The Memphis Grizzlies (4-3) are looking to get back to their winning ways, but they’ll have to do so against one of the best teams in the Western Conference at the moment, the Portland Trail Blazers (5-1).
The Blazers haven’t played since Friday, giving them a ton of rest against the Grizzlies. However, the team won’t be starred by Damian Lillard, who is sitting out with a right calf strain.
To learn more about the Blazers, we spoke with Blazer’s Edge’s Ryan Rosback to discuss tonight’s matchup.
1. Damian Lillard is out with an injury for Wednesday’s game. Yet the Blazers are 5-1 atop the Western Conference Standings. How does the team still perform well without their best player?
Well, not to be crass but, playing the Rockets? Due to some funky scheduling, the Blazers have only played one full game in Lillard’s absence, Friday’s win against Houston. Portland didn’t entirely fall for the trap game formula, but the team didn’t exactly take care of business either, allowing the Rockets to hang around late into the fourth quarter. Memphis will be the first real test against a team actually trying to win games.
Although the two figuring out how to thrive together will eventually be the key to the Blazers’ success this season, Anfernee Simons is currently at his best when he can play point guard and dominate the ball. He had season-highs in both points (30) and assists (7) against Houston and will be the go-to guy on offense against the Grizzlies.
2. What’s the biggest difference between the Blazers this year vs. last year?
Size and speed, particularly on the wings. While Portland might not look very tall on paper (Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and Nassir Little are all 6’6” or under and make up 3/4 of the forward rotation), they have played “big.” Hart (who might miss this game as well with a concussion) has channeled Carl Landry, averaging over 9 boards a game, and Winslow has already guarded all five positions to positive effect as a Jack of all trades reserve. Hart’s ability to rebound and immediately get out in transition has been an absolute game changer. The dude is just relentless in attacking the basket on the fast break, which he does with Terminator-like determination (sometimes even to his own detriment). Whether he succeeds or not in scoring, the pressure it puts on opposing defenses has been huge. The Blazers have racked up transition buckets and free throw attempts like never before in the Lillard era and are far more exciting to watch to boot.
This doesn’t even get to how Jerami Grant is by far the most talented frontcourt player Dame has played with since LaMarcus Aldridge and provides much needed scoring balance, or that the one player who may ultimately dictate how far this team goes is actually a 19-year-old rookie. More on him later.
The other obvious answer is defense - something so rare to witness for Portland fans that some began to doubt its very existence. While the sample size is still small, and includes the historically bad Lakers offense, the early returns have been remarkable. Billups has mixed up a steady dose of 2-3 zone in his coverages and (most) opponents thus far have failed to make them pay. I wouldn’t expect Portland to be a top-5 defensive team by the end of the season, but almost anything towards the middle of the pack would be a substantial improvement.
3. What’s one thing people should know about the Blazers that can’t be found in a box score?
Have you watched Shaedon Sharpe’s highlights yet? If not, go do that now and then come back because no box score can adequately describe how much “It” factor this kid has. Don’t get me wrong, 5-1 is amazing and Portland fans are over the moon, but little has ignited the fanbase like the (albeit limited) play of the team’s highest draft pick since Lillard.
Before the regular season began, it wasn’t clear that Sharpe would be part of the rotation at all, but Chauncey Billups threw him into the fire on Day One and hasn’t looked back. Even in limited minutes, Sharpe has been tantalizing to watch with a silky-smooth jumper, veteran footwork and out of this stratosphere hops. He dropped a two-handed alley-oop over LeBron in his third NBA game and that was only like his fifth most impressive dunk that week. He is a walking And-1 mixtape. That combination of skill, size and athleticism is something the Blazers have starved for, and while we as fans could be guilty of overhyping yet another promising rookie, everything about Sharpe just feels special. If neither Lillard or Hart are a go, he should be getting big minutes.
4. If the Blazers were to lose Wednesday, what would be the reason why?
Inexperience. Portland will be fielding never before seen lineups while most of the Grizzlies have the benefit of several seasons of playing together. The Blazers have had a few extra days to prepare, but will surely be figuring out a lot on the fly. Sharpe will have to continue acclimating to NBA basketball while covering extended minutes and facing a team that probably has his name circled on the scouting report. If Ja Morant gets going, as I’m sure you all know, Memphis becomes very difficult to outscore.
5. What’s your prediction for the game?
The safest prediction is that Sharpe will have another poster-quality dunk, for which he seems to be good for at least a couple per game.
60+ combined points for Morant + Simons.
Lead changes in all periods.
A Jusuf Nurkic/Steven Adams double-technical.
I think playing without Dame will help Portland embrace the underdog role and put pressure on the Grizzlies to break their spirit and put them away early. If the Blazers are allowed to build confidence, it’s going to be a long night.