beno Udrih could be enough to make Leonard's head swirl. Leonard is far from having swung the series in the Blazers' favor, but because of him, they're not done yet; the Grizzlies have an adjustment to make.

Anyway, I told you so.