CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard will lead the Trail Blazers against Memphis on Friday. Sean Meagher/Staff
The Portland Trail Blazers are an extreme long shot to return to the Western Conference finals, but in the strangest of seasons maybe simply reaching the NBA playoffs would be accomplishment enough.
That drive begins at 1 p.m. Friday against Memphis (32-33) in a game that could go a long way toward deciding if the Blazers (29-37) will earn a shot at reaching the postseason.
Halftime: Portland led by as many as 12 in the second quarter, but that lead is down to 68-60 at the end of the half. The offense played very well, still with C.J. McCollum (who leads all scorers with 19 points) and Gary Trent Jr. leading the way. Damian Lillard finally got going at the end of the half, and finished with 10 points after the slow start. Portland has 23 points from its bench, led by Trent’s 13. Carmelo Anthony is all in double figures with 11.
And while the defense looked improved with the added health of Zach Collins and Just Nurkic along with Hassan Whiteside, fouls were a key issue. Memphis shot 30 free throws in the first half (and made 23 of them). Even for Portland shooting 55.6% in the first half compared to 45.7% for Memphis, the lead is still only eight points because of the free throws. Whiteside has four fouls, Collins has three. Mario Henzonja also has three fouls. As a team, Portland has 19 fouls in the first half.
The offense would good enough to overcome that and still have a small lead, the bench was key. If the bench keeps playing this well, Portland should have no trouble keeping an efficient offense. Portland also had 17 assists in the first half.
6:42 left in the 2nd quarter: Portland leads 50-42. Between C.J. McCollum and the Blazers bench, the offense continues to look really good. Gary Trent Jr. and Mario Henzonja have a combined 18 points in 17 combined minutes. They’ve given the Blazers a huge lift off the bench. Portland has 20 bench points compared to six for Memphis. McCollum leads all scorers with 17 points, shooting 7-8 from the field. Damian Lillard has struggled a bit, only making two shots and only with five points, but that slack has been picked up.
End of 1st Quarter: Portland leads 35-30 over Memphis at the end of the first quarter. It was a balanced offensive effort for the Blazers with seven different scorers in the quarter. C.J. McCollum leads Portland with eight points. Nurkic looked good in his official return from injury. The bench played well with 14 points, including six each from Gary Trent Jr. and Mario Henzonja who both played especially well in the quarter. If the bench is contributing like that for Portland, it will be tough to stop offensively.
Portland shot 62% from the field in the first quarter and scored 14 points in the paint. Memphis’ shooting percentage was much lower at 50%, but making four threes as well as 10 free throws helped the Grizzlies stay close to the Trail Blazers.
6:12 remaining in the 1st quarter: At the TV-timeout Portland leads 17-16 over Memphis. The Trail Blazers are shooting 6-9 from the field and C.J. McCollum leads the team with six points. Carmelo Anthony has five. Damian Lillard has two assists. Jusuf Nurkic has moved well in his first regular season game back from injury, including dunking over Jaren Jackson Jr. for an and-1.
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The ninth-place Trail Blazers certainly weren’t better than the eighth-place Grizzlies during the regular season. However, the return of center Jusuf Nurkic and power forward Zach Collins realistically tips the scales in Portland’s favor moving forward.
While the Grizzlies are a young, exciting team led by rookie point guard Ja Morant and versatile second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr., Portland has by far more veteran experience and two certain future Hall of Famers in guard Damian Lillard and forward Carmelo Anthony.
In the end, such experience could be what Portland needs to defeat Memphis three times, which is probably what it’s going to take for the Blazers to reach the playoffs.
Here’s some math to illustrate just how important today’s game is to both teams: First, let’s assume that Memphis plays well enough during this eight-game stretch to not lose grip on the eight seed. That would mean that Portland, 3 1/2 games back, must at least keep pace to finish within four games of the Grizzlies to force a play-in round in which the Blazers would have to defeat Memphis twice before losing once.
A win today for Portland would leave it 2 1/2 games back of Memphis with seven to go. That would mean that if Portland won at least a realistic four out of its seven remaining games then the Grizzlies would have to win six out of seven to finish 4 1/2 ahead of the Blazers.
Should Portland lose today, then Memphis would only need to match Portland win for win the rest of the way in order to remain 4 1/2 games ahead.
That’s a huge difference moving forward for both teams. So, while this isn’t exactly a must-win for the Blazers, it’s certainly a winning-makes-life-much-easier game for both teams.
In case you missed them, here are links to articles to get you ready for Friday’s action, with information listed below on how to watch or listen to the game:
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Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, Western Conference, Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkić
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