The last time the Grizzlies faced off against the Blazers, Mike Conley went off for a career high 40 points. Things are a bit different now, as both teams have lost a handful of crucial players to injury. The Blazers will be without C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, while the Grizzlies will be without essentially half the roster, likely including Mike Conley and Jonas Valanciunas. To get caught up with what has been going on with the Blazers, I chatted with Steve Dewald of Blazer’s Edge.
1) The Western Conference standings are insanely tight right now. What is the ideal potential first round match-up for the Blazers?
As you mentioned, this field is so close it really comes down to picking your poison. James Harden and the Rockets have the firepower to grind the Nurk-less Blazers to a pulp. The Jazz have the potential to achieve the same outcome on the opposite end. Utah’s defense-first mentality would put a ton of pressure on Damian Lillard. That leaves the Clippers. Los Angeles has a deep cast of contributors, but Lillard would be the best player in that series by a wide margin. Plain and simple: there is no easy path in the Western Conference.
2) With Jusuf Nurkic out for the rest of the year, who is going to need to step up for the Blazers to make a deep post season run?
It comes down to two players in my opinion. First, C.J. McCollum would have to return to his pre-injury form. Prior to suffering a popliteus strain, it appeared that McCollum was finally hitting his rhythm after enduring a relatively pedestrian season (by his standards). McCollum is the key to the Blazers’ offense when opponents aggressively trap Lillard on every possession.
Outside of a full recovery from McCollum, second-year big man Zach Collins has to find a way to impose his will. On paper, the former Gonzaga standout has the versatility to be effective on both ends of the court. Defensively, he can hold his own in space and alter shots in the paint. Those two traits should give him the edge over Enes Kanter when the game is on the line. It is a lot to ask of the 21-year-old big man, but he will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself.
3) What is the match-up you are looking forward to the most in tonight’s game?
I’ll be watching to see how Kanter performs against whoever gets called upon to fill the spot vacated by Jonas Valanciunas. Since arriving in Portland, Kanter has done an excellent job creating second opportunities on the offensive glass. If the Blazers struggle to find their legs after a long road trip, they will need the former Knicks center to produce points to stay afloat during cold stretches.
4) The last game between these two teams was an exciting one that saw Mike Conley drop a career high. What’re your expectations going into tonight’s game?
This will be the Blazers’ first game back in the Moda Center since Jusuf Nurkic suffered a horrific leg injury against the Nets. If the Bosnian Beast makes his way to the arena to occupy a spot behind the bench, I expect that the Rip City faithful will give him a heartfelt and extended ovation. Like Lillard, Nurkic has become part of Portland’s culture. If he does make an appearance, it will be up to the players on the court to harness that energy against a scrappy Grizzlies squad.
5) What’re your overall expectations for the Blazers in regards to the playoffs?
It is hard to put rigid expectations in place after the Blazers’ sudden and impactful injuries. For me, it is crucial that the team ends its 10-game losing streak in the playoffs. It would be a bonus to make it out of the first round, but I would settle for a string of strong performances from Lillard. The Pelicans made things miserable for Lillard last year. It would be nice to see him silence doubters with a handful of high-scoring outbursts.