When: Tuesday, January 28th, 9:00 PM CST
Where: Moda Center, Portland, OR
Since Marc Gasol returned to the lineup, the Grizzlies are 5-1, and have presumably begun to frighten the folks at the top of the Western Conference – who would want to play these guys in round one. Well, the Blazers have been the league’s breakout team this year, and right now, it would hardly be surprising if the Grizzlies met the Blazers in the playoffs. This game could be a good litmus test for these teams stack up against each other when everyone is healthy on both sides.
Expected Starting Lineups:
Mike Conley vs Damian Lillard
This debate could come to fruition when picking the reserves for the All-Star team. Conley is having a career year, but Lillard is a breakout star, and his team has performed better, so he has a much better shot. Honestly, it’s difficult to pick a winner here because each player is among the best at his position, but for different reason. Conley is steady hand the guides the grizzlies at all times, but Lillard is the more electrifying player, and he’s become one of the late-game shooters in the NBA. Really, this is pretty much a draw, but I’ll give a slight edge to Conley because of his superior defense, and the fact when Gasol was out, he had a much worse group of players than Lillard, but still kept the team afloat.
Courtney Lee vs Wesley Matthews
So far, lee has basically been everything you hope for when you make a trade like the Grizzlies did when they sent Jerryd Bayless to the Celtics for him. Theoretically, the two players are at a relatively equal level of talent, but Lee’s production has thoroughly surpassed that of Bayless, to the point where the absence of Tony Allen has become much easier to deal with. Meanwhile, Matthews is having a career year, and the improvement in his performance has played a significant role in the Blazers elevation from lottery team to legitimate contender. Lee is playing well, but with Matthews averaging 17 a game, and putting up a PER of 17.5, this is an easy choice.
Tayshaun Prince vs Nicolas Batum
It really is amazing how consistent Portland’s starting five is – there are no weak spots in sight. Batum redefined his game in 2012-13, when he vastly improved his assist numbers, and that trend has continued this season, with Batum averaging 5.6 assists per game. Batum’s stats resemble that of both Andre Iguodala and Lance Stephenson, yet he has yet to receive the hype of either one of them, likely because his accomplishments have gone unnoticed in the shadow of the excellent seasons that Lillard and Aldridge are having. Batum is likely the most underappreciated small forward in the league, and the aging Prince will have his hands full tonight.
Zach Randolph vs LaMarcus Aldridge
A lot has been made over the idea of LaMarcus Aldridge emerging as an MVP candidate. The main case against this notion is that he’s getting an excessive amount of credit simply for being the best player on a great team, but I would argue the opposite is the actual culprit: Aldridge wasn’t getting enough credit when the Blazers were wallowing in mediocrity the last two years. In any case, he has picked up his game a bit, averaging a robust 24-11 a night. Z-Bo will undoubtedly present him with quite a challenge, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one of these 2-time All-Stars is having the better season.
Marc Gasol vs Robin Lopez
The one weak spot of Portland’s starting five last year was the center position. Yes, J.J Hickson put up slid numbers, but they were empty calories. He was playing out of position, and was frequently clowned on defense. Lopez has fixed that problem right up, playing tighter D, and fighting relentlessly for tip-ins and rebounds. In Phoenix and New Orleans, Lopez often looked to be a finesse center, in the mold of his brother, but since arriving in Portland, he’s embraced the physical aspects of his game, and has become all the better for it. Look for this to be an intense battle between two highly physical centers – there will be bumping, there will be hard fouls, and there will be relentless battles on the glass.
Last year, Portland’s bench was horrible. It was so bad that the Blazers only won 33 games despite having one of the strongest starting fives in the game. This year, it’s gotten a bit better, but it still needs improvement. Mo Williams has been unspectacular this season, but he’s a solid backup point guard/occasional heat check guy. C.J. McCollum finally being healthy will help them quite a bit, and Dorell Wright is a solid three-point shooter. Still, there’s no one guy on this bench who can e counted on to come in and score, which could hurt them in the playoffs. With Marc back in the lineup, the Grizzlies are a lot deeper in the front court, with Davis, Koufos, Johnson, and Leuer all capable of coming in and doing damage. And Nick Calathes has been competent lately!
More on the Opponent:
Assessing the Enemy