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3 Trail Blazers positives from impressive win over Grizzlies

Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Blazers

Spurred by an utterly dominant second-half performance on both sides of the ball, the Portland Trail Blazers routed the Memphis Grizzlies 116-96 on Wednesday night at Moda Center. Here are four positives from the Blazers’ impressive victory, which moves them to 2-2 for the 2021-22 season.

The Entire Second Half

Portland trailed 57-51 at halftime, beset by Damian Lillard’s continued struggles and an inability to finish halfcourt defensive possessions. Memphis owned the offensive glass early, grabbing 11 of its own caroms, rebounding dominance made all the more impressive by Taylor Jenkins’ team getting up a whopping 31 threes. Ja Morant had been relatively quiet as a scorer, and Jaren Jackson Jr. had missed a handful of good looks from beyond the arc.

The Blazers’ play up to intermission, basically, didn’t exactly portend their coming two-way onslaught. If anything, momentum seemed to be trending against them. How quickly it turned.

Portland outscored Memphis 36-20 in the third quarter, getting whatever it wanted offensively while continuing to clamp down the paint on the other end. Morant tried to keep his team in it when the Blazers were suddenly racing out to a lead, but struggled to conjure his typical magic against an active, physical defense geared to stop him. His futile efforts were made even more difficult by the extended absence of Jaren Jackson Jr., who picked up his fourth foul less than 90 seconds after halftime and spent the remainder of the third quarter on the bench. Losing Desmond Bane late in the third, further establishing himself as a Grizzlies building block, made them even less fruitful.

Once Lillard came alive, bringing all of Moda Center to its feet, the tenor of the game had turned completely. Morant was visibly frustrated by a lack of space to operate in the halfcourt, offensive struggles that clearly affected the Grizzlies’ energy and commitment defensively. Portland, feeding off the crowd, only increased its intensity. Larry Nance Jr. came off the bench for mutltiple highlight-reel dunks in the best stint of his brief Blazers career. Cody Zeller was outstanding defensively, pitch-perfect in rotations and always game to challenge Morant at the rim.

Morant’s nine turnovers spoke volumes of Portland’s defense, especially in the second half, and it seemed like everyone had a hand in them.

Portland was humming on offense, too, at times in exactly the way Billups envisions.

After the Blazers beat the Phoenix Suns by 29 for their first win of the season and his first win as a head coach, Billups said his team had reached its peak. He didn’t deny it happened again in the second half against Memphis, an especially encouraging sign following Saturday’s ugly loss to the LA Clippers.

“I thought we played great, I really do,” Billups told ClutchPoints. “I think that this is the level that we can play at. I really do…We can be a really, really good basketball team when we play the right way. I just thought our resolve was awesome tonight coming off the game where we had 30 turnovers, where we weren’t really locked in defensively. To bounce back from that, I was really impressed by that.”

Damian Lillard’s Shot-Making

Lillard seemed to put any irrational concerns about his shot-making to rest on the Blazers’ first possession, confidently pulling up from 28 feet on the left side of a Jusuf Nurkic drag screen. No one should have been surprised when this went down.

No one should be worried by his relative struggles from there, either.

Lillard broke out of his slump by shooting just 6-of-22, losing his jumper early before briefly finding it during the Blazers’ decisive third-quarter run. He simply misfired on a series of tough yet very makable looks again, mostly from mid-range, and was harried at the rim by dogged, physical contests from Grizzlies guards. But Lillard, who said he was healthy at Tuesday’s practice, got to the paint plenty, and deserves plaudits for his defense when matched up with Morant.

His biggest impact came as a passer, finding Nurkic—outstanding if largely understated on both ends—and Portland’s other bigs on rolls to the rim for easy finish after easy finish.

One coaching note: Billups deserves credit for targeting Morant as the low man in side pick-and-roll action. Uniquely gifted and exhilarating as Morant is, he’s still an abject minus on defense. Portland even broke from its offense on a handful of possessions to attack him in isolation and get him switched onto the ball.

Billups again lauded Lillard for his floor game and overall approach, just like after previous games the latter’s shooting struggles were worse. Lillard even knew he was in the midst of another tough night with the jumper, but decided to force the issue.

“When you’re in a stretch like I am shooting the ball, I think it’s important to jump into it, you know what I mean?” he said. “To get more aggressive and get yourself out of it, and that’s kind of where I got to in the third. Where it was like, ‘It’s not gonna be a good shooting night, but I’m gonna find something, and trying to be aggressive to find something.”

Lillard said it himself: He’s in a shooting slump. He could also get out of it literally any time he lets fly. Don’t be concerned about Lillard. He’s going to break out of this stretch, probably sooner than later. In the meantime, Lillard’s still the engine behind a Blazers offense that clearly has a sky-high ceiling.

Anfernee Simons’ Ongoing Evolution

C.J. McCollum wasn’t especially efficient, but kept Portland within reach of Memphis with typical tough shot-making and savvy dribble-drives in the first half. Lillard was outstanding even if not at his best, as was Nurkic. Nance, Zeller and Little were all clear positives. Even Dennis Smith Jr., in the rotation ahead of Ben McLemore due to Norman Powell’s absence, made his presence felt. This was a team win in every sense of the word.

Minute for minute, though, no one for the Blazers was better than Simons. His strip of Morant highlighted first above was followed shortly thereafter with this deep drive-and-kick to Smith, further evidence of Simons’ burgeoning comfort creasing the paint off the bounce and making plays for his teammates.

Training-camp talk of Simons’ long-anticipated breakout finally coming doesn’t seem so optimistic now.

Four games into the season, Simons has been arguably Portland’s most consistent player, and just as significantly, a far more dynamic, comfortable, instinctive one than he was last season. It’s still too early to call this his new normal, but the days of Simons being a bystander or liability appear to be over for good.