The Memphis Grizzlies are gearing up for the first of three games versus the Portland Trail Blazers over the next six days. A frustrating loss Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers notwithstanding, Grizzlies nation should be booming with optimism — the team’s second-best player, Jaren Jackson Jr., returned to the lineup and performed as if he’d never left. Jackson Jr. nearly scored a point per minute, dropping 15 in just 18 minutes of action, and pulled down eight rebounds to boot. It won’t be long before Jackson Jr. is back to his old self, dominating on the offensive end from both inside and out and seamlessly switching onto a cornucopia of players.
Seeking a red-and-black perspective, I chatted with a wonderful up-and-coming writer in Marlow Ferguson Jr., a contributor for Blazer’s Edge.
Does Damian Lillard merit MVP consideration?
I think he does, absolutely. His recent injuries notwithstanding, it’s difficult to make a case that 10 players across the league have been better than him in 2020-21. When you think about what this Portland group has had to endure — CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have combined to miss 60 of a possible 114 games — this isn’t a team that has any business challenging for home court advantage in the Western Conference. Yet they’ve done it all season.
That being said, his chase for the No. 1 spot is slipping, and quickly at that. Injuries have caught up to him, and the Blazers’ recent slide certainly doesn’t help matters. In the last 38 years, we’ve only had one Most Valuable Player that didn’t have a top-three seed, and it’s unlikely Portland sneaks into that top tier of teams. Chalk him up for All-NBA and some consideration. But it’s a tough sell to argue that he’s going outright to win the award.
Where do you have double-double machine Enes Kanter ranked among Portland’s best players?
This might be an underselling, but I would say No. 6. My order would go: Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Covington, Nurkic, and then Anthony, but that’s arguable. This year, he’s been thrust into a role where he’s had to become Portland’s best big with Nurkic in and out of the lineup. In terms of value in 2020-21, he’s got a case for the top four. But with everyone at their best, he slides down a bit.
In my eyes, he’s the NBA’s best offensive rebounder and second-chance scorer, a trait that can’t be appreciated enough on those nights where Portland clanks it from deep. Of the NBA’s top 28 offensive rebounders this season, Kanter ranks No. 1 in terms of percentage. He loses some points from me because of that flat-footed defense, and for how much of a victim he is in Portland’s drop coverage on defense. That, and we’ve seen him get played off the floor in the postseason a few times, which limits his overall value. So, No. 6 feels safe.
The Blazers are three games back of a depleted Lakers team. Is Portland poised to leapfrog Los Angeles in the standings?
This is a great question. I’m going full-on pessimism and saying no, for a few reasons: (1) the Blazers can’t seem to stay out of their own way in terms of injuries, (2) the Lakers are reintroducing Anthony Davis back to the lineup on Thursday, and (3) the Blazers have the fifth-hardest remaining schedule, compared to the Lakers’ No. 17 ranked schedule.
And something tells me the Blazers are going to err on the side of caution when it comes to the health of Damian Lillard. Last night’s loss to Denver only pushes things further back, and you’d have to think: you’d rather be at full health, even if it means a Play-In Game at No. 6, versus forcing the issue and trying to get the unlikely No. 5 spot. I like the long-term play here.
What is Portland’s best case scenario this season?
It’s becoming harder and harder to buy stock in an NBA Finals appearance, so if this team manages to return to the Western Conference Finals, or puts up a spirited battle in the Western Conference Semis against one of the top-4 teams, that sort of feels like a “success.” I’d venture to say that we’re getting close to head coach Terry Stotts maybe “losing” control of the team, but that’s just what I see as an outsider. There are some real problems with this team in terms of scheme, effort, and accountability. Any team with Damian Lillard has a chance at the Western Conference Finals in my eyes, and this is no different. Best case scenario, they do enough to compel Norman Powell to sign a long-term deal and retool next season. But there’s no title in sight, it feels like.
Which head-to-head matchup will determine the outcome of this game?
This game feels as though it’ll come down to the battle of the benches and who wins that head-to-head matchup. Even a whole year later, it’s difficult to erase Brandon Clarke’s performances from memory last season. The skills and traits he excels at get amplified when he plays Portland. Ja Morant’s going to put pressure on the rim, and force Portland to send two. That, paired with their drop coverage should give Clarke some opportunities to roll, drop in his patented floater, and crash the offensive glass a bit.
A season ago, he averaged 24.0 points and 6.5 rebounds against Portland — the only team that allowed him to average 20 or more — and though his production has curtailed a bit over the last few weeks, this is the matchup that could get him going. Add in Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, and Xavier Tillman, among others, and this is a team with the talent to take it to Portland’s fiery-but-inconsistent bench. Only three benches league wide score more than Memphis, so stopping that gets Portland closer to a win.