We’re gonna try something a little different, if you don’t mind: Instead of a live-blog (neither my connection, nor Blogtown, are best built for constant live updates) We’re gonna go more with a recap styled blog, the kind you’re used to here on Blogtown when Steve is openly hating Carl, or Erik is getting all verklempt over the Ponds, but instead of tv shows, it’s amazingly skilled athletes, drenched in sweat and sportswear, throwing balls at each other and sometimes, through a hoop.
TO SET THE STAGE:
Less than a week ago, the Blazers took their sweaty and desperate season into Memphis, looking to steal a victory away from a playoff-bound squad in the hopes of keeping their hopes healthy, even though some players (Nicolas Batum – tweaked wrist, Meyers Leonard – sprained ankle, LaMarcus Aldridge – chronic pout) can’t exactly fit that description themselves. What happened is the Blazers played great, and then ineffectually scrambled around the fourth quarter as a 17 point lead just slipped through their fingers.
The playoff fire is quietly guttering in the hearts of only the most die-hard; pretty much the rest of the country is paying attention to Portland to see if Lillard will ever hit the legendary “Rookie Wall.” However, if there is a wall, I don’t think Lillard’s gonna hit it; in fact, I think he saw it, and phased through it like Kitty Pryde somewhere around the 20th game or so. He’s currently occupying rarified rookie air, standing next to players like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, both of whom also averaged 18 points and 6 assists per game in his rookie year. But don’t get it twisted; Francis and Damon Stoudamire are in that same group. So maybe the air isn’t so much rarified as it is nicely Oregonian: Crisp, cool, and tinged with the faintest hint of green.
But the Blazers shouldn’t be too disheartened – the fact they got a 17 point lead on a team considered one of the best, if not the best, defensively, is nothing to sneeze at. But that team didn't have their star, Zack Randolph, and the Blazers managed to lose anyway. Aldridge contributed one of those double doubles that somehow doesn’t help the team any, which is a category he excels in. Instead, Marc Gasol stomped all over the team like some sort of shaved sasquatch, startled into action. The Blazers had no answer for him then, but I’ve heard that JJ Hickson has lined the inside of his shorts with Jack Link’s beef jerky, which should distract Gasol from his defensive assignments enough to let backups Meyer Leonard and Joel Freeland throw down some mayonnaise tomahawks for the cameras.
THE FIRST HALF:
Zach Randolph essentially starts the game by taking the ball out of bounds, walking to Paul Allen, smiling, and shaking his hand. Like “Hey man.” Like “Thanks for paying me all that money.” Like “Thanks for then trading me to Memphis where I became more powerful than anyone possibly imagined.” Allen just smiled back at him. He probably doesn’t even really know where he is right now. If I had to bet, he’s probably still twisted off the swindling his Seahawks GM perpetrated on the rest of the NFL.
Speaking of twisted – Batum’s wrist is still not 100%. In fact, considering that his three-point attempt just basically splattered against the window like a big orange bug, I’d say he should probably just sit the next week or two, rather than risk permanently fucking it up chasing after a playoff dream that will not be visiting this city any time soon. Publicly, he’d likely disagree. Privately, he might still disagree. But ball don’t lie, and he only takes three more jumpers for the rest of the night, and they are all broken things.
Early defensive strategy seems to be “Double-team Gasol and Randolph, and hope that Tayshaun Prince and Mike Conley beat us.” I don’t know if that’s the safest bet. Prince may be a little past his prime, and he may not look all that intimidating (he looks like Herge drew him, honestly) but he’s daggered more than a few teams in his past. Early on, the plan seems to work well; there’s a possession where Aldridge chokes Gasol to death with his armpit as Gasol gathers himself skyward for a jumper. No whistle blows, and Gasol gestures to the refs with a look on his face like “Why cookie rocket?”
But adherence to that plan becomes progressively less adhesive, like scotch tape left out on a table too long. Aldridge, after 3 or so minutes, repeatedly leaves Randolph to hoist his sludgy little jumpers from 15ft out. Lillard puts the team on his back, and runs off 9 quick points, with plays that include “stab step Tony Allen like he isn’t one of the best defensive guards in the league” and “run towards the corner, leap into mid-air, float about four feet, backwards, before twisting and releasing.”
But Marc Gasol is once again there to answer the Blazers’ offense, starting by going right at Meyers Leonard like he isn’t one of the best defenders in the league – because he isn’t. Leonard gets a chance at redemption after Tayshaun Prince coughs up a crappy pass, comes gliding through the lane and puts the one-hander down something fierce. Prince didn’t even try to contest it – Brandon Knight’s death at the hands of DeAndre Jordan will not go in vain this night.
Leonard goes three-for-three in this first half, and the Blazers leave the first quarter holding onto their end of a 21-21 tie, but that’s the last bit of freedom Leonard will see, as Joel Freeland subs in early in the second quarter, and they might have just dressed up two steaks in Blazers jerseys; Gasol and Randolph have eyes so hungry Eric Carmen could sing about ‘em. You could hope that JJ Hickson will use that patchy beard of his to sop up some of the blood from Memphis’ feeding frenzy, but he’s basically invisible. He’s going to finish the night with no blocks, shooting 30%.
The Grizzlies go on a 15-7 run in the middle of the second, and that’s enough to shake any team, but Memphis wants you physically shook. They’re known for indulging in a little smash ‘n’ grab down low. Wesley Matthews just reminded the whole building that he exists only because Gasol just snowplowed him straight into the hardwood. And the Blazers are looking wobbly – but not as wobbly as their jumpers. They need to be able to count on some outside shots if they want to have a prayer in this game, but they’ve tossed up about 10 straight shots from 15ft, all of which have rimmed out like HBO’s legendary tossed-salad man.
The teasing has not only demoralized the team, but the crowd; the Rose Garden feels kinda like a tomb, even though the Grizzlies have yet to hold a lead any bigger than seven. But a seven point lead against the Grizzlies feels a lot bigger than that. A big part of why the Blazers are still within single digits? Even though they’re racking up turnovers (they’re going to finish the night with 16) the Grizzlies run the fast break about as well as EA runs their Sim City servers.
The first half ends with the Blazers down 48-40. Aldridge has 12 points. This is not a good sign, because most times I’ve seen the Blazers play – Aldridge tends to lead the team in scoring when the team isn’t playing well as a team. He gets his, but the team doesn’t get a W for it. Randolph and Gasol each have 10 points, not only setting the pace of the game, but the tone, which is decidedly grumpy.
THE SECOND HALF:
Lillard opens strong, with a slashing drive right at Mount Gasol with a speed that blows the cobwebs off the court. These are the first two points he’s scored since the first quarter. But that slashing has inspired Wesley Matthews to declare himself present. He’s known as maybe the beating heart of the team (It’s kind of a mild-mannered heart, though) but the heart has arrhythmia tonight – his pushing it results in getting his shit blocked, and a tippy-toe out-of-bounds call as he tries to ballet behind the baseline.
After the Blazers struggle through a couple sloppy team defensive efforts, Matthews gets himself an open look, one of the few things guaranteed to spark a Portland crowd to life no matter what. He converts it, and he starts to woof. Surprisingly, Coach Stotts starts to woof back. It looks like a chew-out, but I don’t think that’s what is going on. If I may paraphrase:
“That shit was GOOD.”
“Yeah! So why the FUCK aren’t you doing that more?”
“Do that more!”
I’m sorry to report, that Moar never comes. Lillard is sacrificing his body now, throwing his chest in front of Mike Conley to draw the charge, rotating over to pick up Jerryd Bayless as he looks to inflict a scar or two on the team that never quite used him right. And that second quarter has scarred up the Blazers. Aldridge gets a dunk blocked, Hickson gets a dunk blocked. Batum hesitates on an alley-oop to Will Barton, and the play ends with Aldridge jacking up a 26 footer that clangs off terribly. It feels like everyone but Lillard is entering the lane with a flinch, and unlike what Teddy DuChamp told us in Stand By Me: You don’t get two for flinching.
And the psychological games keep coming: Zack Randolph is frustrating the shit out of Aldridge down low. I don’t blame him – getting outrebounded by a walking fireplug with the vertical leap of an imbalanced washing machine has gotta sting. But even worse, Randolph is getting the best of Aldridge verbally, too. After one foul, Randolph struts around, face screwed up, openly mocking Aldridge, jaw flapping like he’s channeling Edward G. Robinson. Aldridge at first tries the “Yeah, you’re not bugging me, man” tactic, trying to brush the dirt off his shoulder with a goofy grin and a few nods.
But eventually, what happens is Aldridge gets petulant, and channels that into repeated chest bumps, elbows, clutches, grabs, and spin moves. His points are racking up, his yawps echo loud, but the team is no closer to the Grizzlies on the scoreboard by the end of the third, down 68-58.
Lillard is having better luck against Gasol and Randolph than anyone on the team taller than 6-4, streaking past Gasol, ducking under Randolph. Even after an earlier encounter with Randolph where Zack slid his elbows up and down the bridge of Dame’s nose like he was playing a washboard, he’s the only player on the floor not excessively twitchy.
Memphis, on the other hand, has settled into a groove. Most of their possessions play out like so: Two passes, and either Randolph or Gasol is in their preferred spot, waiting for the ball to find them so they can loft up their jumpers that look, for all the world, like they’re rising out of a super-comfy, invisible la-z-boy. The only time they deviate from the plan is when the Blazers turn the ball over and Jerryd Bayless, Ed Davis & Tony Allen come streaking back downcourt for some highlight time.
Gasol goes out early in the fourth, and Aldridge starts going at the rim, and is rewarded for it. Maybe he’s too overconfident, maybe he’s too worried about the meaty hanks of Randolph smashing down upon his face, but Matthews lobs him a perfect pass in transition, and he fumbles it. Lillard resumes driving, slashing at the defense, which has finally gone a little slack (Randolph will, for all intents and purposes, check out of the game with about 8 minutes left to go, even if he’s still on the floor) and all that chipping away is getting contagious. Even Eric Maynor is getting in on the action, and his presence is definitely welcome, as it gives Lillard a chance to come at the Grizzlies from the two-guard position, throwing them off their game just a little. Enough for the Blazers to get within 5.
But with just over three minutes left to go... remember how I said Tayshaun Prince has daggered more than a few teams before? He sticks a three right in the Rose Garden’s throat. All air leaves the building. With less than a minute to go, the Blazers are within five again – only to have Mike Conley go to warp nine in the lane and shove another dagger down Portland’s throat. Even a silly technical from Gasol (Why you messin with Squatch, y’all?) isn’t enough to close the gap: People were talking about Lillard hitting a wall: The Blazers hit it instead. It was navy blue, hard as brick, and it was put up on the wrong side of a five-point difference. The Blazers manage to fight their way to within three with about thirty seconds left, but it was never really that close, and the game ends, 102-97, Grizzlies.
But Lillard just scored his seventh straight game of 20 or more points, so there’s that bit of cold comfort. It’s going to be a theme Portland fans should be used to as the season slouches towards Bethlehem: Maybe we didn’t win, but goddamn Dime looks good out there, don’t he?