Memphis had the daunting task of slowing down a smouldering Damian Lillard. This dude came in hotter than the asphalt in Brownsville on a dry July day. He willed his team to the play-in games in the bubble and was looking for more.
Slowing Down Lillard
The Grizzlies could not allow him to get in rhythm. To do so they needed to double him early in the clock and keep him from getting downhill. The gameplan for Memphis was to get the ball out of his hands and force anybody else to beat them.
Getting the ball out of his hands would not be enough. It was necessary to find a way to get the ball out of his hands and not to Nurkic under the rim. The Lillard and Nurkic connection has shown enough chemistry in the bubble to warrant a gamplan itself.
A Too Big Foul Discrepancy
Morant started the game by putting his soft touch on full display. He scored his two first buckets on delicate floaters that just slightly hung on the rim before going down. He floated himself for what seemed like forever before releasing the ball gently and guiding it delicately to the basket. Ja displays a level of touch on his floaters which he surprisingly cannot translate to his shots from downtown.
From the jump Portland dared Morant to pull-up from deep and he did not oblige. He was constantly left all alone with the ball beyond the arc and Morant everytime showed worrying hesitation.
Memphis" lack of discipline showed its ugly head in the first quarter as Portland took 14 free throws. They finished the half with 20, double the amount for Memphis. The Grizzlies were left helpless when Valanciunas went to the bench and Stotts put Nurkic and Whiteside in. The tallest player on the floor for Memphis was Tolliver and he simply couldn"t hand with Portland bigs. They gave their guards multiple second chance opportunities which they converted to take a 12 point lead.
Jenkins immediately put Valanciunas back in to start the second quarter. The substitution had the desired effect. Jonas score the first six points of the frame and cut the lead to six when Anderson found him alone under the basket.
With Lillard on the bench the Grizzlies climbed all the way back and took a 3 point lead. They did it on the back of Anderson"s rarely seen play-making ability. He had 6 assist in the half and a fair number of them went to Valanciunas.
Although Morant shot 0-3 from downtown in the half, he was still effective in other facets. He skilfully manoeuvred between defenders, finding the perfect spots to pull-up from mid-range or to feed an open teammate.
A discouraging sign for Memphis in the first half was Brooks" shot selection. He finished the second quarter 3-10, and other than two straight threes he made midway through the second, he was horribly cold from the field.
Grayson Allen was surprisingly ineffective off the bench, managing only a single rebound. As for Melton, he was a fire-starter all over the court. Jenkins needed to go into the locker room and find a way to get him more involved.
The Rookies Take Over
The second half began with Memphis finding its range. Even Morant got involved, hitting a 27 footer. This pushed the Portland defenders to close out on him earlier and made it easier for him to drive to the basket. He got to the rim at will and drew numerous fouls.
His driving ability and the attention focused on him made fellow rookie Brandon Clarke‘s life much easier. Morant found him twice in the right corner for open threes which he drained consecutively.
Morant found his swag as the fourth quarter began when he hit his second shot from downtown. He was completely in control and the rest of his team responded by matching his confidence. They made shots, bur more importantly played ferocious defence. They took charges and on one key possession Brooks fought through a Nurkic moving screen enough to get the offensive foul call.
Both Clarke and Morant took over the third quarter. They caught fire and torched Portland. They defining play of the quarter was Morant who drove to the basket, got blocked, sold out for the offensive rebound which he tipped to Clarke in the corner for his third three pointer from the same spot. It was sheer hustle and cold-blooded shot making from the rookie duo.
Portland Veterans Win Out
As much as Morant became unstoppable in the fourth quarter, so did McCollum. Lillard passed him the shot-making baton and CJ did not disappoint. He hot shot after shot with hands in his face. He dared Morant to guard him, but there are few in the league who can.
Not to be undone, Morant came right back with vicious drives and improved his career best in points. The game became a shot making contest in which the team with the more experienced guards prevailed. Memphis put up a valiant effort but came up a little short.
The way the Grizzlies played in the second quarter was encouraging. They went toe to tow with the hottest offence in the league. Their scoring was unlocked by Ja Morant‘s unparalleled ability to collapse defences on drives. He spearheaded the Memphis offense by deconstructing the Portland defence and allowing his teammates to take easy shots. It was a truly encouraging end to the season and a special performance from Morant which the Grizzlies will look to build upon next season.