Damian Lillard is probably wishing that his Portland Trail Blazers had drawn the San Antonio Spurs in the first round instead of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Blazers’ 97-82 loss in Game 2 of the opening round of the playoffs was their second straight ugly loss to the Grizzlies, bringing their overall record against the Grizz to 0-6 on the season. Most of the games haven’t even been close, as Memphis has an average point differential of 10.5 points in the six games.
Lillard has been a big part of those struggles. Despite having a good year, shooting 43.4 percent from the field and scoring 21 points per game, Lillard has had a rough go of it when playing against Memphis. In the six games, he has shot 41-114 from the field, which puts him at a 35.9 percent rate. Mike Conley is an excellent defender, and at this point he’s becoming Lillard’s main nemesis.
Not only has Conley consistently shut down Lillard on the defensive end, but he has been efficient on the offensive end as well. He’s shooting 54.5 percent in the first two games of the series, averaging 17 points in just about 26 minutes per game. He has been hampered by a sprained right foot that forced him to miss the last four games of the regular season, but the playoffs are a different animal. Conley knew he needed to rise to the challenge, saying before the series even started that he was going to give it everything he had despite not being at full strength, according to Mike Tokito of The Oregonian:
“I don’t think I’ll be 100 percent at all, but I never thought I wouldn’t play in a playoff game,” he said.
“He’s (Lillard) one of the best guards in the league,” Conley said. “We’re going to have our hands full regardless. I’m going to do the best I can defending him and just try to make him work a little bit. But it’s a team thing at the end of the day. We have a lot of guys on this team, and we all trust each other defensively that they’re going to be there to help us. We’re looking forward to it.”
Conley has certainly done his best defending Lillard. But bad shooting by the Blazers’ best playmaker aside, there are other reasons that they lost the game. Overall, the Blazers were just 6-20 from beyond the three-point line, including 1-6 from Nicolas Batum, 1-5 from Lillard and 0-4 from C.J. McCollum. LaMarcus Aldridge, who has played well against Memphis this year, averaging 24.6 points, shot well in the early going for Portland. Aldridge put up 24 points and 14 rebounds in the loss, however, he finished the game shooting just 7-20 from the field.
While the Blazers couldn’t seem to knock down a shot to save their lives, Memphis was having uncharacteristic success. On the year, the Grizzlies were 29th in the league in three-pointers made and attempted, and just 22nd in three-point percentage. But they made half of their three-point attempts in Game 2, shooting 8-16 from deep. Two of those eight came from Courtney Lee, who’s not a big-time scorer, but put up 18 points on 8-10 shooting overall. It was just that kind of night for Memphis, who seemed to have an answer for anything Portland did.
For a little more insight into how the Blazers can fix this mess, I give you some interesting stats. Lillard shoots 45.4 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from distance in wins, but just 40.5 percent from the field and 31.8 percent from downtown in losses. That’s a fairly big disparity, but often when teams win, it’s because star players are at their best. The interesting part is that Aldridge puts up his best stats in losses, averaging 25.6 points and shooting 47.9 percent versus just 22.3 points and 45.8 percent in wins. This likely speaks to the way that teams game plan for the Blazers. Letting Aldridge get his points while shutting down Lillard seems to have worked for the Grizzlies so far.
Hopefully Arron Afflalo can come back healthy for Portland and make a difference in this series. Some of the best lineups the Blazers have put out on the court this year featured Afflalo in the backcourt with Lillard. Without Wesley Matthews on the court and McCollum really struggling, Afflalo represents the only legitimate scoring guard that you can pair with Lillard. If nobody else on the perimeter can step up, Memphis is going to continue to hound Lillard with Conley and Tony Allen, which might mean Portland won’t need to travel back to Memphis at all.
Considering how things have gone, a sweep might be merciful.