If Friday night’s Memphis-Portland game were viewed through the single lens of the game itself, it would have oozed excitement. The Grizzlies’ 130-128 win over the Trailblazers was a thriller, even without multiple factors that added weight to the outcome.
Consider the factors:
* The Grizzlies (30-28) entered the game with a two-game losing streak.
* Portland came in lugging a three-game losing streak, all by one point.
* The Trailblazers entered the game with a one and a half game lead over the Grizzlies.
* Portland ended the Grizzlies’ season last year, preventing them from making the playoffs by winning a play-in game.
Then add this to the mix: Memphis, Portland and Dallas are all fighting to be the sixth-seeded team in the Western Conference. The team that finishes sixth would not have to play in the play-in game to make the playoffs this season.
So with those factors and all that was on the line, the Grizzlies needed to get off to a good start against the game-hosting Trailblazers. Memphis’ star guard Ja Morant came out on fire, scoring 10 points in the opening quarter. He finished with a double-double, 33 points and 13 assists.
“I just got to be more aggressive … whether it is attacking downhill or finding my teammates or for me to score,” Morant said. “Some of these games where we started off slow, it was my fault. Being the point guard, I have to push the pace. That is why I have been attacking early.”
Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins called Morant’s performance phenomenal.
“Our outlets and the pace he was pushing with was huge for us,” Jenkins said. “We were able to take advantage of some fast-break opportunities. Ja was a huge contributor for us.”
The game was a back-and-forth affair, with the intensity of a playoff game. There were 20 lead changes, and the game was tied ten times.
“We had a couple defensive stops at the end of the game,” Morant said. “We were able to get the rebounds and go on our end and make free throws.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. made his presence felt in his second game back from an injury that required a long rehab. Still on a minutes restriction, Jackson had 23 points and three rebounds off the bench.
“There are some stretches where you are a little tired. I am feeling pretty good,” Jackson said.
Playing Portland means accounting for All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who heated up in the second half en route to 27 points. The job of defending Lillard, who returned to the starting lineup after missing three games with a hurt hamstring, fell largely to the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks, who erupted for 17 of his own 25 points in the third quarter.
This season, Brooks has raised his defensive game while still being able to be productive on the offense end.
“It is tough. A lot of guys can’t do it, but I want to be that guy that can,” Brooks said. “I want to guard the best player and go down and be patient and knock down your shot. I try to replicate that every single game. I want to be the best player I can be.”
With Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas missing his third game because of concussion protocols, Xavier Tillman had his hands full with Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic, who was dominant in the low post with 26 points and 17 rebounds. Tillman, who scored 12 points, was particularly effective early on defense and offense.
“He is an impactful player,” Jenkins said of Tillman. “The impact he can make defensively and he was good (on offense) in pick and rolls. I thought his execution was good. He has steadily gotten better over the course of the year.”
Over the last 14 games, Memphis and Portland have alternated wins and the winning team has covered the point spread. The two teams go at again in Portland on Sunday.