NBA Playoffs Preview: Grizzlies vs. Trail Blazers
This year was tough in the Western Conference -- not a surprise by any means.
However, the Portland Trail Blazers have been both blessed and plagued by the in-conference competition. Portland, who finished 51-31 on the season, wound up as the 4 seed because they won the Northwest division despite owning just the sixth best record in the Western Conference.
They did, however, lose homecourt advantage because their first-round opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, owned a record of 55-27, better than Portland's final mark.
Will that prove costly for the 4 seeded Blazers, who finished with the fourth-most home wins on the year with 32?
Let's see what the numbers -- and our algorithms -- have to say about that.
Portland Trail Blazers (4)
Championship Odds: 2.8%
Memphis Grizzlies (5)
Championship Odds: 2.7%
Regular Season Series - Grizzlies 4, Blazers 0
This year, the Grizzlies had the clear upperhand on the Blazers when the two faced off. Unlike the Raptors and Wizards series (which the Raptors swept 3-0), the games weren't very close very often. The Grizzlies won by an average score of 102.3 to 93.8.
The Grizzlies scored at least 97 points in each of the four meetings, and each of their four conquests were achieved through big games from different players.
On November 28, Marc Gasol nearly double-doubled with 26 points and 9 assists, and Mike Conley (21 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists) was a dime shy of a triple-double. The 112-99 win pushed the Grizzlies to 14-2 on the season while napping a nine-game win streak for the Blazers.
On January 17, the Grizzlies won 102-98 behind 20 points and 15 rebounds from Zach Randolph and 17 points each from Beno Udrih, Jeff Green, and Courtney Lee. Gasol pitched in a stat line of 15 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks.
LaMarcus Aldridge was a late-scratch in the third game, which featured a 13-point comeback from the Gasol-led Grizzlies, and Aldridge actually hurt his left hand again against the Grizzlies in their fourth and final matchup, a game that saw Green post 23 points and Conely miss a double double by an assist (with 21 points).
But the regular season is now in the history books. How might the playoff series shape up?
How the Grizzlies Can Win
For starters, they can do more the same. The Grizzlies got solid bench production from their reserves when their starters were injured against the Blazers this year, and strong bench play would be fitting retribution after their injury- and suspension-plagued playoff story of last year.
But even if the bench doesn't live up to the task, the Grizzlies could be in good position based on how their big three has played against Portland this season.
Randolph's True Shooting percentage was just 45.9 percent against the Blazers this year (compared to 53.8 percent on the season), but other than Z-Bo's efficiency, the trio has played well, particularly in the plus/minus column.
Conley is dealing with a sprained right foot and has no timetable for a return, though it could possibly be before the series concludes.
Grizzlies Player to Watch - Jeff Green
The underrated Udrih is a prime candidate to watch, too, as he will square off with Damian Lillard until Conley returns, but Green, who is dealing with back issues of his own, has more than enough potential to impact the series.
This year, Jeff Green made the transition from the Boston Celtics to the Grizzlies and wound up a pretty key cog in what the Grizzlies have pieced together this season, and he's had plenty of success against the Blazers this season.
Green averaged 17.8 points and 5.5 rebounds against the Blazers in four contests this year, maintaining an Offensive Rating of 124. That Offensive Rating was tied for his highest against any opponent this year (he also had a 124 Offensive Rating against the Denver Nuggets).
Green's 60.2 True Shooting percentage against the Blazers was fifth best this year against all of his opponents. He played well against Portland this year, and if a fourth man steps up for the Grizzlies in a big way, it will most likely be Jeff Green -- especially if Tony Allen continues to miss time.
How the Blazers Can Win
The biggest key for the Blazers will be shifting homecourt advantage back into their favor by earning a victory in Memphis. Of course, that task won't be an easy one. Memphis owned a 31-10 record at home this season, and the Blazers finished the year with a road record of just 19-22.
Still, if Portland can steal a game in Memphis, then things might still be in their favor. Had they secured homecourt advantage, they would have had a 54.85 percent chance to take down the Grizzlies in the series, according to our algorithms.
One big key for Portland is, of course, LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge suffered some significant injuries this year, impacting his minutes against the Grizzlies. Aldridge missed one full game and exited another after just 17 minutes, bringing his minutes per game average against the Grizzlies down to 30.9 this year, the second fewest against any opponent. Still, Aldridge averaged 22.3 point, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game against Memphis. His line on the season? 23.4 points, 10.2 boards, and 1.7 assists.
Lillard, with a Usage Rate of 29.9 percent against Memphis (the fourth-highest against any opponent) mostly outpaced his season averages (21.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists) against Memphis this season (22.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 7.3 assists), but both he and Aldridge posted some of their worst plus/minus averages against the Grizzlies: -17.5 for Lillard and -17.6 for Aldridge.
The key then, for Portland, is support. With Wesley Matthews sidelined for the season with a torn Achilles, the Blazers have only one other player who averaged at least 10.0 points per game: Arron Afflalo (10.6).
Blazers Player to Watch - Robin Lopez
In all honesty, every Blazer is one to watch. Both Aldridge and Lillard will be irreplaceable, and given that their third piece -- Matthews -- is out and Nicolas Batum is questionable for the start of the series because of a knee contusion, other players will need to step up.
That will magnify Robin Lopez's play against Gasol and Randolph. Lopez's offensive rebounding rate of 12.7 percent was 10th in the NBA, and despite averaging just 9.6 points per contest, he was19th in the NBA in Offensive Rating (116.8).
Scoring is clearly an issue for the Blazers outside of their dominating duo, so easy putbacks by Lopez can go a long way in this series.
This is a series that could tip one way or another depending on a few variables such as the health of Conley, Allen, and Green; the health of Batum; the bench play by Portland; and the homecourt battle, as both teams are elite home squads.
In this razor-thin matchup, stealing one road win might be all it takes.
According to our algorithms: Grizzlies are 51.03% favorites.
My final prediction: Blazers in six.