Portland came into the NBA restart in a must-win situation right away. It wasn’t exactly a do or die game, but it was the closest thing to it, against the Memphis Grizzlies.
And Portland came out in the first half looking like they knew what the stakes were. CJ McCollum was cooking, going for 19 first-half points on 8/11 shooting. He was peak McCollum on the offensive end. Getting wherever he needed to off the dribble and frankly just abusing the Grizzlies defense.
That covered for Damian Lillard, who had a slow first quarter at least in the scoring column. However, Lillard was able to get things going in the second half. All of this was while Portland was getting production from Gary Trent Jr., who looked like there wasn’t a four-month layoff from where he was playing.
Perhaps more stunning in the first half was the production of Mario Hezonja. Hezonja was frankly bad most of the season. He looked lost on both ends of the floor and he played out of control.
All of this and the return of Jusuf Nurkic to a counting NBA game had Portland up eight at halftime.
However, Memphis came out with a more aggressive defensive gameplan in the second half. This involved a hard trap on the pick and roll, nothing that Portland hasn’t seen before in the era of Lillard and McCollum. However, it looked like they’d never seen it before because it led to a flurry of turnovers and easy baskets for Memphis.
An important stretch for Portland cut it to just a three-point deficit going into the fourth quarter, and that’s where things got crazy. A few different times it looked like Memphis had things under control and they were probably going to take the win. But you just can’t count out a team led by Damian Lillard. Just can’t do it.
Portland kept fighting and a pair of clutch three-point shots by Carmelo Anthony pushed the game to overtime.
In overtime, Portland took control early, actually getting the lead up to 11. However, Memphis came roaring back and made Portland work to finish off the game, which they eventually did, with a 140-135 win. A monumental win that Portland had to get if they wanted to give themselves a good chance of getting the eight seed.
The Return of Nurkic
Having Jusuf Nurkic back in the lineup for Portland was incredibly noticeable. Portland is just not the same team without him. Seeing him on the court today frankly makes last seasons run to the conference finals even more incredible.
Nurkic did miss some shots that he should make at the rim, a bad habit that used to haunt him but he had mostly gotten over before the injury.
Outside of that, he did everything the team could’ve asked from him.
His final stat line of 18 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 blocks doesn’t even do it justice. Yes, that’s a great stat line. But his impact goes far beyond even the stats.
Him being on the floor allows for much more spacing than Hassan Whiteside running the five. Nurkic also sets hammer screens and is a great passer. Overall the offense just flows much better with him on the floor and it opens things up for Lillard and McCollum so much more, and those are two guys who don’t need a lot of space to get their points.
Defensively, he’s an anchor. Yes, Whiteside can make some highlight plays on that end of the floor and he’s nice to have off the bench, but Nurkic is just different. The defense is just different with him on the floor.
He did foul out of this game and Portland did have some moments of defensive struggles, but it was noticeable that they were a better defensive group with him and Zach Collins on the floor.
Memphis is a tough team to match up with. Jaren Jackson Jr. can really stretch the floor, Jonas Valanciunas is a hammer inside, Dillon Brooks can get his own shot and Ja Morant is freakishly quick. For this being the first counting game of this starting five being together, they overall did a solid job and Nurkic makes that difference.
Actual Bench Production?
The most stunning part of this game had to be the production off the bench. Again, Mario Hezonja has been bad this season. There’s no other way to put it.
Frankly, Gary Trent Jr. has been the only player off of the bench that Portland has been able to rely on this season.
Stotts going with an eight-man rotation is not surprising at all. Everyone knew Trent Jr. would be one of the players off the bench and that either Whiteside or Collins, whichever one didn’t start, would come off of the bench. I thought the other player off the bench would be Nassir Little, but Stotts going with Hezonja looks like the right call, at least based on this one game.
It was no surprise that Anfernee Simons didn’t see any minutes, based on his play this season.
Regardless of the rotation, it was hard to expect much out of the bench. The bench has been bad most of the season, and a huge reason Portland found themselves in the standings where they did, and even in the three scrimmage games, they were horrible.
Trent Jr. can play. He put up 17, went 4-5 from three, and he was a +20. However, Whiteside looked engaged off of the bench, which was something that could go either way and probably speaks volumes about the culture in Portland. He did get into foul trouble early, which kept him from playing as many minutes through the first three quarters as he might’ve otherwise.
Hezonja, again, has to be the biggest surprise though. He scored 8 points, grabbed 4 rebounds, to go with 2 assists and 3 steals. That’s about the most one could expect from him, but if he is going to give that kind of production he belongs in the rotation and it will give Portland a huge chance of ending up with the eight seed.
This Could Build Real Momentum
There’s been a ton of national talk about Portland being a sleeper coming into the bubble. A lot of that was based on the return of Nurkic and Collins. Most of it though seemed to be going a little too far.
However, this is a win that can build serious momentum. The players have nothing else going on besides basketball, and now they’ve beaten the team that’s right in front of them in the standings, which should give another jolt.
They also got a good look at what this starting lineup is capable of. It’s also more than possible that the way the bench played today will give the team more confidence and give those individual players the belief that they can truly contribute to wins.
How much momentum will this actually build? We will have to find out Sunday afternoon against Boston.
Top Photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images