The first postseason game of 2015 between the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers worked out exactly to the Grizzlies’ liking. Their injured players looked just fine – albeit Tony Allen was limping around a little – and their defensive game plan was executed to perfection. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol frustrated LaMarcus Aldridge to a a 13-34 effort despite the 32-point scoring total. This is how the Grizz will win most postseason basketball games, and games overall, and nothing changed Sunday night in a 100-86 beat down.
Things might not remain the same for either team, but it at least looks more sustainable and realistic that the Grizzlies function like this and the Blazers struggle to produce much of anything the rest of the way. Arron Afflalo will be back. Meyers Leonard probably needs more minutes to stretch out a cramped-in Grizzlies defense. C.J. McCollum will absolutely play better and more confidently at home.
But this is how Gasol plays. He locks down the paint while manufacturing looks all over the court. Randolph forced Aldridge into an early technical and bullied him throughout the game. In his head. Allen shot through passing lanes. Mike Conley slithered around and through Damian Lillard. These aren’t potential things that might happen. These are sustainable and likely happenings each and every game.
And speaking of perhaps the most disappointing, and the death knell for Portland, of the entire series: Whatever has happened to Lillard needs to stop and stop now if the Blazers hope to even win one game. Not only did he struggle to a 5-21 game but he, and the entire Blazers defense, allowed Beno Udrih to shoot like his last name was Curry. Udrih ran free around screens for what looked like an entire half, leading to 20 points on 9-14 shooting.
And that has been the pitfall for the Blazers all season. The defense was strong with Wesley Matthews taming the strongest perimeter player. Without him, and even Afflalo, a tad overrated defender but still solid, it creates a chain effect for the rest of the team. The Grizzlies struggle almost permanently because they can’t score efficiently. If the Blazers can’t find a way to reinforce those struggles, they can’t hope to contain a team that’s excelling through their strengths and weaknesses.
Aldridge had a strong game in terms of output, but he worked entirely too hard, and right into the Grizzlies’ game plan. Memphis is happy with Aldridge volume-shooting if it means that Lillard is shut down, McCollum is gun-shy, and Nicolas Batum and Steve Blake are non-factors. The Grizz doubled at times, and simply let LMA shoot mid-range jumpers most of the other time. It coalesced into a blowout of standard Grit n Grind proportions, with Z-Bo chuckling and pounding his chest after a hard foul. It led to Allen celebrating with a frenzied crowd after another forced turnover. And it will lead to more Grizzlies victories if Lillard can’t cover up his play on both ends. It’s a tall and perhaps unfair and impossible task. But it’s one that the Blazers face right now.