After failing to close out the series in a clean sweep in Game 4, the Memphis Grizzlies bounced back at home on Wednesday evening to beat the Portland Trail Blazers by a score of 99-93 in Game 5 to advance to the second round against the Golden State Warriors.
For the Blazers, the loss kicks off a summer of uneasy questions. LaMarcus Aldridge seems to have one foot out the door, with rumors that he’s, at best, 50/50 on returning to Portland this summer as a free agent. As the Blazers’ leading scorer, rebounder and only consistent scoring threat in the post, losing Aldridge for nothing would represent a massive step backwards for the franchise.
As far as this playoff series goes, Aldridge continued to do his thing with 21.8 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game. However, those numbers came at a cost, as Aldridge shot just 33 percent for the series. It was a microcosm of Portland’s performance against Memphis as a whole, as they struggled to find consistent and efficient scoring against one of the best defenses in the league.
Aldridge wasn’t the only culprit for Portland, though. Arron Afflalo, a mid-season acquisition and an important offensive player for the Blazers, was limited to just three games because of a shoulder injury and shot just 2-for-12 in the series. Nicolas Batum shot 34.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent on three-pointers. Damian Lillard, who bounced back a bit after a real rough start to the series, still only shot 40.6 percent overall and 16.1 percent on threes.
The bright spot for the Blazers was the late emergence of shooting guard C.J. McCollum. After scoring only eight total points in Games 1 and 2, McCollum averaged 25.6 points over the final three games of the series while shooting 11-for-17 from downtown. It’s unfortunate that he was unable to find his stroke until the Blazers already had their back against the wall, facing a 2-0 deficit. But if there’s any silver lining for the Blazers, it’s that this was a coming out party of sorts for McCollum, who looks like he could be budding into a reliable scoring option next to Lillard.
On the winning side of the court, Memphis is just glad to get this series over without further pain. Questions still surround the timetable for getting Mike Conley back from his face surgery, as it could be a week or a month before he returns. Conley is a vital cog in what makes Memphis so good, as he’s one of the better one-on-one defensive point guards in the league and is an underrated offensive player as well. If he has to miss serious time in the second round, it’s hard to envision the Splash Brothers not running roughshod all over Memphis, even with Tony Allen around.
Memphis’ strategy for closing out the series in Game 5 seemed obvious from the start: feed Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol the ball, and force Portland to play post defense. In the end, Randolph and Gasol combined for 42 points and 22 rebounds, and Aldridge, Meyers Leonard and Robin Lopez combined for 16 fouls, with Aldridge and Leonard both fouling out. The size and post play of the Grizzlies was just too much for the Blazers.
So it’ll be the Warriors hosting the Grizzlies when the second round opens in the Western Conference on Sunday. The Grizzlies will surely be spending their free time focused internally on their defense, considering they allowed 105.3 points per game to the Warriors in dropping the season series, 2-1. But these are okay problems to have at this stage in the NBA season.
While the Grizzlies gameplan for the Warriors, the Blazers have nothing left to do but wait and wonder. What does life without Aldridge look like? What does the future hold for Wesley Matthews? It may not have been a sweep, but closing out the series 4-1 shined a light on the very different directions these teams are headed.