March 28, 2018, 2:34 pm
OPPONENT: Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 20-54 (14-24 at home, 2-8 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 101.6 offensive rating (27th), 107.8 defensive rating (20th), -6.2 net rating (27th)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 8:00 EST, FedExForum (Memphis), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Southeast
Damian Lillard, Jr. picked an opportune time to arrive.
The Memphis Grizzlies are 20-54, a game and a half in front of the Phoenix Suns for the worst record in basketball. They recently lost 19 games in a row, failing to record a single victory in all of January. Mike Conley has been out since the middle of November as the result of a nagging heel injury that ultimately required season-ending surgery. Marc Gasol has played 68 of his team’s 74 games this season, but has been a shell of the three-time All-Star and former Defensive Player of the Year who was consistently lauded for leadership. Memphis, inexplicably, didn’t trade Tyreke Evans at the deadline despite his impending free agency; he’s appeared in just six games since February 8 due to injury, and will miss Wednesday’s game due to personal reasons. The availability of Chandler Parsons, or lack thereof, has been even more mysterious.
Bottom line: The Grizzlies are tanking. In its first season without the two aging players who came to define Grit ‘N Grind, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, even more than Gasol and Conley, their worst fears of retooling while remaining competitive have come to fruition. At least all the losing won’t be for naught; Memphis owns its first-round pick this summer, and will be able to add a blue-chipper barring some catastrophic stroke of bad luck on lottery night.
Good thing, too, because this team needs all the talent it can get. Absent Conley and Gasol, it’s unclear if any of the Grizzlies’ players are surefire keepers. The closest to earning that distinction is probably sophomore wing Wayne Selden, who outscored the Minnesota Timberwolves 12-11 in the fourth quarter of Memphis’ shocking win at Target Center on Monday. Even his relative success in an injury-marred season is an indication of Memphis’ lack of upward trajectory among incumbents. Selden was undrafted in 2016 after three years at Kansas, and seems most likely to top out as a quality reserve on a good team than a true impact player.
The jury is still out on raw center Deyonta Davis, the 31st overall pick of the 2016 draft. Rookie second-round pick Dillon Brooks has shown flashes all season long, especially lately, but like Selden is unlikely to become anything more than a rotation player. The same can be said for forward Jarell Martin, the Grizzlies’ first-round selection in 2015, who’s been playing out of position on the wing for the past two months. Memphis has a decision to make this summer on Andrew Harrison’s partially-guaranteed team option for 2018-19 this summer, and he hasn’t done quite enough to ensure it’ll be an easy one.
Still, there are extenuating circumstances for the Portland Trail Blazers here that loom large. First is the absence of Damian Lillard, Sr., who flew home following his 41-point outburst on Tuesday night to welcome his first born into the world by the side of his girlfriend. Next are the inevitable perils of the second leg of a back-to-back, issues exacerbated by missing Lillard and Moe Harkless, undergoing minimally-invasive surgery on Wednesday to clean up his balky left knee. The Blazers are also coming off consecutive dramatic victories over teams fighting them for home-court advantage; might they overlook the overmatched Grizzlies?
Gasol, for all his on-court struggles and off-court diatribes this season, remains one of the most influential big men in basketball when dialed in. He was awesome on Monday against the Timberwolves, scoring 20 points, draining four 3-pointers, grabbing 10 rebounds, dishing six assists, swiping two steals and blocking three shots. He’s capable of keeping Memphis competitive almost by himself if Portland falters. It’s pertinent that Jusuf Nurkic keeps Gasol from getting comfortable beyond the arc, neutralizing effects of the Grizzlies’ easiest form of offense.
After ending a 13-game winning streak with two straight losses, the Blazers have a great chance to end this brief, arduous road trip with a third win in four nights. Going 2-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans and Grizzlies would have been considered a success. Undefeated, though? Portland wouldn’t just completely eradicate any knee-jerk worries gleaned from losing consecutive games for the first time since early February, but also increase its strengthening grip on home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.