On Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers (15-12) bring the familiar duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to town. Much like the Grizzlies, Portland has been feast or famine this year, with 4 separate streaks of 3 wins or 3 losses.
To help us get an insider’s perspective on the matchup, I reached out to the good folks at @ripcityproject to help answer this week’s burning questions.
Portland started off the season at an exceptional pace, winning 10 of their first 13 games. Since then, they have won 5 of their last 13 games and now sit in the 8th slot in the West. What are some of the factors that led to this swing in momentum?
Defensive effort/intensity and team-wide shooting slumps. Throughout much of the Blazers losing, they have been destroyed from beyond the arc, often opting to dare just about anyone on the opposition to shoot. They seemed to want to get into scoring battles with other teams, and they just couldn’t consistently contend by doing this because much the team wasn’t shooting well. Al-Farouq Aminu just recently started knocking down shots, Maurice Harkless is still recovering from injury and may or may not actually be a good shooter, Seth Curry has hit 44% of his threes but he’s only shooting two per game while his two-point percentage is below 30%, and CJ McCollum has been less lethal this year. The Blazers are a tight-knit group, and the losing doesn’t seem to have changed that. But something’s seemed off with their defensive effort. Thankfully, they got a game against the Phoenix Suns to get everything back on track, and they looked rejuvenated on the less glamorous side of the ball in their win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
What role players have been a surprise and stepped up for the Trail Blazers this season?
Definitely Nik Stauskas. I mean, when you go off for 24 points in the home opener against LeBron’s Lakers, people are going to remember you for a good chunk of the season – even if you fall into oblivion. But Stauskas has mostly kept up his production. He isn’t a nightly 10-15 point scorer, and he’s only hitting 34% of his triples, but he has the ability to lift the Blazers any given night right now. And not just with his shooting – he can put the ball on the deck, get the offense moving, and make some crafty passes. There’s much more in his arsenal than I thought!
Meyers Leonard has also been solid this season. He is one of those guys that Blazers fans have fallen in love with during the summer and then viscerally hate about 25-50% of the way through the season. You’re always going to get some Leonard haters due to his sizable contract, but if you look at his production in a vacuum this year, he’s having a really nice year. He’s rebounding better than he has almost ever (4.4/game) and he is shooting .500 from deep. Granted, he’s only taking 1.8 three-point attempts per game, and he’s looked hesitant in letting it fly this season for some bizarre reason, but he’s been better than I expected – rather than wanting him on the bench, I want him shooting it more.
The Point Guard matchup between Damian Lillard and Mike Conley will be one to keep an eye on, as both guys are fighting to earn a spot on the All-Star team this year. The way Dame has played so far this season, do you think he is a shoe-in to make an appearance in Charlotte?
For sure! Dame is our guy! Right now, he’s got career-highs in points (27.2), rebounds (5.2), and field goal percentage (.445). Plus, with how strong the Western Conference is, and how Portland was expected to miss the playoffs by many analysts’ predictions (ESPN, FiveThirtyEight), if the Blazers can find their way into a mid-seed, I think Lillard is going to rightly get a ton of credit for that. He is the engine that moves this team, both on- and off-the-court. When the Blazers succeed, you know that Lillard is also succeeding.
Portland is one of the best rebounding teams in the league, while Memphis is one of the worst. Do you think that will play a big impact on the outcome of this game?
Honestly, I wish I could say it would, but I don’t think so! The Blazers have also been prone to turning the ball over, and they don’t capitalize on turnovers often themselves. Their stellar rebounding is what has kept them in a lot of games when their shooting and looseness should’ve played them out. No doubt, any advantage helps, but I think the key will be if the Blazers bring it defensively to contain Mike Conley and stop Marc Gasol’s beastly pick-and-pop game (something Jusuf Nuric had a ton of trouble with in an early matchup against the Wizards’ Markieff Morris), and whether guys like Aminu and Stauskas are hitting their shots to give Dame and CJ space to operate.
What are a few key areas that we should keep an eye on during this matchup?
You’re going to want to watch how the Blazers defend the pick-and-pop. With guys like Marc Gasol and incredible rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies could torch Portland in these actions. The Blazers love to play a drop-big defense, and they seemingly lack the communication to play up on shooting big men, instead opting to protect the paint at all costs. And, obviously, who reigns supreme between Damian Lillard and Mike Conley! This game could definitely turn into a firefight between those guys.