Neither team has had the season they expected.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, expectations were high. After reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time in a generation, Portland had established itself as a title contender. Over the summer, the Trail Blazers experienced significant changes to their roster like many other teams in the Western Conference. However, despite significant additions such as Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside, the Trail Blazers struggled through the first third of their season. Though they have been playing better as of late, Portland’s season has been a disappointing experience thus far.
For the Memphis Grizzlies, expectations were low. Coming off a second consecutive season that resulted in a Top-5 draft pick and one of the most thorough roster turnovers in the NBA, many expected Memphis to be one of the worst teams in the league. However, rookies Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke have proven to be immediate impact players, while the further development of Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and a deep and productive bench has made Memphis a playoff contender. Though the Grizzlies rebuild is mere months old, it has been a resounding success so far and has resulted in Memphis becoming one of the biggest surprises in the NBA.
The unexpected paths of both franchises makes Wednesday night’s match-up quite the compelling clash - and a very important game, which you should buy tickets to now if at all possible. While it is the final game in the 2019-2020 season’s first half for both Portland and Memphis, it carries plenty of significance with the fact that the Grizzlies and Trail Blazers are separated by 2.5 games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. With an outcome that makes a two game difference in the standings, both Memphis and Portland need to be at the top of their games to achieve a big victory.
Since the beginning of 2020, the Grizzlies are 14-5 while the Trail Blazers are 11-10. However, since January 20th, Memphis is 7-4 and Portland is 7-3. Though their overall records may be similar, Memphis and Portland have performed in completely different ways. The Grizzlies have arguably been a top ten offense since the beginning of December, they are 25th in offensive rating since January 20th. Fortunately, Memphis has made significant strides defensively, as they are third in defensive rating over this same time frame. While the Grizzlies have regressed a bit as their competition has improved, they are also becoming a more complete team all-around.
As the Grizzlies have found success defensively, the Trail Blazers have been the best in the NBA offensively. Since January 20th, Portland ranks first in offensive rating and 27th in defensive rating. The Trail Blazers are first in points per game, first in FG%, first in 3PFG%, while also ranking second in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. Simply put, the Trail Blazers have arguably been the best offensive team in the NBA. And the main reason for their excellent production should come as no surprise.
His Name is Dame.
As in Damian Lillard, who has, in what has become an annual event, firmly presented his case for All-NBA and perhaps even MVP honors. Since January 20th, Lillard has averaged 41.5 points and 9.5 assists per game while shooting 51.5% from beyond the arc and 51.5% from the field overall. Lillard is averaging nearly seven threes per game over that stretch. Though it’s hard to find a word that can justify his efforts, otherworldly may be best guess. Besides Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Anthony, and Whiteside each provide a significant concern for opposing defenses. As the month of February has shown, when Lillard plays at this level, the depth of Portland’s scoring options is very tough to beat.
While Memphis does not have a talent on Lillard’s level, they do have Ja Morant. Morant delivered arguably the best game of his young career Sunday, recording his first triple double along with another memorable fourth quarter performance to lead Memphis to victory. Morant is averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 assists per game on 56% shooting in February. With other Grizzlies in a bit of a slump offensively, Morant will need to be at his best.
Without a doubt, the Grizzlies will have their hands full Friday Night. Memphis must be in top form offensively, while also remaining disciplined and aware defensively. Portland will look to continue its offensive dominance, while also hoping to make just enough stops throughout the night. Furthermore, the first of many memorable showdowns between Morant and Lillard is something no one should miss, especially in person.
Beyond Ja and Dame, here a few areas that could be the deciding factors in this very important game.
CAN DAME BE TAMED?
In a word, no.
But can he be contained? That answer may lie on the shoulders of De’Anthony Melton.
Both Memphis and Melton had the best tune up they could have for their match-up against Lillard in the person of Bradley Beal Sunday afternoon. Beal is second to Lillard in points per game since January 20th. While Beal scored 26 points, he was 10-25 from the field, and only made one three on six attempts. A big reason for that was effective defense from Melton. Considering the fact that Lillard will be playing of the fifth time in less than a week on Wednesday, fatigue could be a factor. If Melton can stay close and be active against Lillard, his effectiveness may be limited just enough of the Grizzlies to gain an advantage. If not, it could be a long night for the home team.
CREATE AND CONVERT EXTRA POSSESSIONS
On the season, Portland is 28th in offensive rebounds allowed per game and 28th in turnovers forced per game, yet are third in turnovers committed per game. The Grizzlies are 10th in defensive rebound percentage and 13th in turnovers forced per game, but are 23rd in turnovers committed per game.
The significance of these stats suggest the Grizzlies may have the advantage in creating extra possessions. However, Portland makes fewer errors on offense. As a result, the difference in this game could be decided by the discipline of Memphis. If they can create and convert extra scoring chances, it greatly improves their chances to win. However, if they make mistakes and give the Trail Blazers extra scoring chances, Portland will be tough to beat.
The Trail Blazers are last in the NBA in assists per game. However, they have been the best scoring team in the league over the past three weeks. The reason for their success is their depth of scoring options and shot creators. Lillard, McCollum, and Anthony each can find their own shot consistently. While limited ball movement may help the Grizzlies cause, Portland will likely find success against a young defense. As a result, Memphis must communicate and remain disciplined and in position to contest as many shots as possible. If they can get stops, Memphis can muster enough offense to win. However, if Portland gets in rhythm early, the Grizzlies may be playing from behind for much of the game.
Regardless of the narratives each team has faced in their journey to this match-up, Memphis and Portland are crossing paths at a critical time. The outcome of this contest will be highly consequential as both teams enter the stretch run for a playoff spot. With both teams having an extended break after Wednesday, both rosters will have every reason to give their best efforts. Portland’s experience and efficiency could be problematic for Memphis; with high levels of energy and execution, the Grizzlies can find a way to win.
Not matter what occurs, one truth remains clear. Whichever team makes the best decisions at this crossroads in the present will take a significant step forward in the right direction toward the playoffs in the future.
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