When: Tuesday, March 11th, 7:00 PM CST
Where: Fed Ex Forum, Memphis, TN
When the Warriors beat the Suns on Sunday night, something big happened: the Grizzlies made it back into the top 8! Obviously, things are extremely close right now, with the difference from 6th to 9th being very small, but still, after fighting all season long, the Grizzlies efforts are paying off. After an excellent weekend in which they took care of business against the Bulls and Bobcats, the Grizzlies will try to to keep the good times rolling against the Blazers. After a blistering start, Portland has looked mortal for quite some time now. Their brilliant beginning has guaranteed them a playoff berth, but time will tell if this team really is as intimidating as their record makes them look.
Expected Starting Lineups:
Mike Conley vs Damian Lillard
When it became time to pick the All-Star rosters, Lillard selected to the Western Conference team, while was Conley was left off the roster. This wasn’t terribly surprising; Lillard is a bigger name, and was playing on a better-performing team. But that doesn’t necessarily make him the superior player. 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
Lee has been somewhat underwhelming lately, but it’s not really his fault. He was so brilliant when he came to Memphis, that it made people forget what his actual ceiling as a player was. he’s a solid starting 2-guard, but he’s never going to be a high-volume scorer. It will be interesting to see if the Grizzlies stick with Lee as the starter, or plug Tony Allen back in, and use Lee as a primary bench scorer. As for the Blazers, Matthews continues to be a quietly great player, averaging a career high in points, while not getting much recognition. if Matthews was on a team without such a balanced starting five, he’d likely be star. But on the stacked Blazers, he’s just another guy.
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
When the Blazers were dominating the league earlier in the season, we heard a lot the idea of LaMarcus Aldridge emerging as an MVP candidate. The main case against this notion was 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 solid 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. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies seem incredibly deep right now. On the list of Nice Problems To Have, having so many quality bench guys that you can’t get minutes for all of them would have to rank somewhere near the time. Don’t worry, James Johnson will get into the lineup again, so will Ed Davis. For now,, it’s just about keeping the engine humming.