The Memphis Grizzlies had a pivotal moment on Wednesday night when they faced the Portland Trail Blazers. Since the moves at the trade deadline, many members of the national media believed that the Grizzlies would be unable to hold onto the eighth playoff spot. Memphis rejected that notion with authority, claiming a hard fought 111-104 victory over Portland. Largely considered to be the biggest threat to the Grizzlies’ playoff hopes, Portland now sits a full 4 games behind Memphis in the standings.
It wasn’t easy, though, as Portland played with the hustle and energy that you would expect from a team fighting for their playoff lives. Their star player (Damian Lillard) scored 20 points with 10 assists. Their sixth man (Anfernee Simons) seemingly couldn’t miss, shooting 6-7 from 3 on his way to a 22 point, 7 rebound outing. Even their power forward and center (Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside) out-rebounded their Grizzly counterparts 26-23. But, in the end, it wasn’t enough to overcome a Memphis Grizzlies squad that continues to eschew the expectations of others.
From the opening tip, “Headband 12” (as Ja Morant requested to be introduced) was ready to go. He was attacking the rim, utilizing his court vision to find openings for his teammates, and providing leadership for a young squad that looked like seasoned veterans. Brandon Clarke got in on the action as well, tying his career-high of 27 points in addition to 6 rebounds. Even Gorgui Dieng, in his first game with Memphis, fit right into the team chemistry and provided 12 quality minutes of support off the bench. Now headed into the All-Star break, it would appear that the Memphis Grizzlies have no intention of letting go of their spot in the playoffs.
Ja Morant: 20 points on 9-23 shooting, 0-5 from three, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 turnovers
Morant came out firing in this one, scoring three of the Grizzlies’ first 5 baskets and assisting on the other two. His court vision was on full display throughout as he made laser passes that consistently found holes in the Portland defense. Some of those passes were so breathtaking that they even caught his teammates by surprise, resulting in even fewer assists than he should’ve had. While he struggled from three-point land, he otherwise couldn’t be stopped and provided good defense against one of the best backcourts in the league.
Brandon Clarke: 27 points on 12-14 shooting, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, 0 turnovers
Clarke had arguably his best game of the season. His 27 points tied a career high, only this time it was done on 5 fewer shots. The Trail Blazers didn’t seem to have an answer for him. Coming off the bench, it seemed as though he could be found for an alley-oop almost every trip down the court. He was active on the boards and defense as well, and didn’t commit a single turnover in 23 minutes of court time. He truly made it a debate as to which Memphis rookie had the best game last night. When that happens, Memphis wins.
- The Memphis bench was tremendous and proved to be the difference maker in a game where the starters for both teams were slugging it out with each other all night. In addition to Clarke’s contributions, the quartet of Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson, De’Anthony Melton, and Dieng contributed 27 points on 11-21 shooting, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists with only four turnovers. Grade: A+
- Jonas Valanciunas was in a heavyweight title fight it seemed, engaging in a very physical battle with Whiteside almost the entire game. I say almost because the pair would receive off-setting technical fouls that would see Whiteside, having incurred a technical foul earlier in the contest, exit the game with less than 20 seconds to go. Valanciunas won the war, finishing with 12 points, 18 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 27 minutes. Grade: A
- Jaren Jackson Jr may have struggled with his shooting, but he still found ways to contribute consistently throughout the game. Rather than let his 1-6 shooting get him down, he made up for it with rebounding and spectacular defense. He finished the evening with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 1 steal in 33 minutes. Grade: B+