• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers 92-83 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night at FedEx Forum.

    C.J. McCollum was a magician

    On a night when Portland shot 36 percent overall and 6-of-22 from beyond the arc while doling out just 15 assists, McCollum put together one of the finest offensive performances of his career. The sixth-year veteran finished with 40 points on 16-of-27 from the field, including 2-of-5 from deep and 6-of-7 from the free throw line. McCollum was in his bag from the opening tip, too, slicing through the Grizzlies’ defense again and again to score his first eight points at the rim or in the paint. Undaunted by Memphis’ typically dogged, precise primary and help defense, McCollum eventually did his work from all over the floor, putting points on the board with two-footed runners, step-back jumpers, leaning floaters, one-legged fadeaways, and more. It was a virtuosic scoring performance, one that lasted all 48 minutes, and was made even more impressive by the fact that it came on the second leg of a road back-to-back against one of the league’s stingiest defenses. If not for McCollum’s singular brilliance, the Blazers would have undoubtedly lost this game by halftime. His sustained heroics gave them a chance to win in crunch time instead, but Portland just didn’t give McCollum enough help to beat another struggling playoff contender in dire need of a victory.

    Damian Lillard, despite his tireless efforts, never got going

    Twenty four hours after nearly willing his team to a come-from-behind victory against a team with (fading) NBA Finals aspirations, Lillard simply didn’t have it on Wednesday night. To be fair, the Grizzlies deserve credit for making his life hell. Mike Conley, Shelvin Mack, and later Garrett Temple fought tirelessly to stay attached to Lillard in ball-screen action, while Marc Gasol’s pinpoint help defense – extended farther up the floor than normal to account for the threat of pull-up triples – also went a long way toward ensuring he had little space to operate. But Lillard shoulders some blame, too, on multiple occasions hesitating or even pump-faking catch-and-shoot opportunities that he’d normally let fly with the confidence of a world-class shooter. Say this for Lillard, though – at least he didn’t quit. Portland’s franchise player was first to the floor for a loose ball near midcourt in the first half, laying out face-first on his stomach, then gaining possession on a trip that ultimately led to a game-tying triple by McCollum. That’s the type of leadership that makes him a locker-room pillar even in times of personal strife. A line of 14 points on 18 shots with three assists and four turnovers from Lillard will very rarely be good enough for the Blazers to eek out a victory. Nevertheless, they were down just a point with 5:27 left, indicative of effort that never waned despite unfortunate circumstances of tired legs and a ball that, for everyone but McCollum, simply wouldn’t drop.

    Mike Conley carved up Portland’s pick-and-roll coverage in the second half

    Basketball’s favorite non All-Star was something close to a non-factor in the first half, like Lillard and teammate Marc Gasol, scoring just four points on 1-of-5 shooting. He came out far more aggressive after intermission, though, routinely taking advantage of Portland’s ultra-conservative pick-and-roll coverage by living in the mid-range. Five of Conley’s eight second-half baskets came on twos outside the painted area, including a pair in the clutch as the Grizzlies easily dispatched of the Blazers’ comeback attempts. He hit an off-dribble three in crunch time, too, creating space by stepping behind the arc as Evan Turner wrestled with Gasol and Jusuf Nurkic hung back in the paint. Conley hasn’t been himself as a pull-up shooter for the most part this season, and the two-point jumpers Portland’s defense encourages are indeed the least-efficient shots in basketball. But there’s obvious merit in subtly adjusting defensive positioning against specific players, or at certain points in games – just like Memphis did to ensure Lillard and McCollum wouldn’t burn them from deep. Portland didn’t make the same adjustment, even keeping Zach Collins, uncommonly quick for a seven-footer, below the free throw line as Conley heated up and stayed hot. Last season, the Blazers built a top-10 defense through continuity and commitment to scheme on a nightly basis. It makes sense that they would be reluctant to make matchup-dependent changes. Still, it was incredibly frustrating to watch the Grizzlies keep Lillard in check by amending their ball-screen coverage on one end, only to watch Portland fail to make a similarly simple switch on the other as Conley had the hot hand.

    The Blazers’ bench cost them big yet again

    For the second straight game, Portland built an early double-digit lead only to watch it evaporate by halftime. And for the second straight game, the Blazers failed to stem the opposition’s tide of momentum after intermission. Terry Stotts’ bench fared better against the Grizzlies than it did in Tuesday’s loss to the Houston Rockets. Nik Stauskas continued showing off his underrated floor game en route to seven points and two assists, while Caleb Swanigan, with Collins and Meyers Leonard ineffective, came off the end of the bench to give his team a significant, if fleeting, spark late in the third quarter. Any hope that Portland’s reserves would emerge from their ongoing collective rut to play at the level they did over the season’s first month should be long gone by now, though. Collins has been largely invisible for the better part of two weeks. It’s completely unclear, when he’s not hitting threes, what Leonard brings to the table. Seth Curry has fallen out of the rotation completely, not playing on Wednesday night despite the absence of a resting Moe Harkless. This team just doesn’t have the horses to rely on its bench the way it did in the season’s early going, especially away from home – a reality Stotts seemed to acknowledge against Memphis by reverting to staggering the minutes Lillard and McCollum. Let’s see if he continues doing so against the Toronto Raptors on Friday at Moda Center.

    Portland’s lack of ancillary firepower reared its ugly head

    McCollum, on a night when Lillard just couldn’t find his rhythm, wasn’t nearly enough to beat Memphis by himself. That’s expected. There are inherent limits to the impact of one-dimensional stars, and McCollum, as much as Blazers fans hate to admit it, fits that bill. Still, Portland talked a big game over the summer about tweaking its offense to involve the supporting cast, ensuring the team’s whole is larger than the sum of its parts. None of those hopes materialized on Wednesday night. Jusuf Nurkic was a dismal 1-of-15 from the field, beset by the nuanced physicality of Gasol, the length of Jaren Jackson, and the activity of Joakim Noah. Al-Farouq Aminu took just seven shots in 35 minutes of play. Turner, Collins, and Leonard combined to shoot 3-of-11. Jake Layman, starting in place of Harkless for the 20th time this season, attempted just one shot despite playing 14 minutes. Needless to say, those collective struggles will make it hard for the Blazers to win on the rare occasion when Lillard doesn’t have it going. Curry’s ineffectiveness looms large, but even if he was playing at his 2016-17 level, it wouldn’t be enough to offset the consistent labors of his teammates. These guys just need to be better. Unfortunately for Portland, that’s obviously easier said than done.

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