The Portland Trail Blazers are an inconsistent team still finding itself; Memphis is a deep and dangerous squad that seems to be putting it together, having won eight straight. There’s a narrative in there that links this contest to the 16 that have come before. But really, the value here is in the thing itself, a Tuesday night game between two playoff teams that play with passion.
Even the game lacked a compelling narrative. By the end of the third quarter, the Grizzlies were down big and never threatened to recover. Yet the two teams played with tremendous energy, even in the grind of this dense season, and in the moment each possession felt meaningful–allowing for mighty good viewing, even when end-game consequence fades.
Here are some of those moments:
- Marcus Camby playing about 15 years younger than his age (two months to 38!). Camby’s scoreline, 22 rebounds and five blocks, bellows for itself, but watching the man accumulate those totals was, and I don’t think this is hyperbole, inspiring. This was not a quiet 22 and five. Every time a shot went up, Camby was moving–bounding across the paint to tip the ball to himself or a fellow Blazer, looping around opponents to find open spaces. When he wasn’t in great position, stuck behind the comparably leadfooted Marc Gasol, Camby raced to an open spot on the floor. It makes sense: even if you don’t know where the ball will go, it’s better to be in your own space than behind someone else. He was a nearly perfect example of how rebounding is a skill, but a skill that relies on work rate and a willingness to through and around opponents time and again… also an absurd wingspan. Camby can’t and doesn’t play with this energy every night, but that can do it at all is extraordinary.
- Josh Selby force feeding me my own words. Back in the summer I saw Selby at a Durant-LeBron showcase, and wrote that “at no point have I thought [Selby] looked ready to contribute as an NBA guard.” Please ignore the grammar for a second, because I want to tell you that Selby is playing with a purpose and poise that seemed desperately lacking in his one year in Lawrence. Selby coughed the ball up a couple times, as a 20 year old rookie will, but he also managed a series of pick-and-roll possessions in the third quarter with surprising decisiveness–hitting the roll man when appropriate, and stepping into a calm 15 footer when the space presented itself. He also flashed his singular talent for reaching the rim, refusing a screen with a nasty crossover and burst to the cup that reminded of Ty Lawson. Selby might just be one of those guys who makes a better pro player than a college one. As the Grizzlies figure out what to do with OJ Mayo, Selby projects as a bright option as a back up combo guard who can ignite and sustain the offense of a second unit.
- Jamal Crawford crossed Mike Conley so hard Conley fell over. Usually when this happens, the defender actually trips on someone’s foot or stumbles before the crossover actually occurs. Nope. This was Crawford going full speed left then knifing back to the right by sliding the ball behind his back, a move with an incredible degree of difficulty that put Conley on his rump. Sadly, Crawford took off about two feet too far from the rim and was out of gas by the time Memphis rotated to turn his thrilling move into a meek layup attempt.
- Rudy Gay playing big. Gay was really the only Grizzly capable of slowing LaMarcus Aldridge, and he did a nice job of using his insane length to bother Aldridge’s fallaway and showed an admirable willingness to flop when Aldridge tried to bull him, earning two offensive foul calls. This was shocking enough, but Gay, a small forward, also spent time on Portland center Marcus Camby, which allowed the Grizzlies to really bother the Portland offense by denying high post/pressure release ball reversals from the 5 man. Portland’s high-low game is legendary, but Camby doesn’t just throw great lobs to Aldridge, he also acts as the pivot-point for ball reversals in Portland’s offense when defenses load up on Aldridge on the strong side. But Portland had trouble executing this basic element of its offense because Rudy Gay actually played full denial defense against Camby, even 24 feet from the rim. This is one of the things that, despite the occaisionally horrendous shooting, makes Memphis fun to watch: at their best, they don’t surrender an inch defensively.
- Gerald Wallace is fearless. A lot of times we say a player is fearless if they are willing to get in LeBron James’s craw or bump chests with Kobe Bryant. But that’s just basketball. Here’s real bravery: In the third period, Marc Gasol gathered momentum dribbling down the right side on a fast break. At about the three point line it became obvious he was going to try and dunk; there would be no passing, no slowing down. Wallace saw all this and by the time Gasol was at the free throw line extended, Wallace was planted with his chin up and chest out, staring down the charging, snorting Spanish bull. The collision was brutal, and Wallace took an eight count to regain his feet, but holy hell, what wouldn’t you do for your teammate if you know he would do that for you?
Of course, a bunch of other interesting things happened which could be said to have turned the game in Portland’s favor. But in the arduous slog of the NBA season, sometimes it’s best to not get too caught up in the score, or who is on what streak. Sometimes it’s enough just to appreciate, and learn from, the bright moments in a borderline blowout on a Tuesday night, a quarter into the season.