Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trail Blazers

The Memphis Grizzlies literally and figuratively limped toward the finish line to end the season. A year that seemed destined for greatness from the start began to spiral out of control, as the Griz won only 16 of their final 29 games and suffered a barrage of injuries in the process.  With a home win Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers, however, our boys in blue regained home court advantage, jumping up to the five spot where they will meet the Portland Trail Blazers. While the aspired championship run might be too much to expect at this point, they do have a relatively favorable first round matchup compared with other options in the brutal Western Conference. And with that in mind, here are six key factors for the series:


  1. Injuries


Both teams are not healthy, though some of the Grizzlies’ injuries appear to be healing. Marc Gasol put all doubt about his right ankle sprain to rest Wednesday night, recording a career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds against the Pacers. Jeff Green should also be healthy for the playoffs, despite lacking his normal explosiveness and lift on his shot since dealing with back spasms. Even Courtney Lee is beginning to shoot the ball well (though not often) after injuring his wrist shortly after the All-Star Break.


But Tony Allen and Mike Conley’s recent absence should have Griz fans seriously concerned.  Allen suffered a strained right hamstring three weeks ago, and Conley, who has also dealt with ankle and wrist injuries since January, re-injured his foot against the Pelicans last week. Neither has played since, and their statuses for the playoffs are unclear.


The good news is that 1) the Griz don’t play until Sunday night and then have two-day’s rest before Game 2 on Wednesday, so they have some time to heal, and 2) the Blazers’ case of the injury bug has been much worse. Wesley Matthews is out, and most of their guys will be playing through some degree of injury, including star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.


If healthy, the Griz should be able to win this series. Ideally, they could end it in five or six games and get some rest before facing the Warriors, assuming they handle the Pelicans. But if Allen or Conley is unable to give it a go, look out because  . . .


  1.  . . . This Blazers team will not go away as easily as some expect.


Although the Griz swept the season series, a deeper look into the context of a few of these games will expose some potential problems. During their second meeting in January, Portland was on the second night of a back-to-back and had not yet traded for Arron Afflalo. When they played right after the All-Star Break, it took a crazy fourth quarter comeback for the Griz to pull out the road victory. And when they last met in March, Memphis made a fluke-ish 11 of 18 threes, including five from Green. The Griz have had their number this year, but there’s no question that the Blazers have the talent to win this series. They have shooting at four positions, and much of their recent drop-off in defense was due to them giving up the long ball, which the Griz shoot dreadfully. Plus if “Clutch Conley” is unable to give it a go, they’ve got a guy who’s got a bit of the clutch factor himself.



  1.  The Point Guard Battle  


The Grizzlies’ point guards have consistently outplayed Damian Lillard this year on both ends of the floor. Lillard has struggled to defend the pick and roll, frequently giving up the rim to Conley and the mid-range pull-up to Beno Udrih. The Blazers would probably be better off switching Afflalo or Nicolas Batum on the point guard and putting Lillard on Lee or Allen.


On offense, Lillard has also been inconsistent with his shot. Though Memphis’s perimeter players struggle to go through screens themselves, they have the luxury of having expert defenders in Gasol and Kosta Koufos behind them. Portland will need to create some sort of action before moving into the pick and roll, moving the defending big out of position, for Lillard to be able to create scoring opportunities.


Injuries could potentially decide this battle. If Conley’s foot issue lingers, Udrih simply doesn’t have the legs to play starters’ minutes for multiple games in a row. Watch how often he missed short over the last two games. This would force Nick Calathes– very solid off the bench– to play with the starters, and his woeful shooting would allow defenses to focus more inside on Gasol and Zach Randolph.

  1.  The Three-Point Line


Memphis doesn’t necessarily have to shoot the three well, rather merely well enough to open up the floor for Conley drives, Allen cuts and the big fellas down low. But they will need to guard against Portland’s perimeter threats. The Grizzlies’ off-ball defense is shaky, and they play much better when ahead. If Portland can maintain a lead by finding the open man and hitting the long ball, it may be too much for the Grizzlies to overcome, healthy or not.


  1. Z-Bo’s Positioning


After returning from a two-week injury in early January, Randolph torched opponents with a lethal fall-away shot. That may have been fool’s gold, however, because despite his shot regressing back to the mean, he continues to float outside of the lane. It’s true that very recently he has started going inside more. Even so, many of those shots have originated from drives, not post ups. He’s just not getting the same position inside as he usually has throughout his Bluff City tenure.


Not only does this trend hurt the Grizzlies’ chances of scoring easy buckets both early in the shot clock and off short rebounds– he is averaging 1.9 fewer offensive boards per game post All-Star Break– but it also clogs up their spacing. The offense will be able to run more smoothly through Gasol at both elbows if Zach posts up more. Portland’s bigs will not be able to rest and sniff out whatever primary action the Griz plan to run as the ball is brought up the court. It’s fine for him to occasionally move out of the paint, bringing the defender away from the rim and opening up driving and cutting lanes. But by focusing more on being the bully that don’t bluff on the block, he can open up more scoring opportunities for the limited Grizzlies’ offense.


  1. The Big Spain


Gasol needs to make his mark on both ends of the floor this series. Offensively, he needs to be aggressive with his shot while facilitating ball movement. Defensively, he needs to protect the rim and be a pick-and-roll menace. On Wednesday night he played with a different bounce in his step and delivered an All-Star level performance against Roy Hibbert and a Pacers team needing a win. He must continue to build off that momentum throughout the first round. So much has been written about Gasol’s aggression– or lack of, thereof– that there is no need for further discussion. The bottom line is that it’s been awhile since the Grizzlies had the best player on the floor in a playoff series. They need to take advantage of it.


Prediction: Memphis’s gritty defense contains Lillard and Aldridge, forcing Portland’s secondary guys to make plays. Gasol is assertive on offense, Z-Bo records a couple 20-10 games and Lee and Green make enough threes to keep the defense honest. The Grizzlies’ depth is too much to overcome. Griz in six.