Jared Wright, Oregon Sports News

The longest road trip for the Portland Trail Blazers—seven games—will end in Memphis on Tuesday, and it has been a huge success. Given the quality of the Blazers’ opponents (five of them were playoff teams at the start of the trip), the Blazers’ struggles away from the Northwest this season (before the All-Star break, Portland was 10-15 on the road), and the fact that almost all those games were out East, a record of 2-5 was the reasonable expectation. I’d have been happy with 3-4. 4-3 would have been excellent.

The Blazers, as is their wont in the regular season, delight in exceeding expectations. They went 5-1 through the first six games of this roadie, and they would have gotten the game at Toronto too if Kawhi Leonard wasn’t having one of his good days. That Portland came back from that heartbreaker north of the border and put their foot down on Charlotte when the Hornets made a game of it on Sunday is a very good sign—fighting road-weariness and coming off that loss, prior Blazer squads would have dropped the Hornets game too.

Of course, Jusuf Nurkic was a huge reason why the Blazers salvaged Sunday’s win, him and Rodney Hood (who’s been invisible since the All-Star break, but broke out for 27 points Sunday). Nurk has been awesome on this road swing, averaging 20-10 with 21 total assists and 63% shooting from the field. His 26-point 15-rebound, six-assist effort Sunday was Stat-Stuffing Nurk at his finest.

Toughness has always been a quality of Damian Lillard—his backstory should give you all the information you need—but this season, the rest of the Blazers have got a bit more steel in their spines. They’re hungry to redeem themselves when the playoffs start in a few weeks.

There’s still plenty to be decided before the postseason starts, however. The Oklahoma City Thunder are tied with the Blazers at third in the standings, and they already own the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Houston Rockets are healthy, with a human flamethrower in James Harden, and are one game back of OKC/Rip City. The Utah Jazz are lurking in the background, like that creeper who won’t stop staring at your girlfriend. And there’s always the chance that the young Denver Nuggets, at second in the standings, falter down the stretch—though it must be said that they already have experience chasing a playoff spot, having lost a play-in game to Minnesota last season.

There’s still work to do for the Blazers if they want to capture home-court advantage. The third seed would be preferable, since Golden State is currently first in the West, and avoiding the best team of our generation for as long as possible in the postseason is obviously a good thing. Portland can’t rest on the laurels of a highly successful road trip—they need to continue piling up wins, control what they can control, and all the rest of that nonsense.

That work continues this week—with perhaps the biggest game of the season so far on the docket.

Tuesday, March 5: @ the Memphis Grizzlies, 5:00 PM, NBCSNW

The Skinny:Despite looking frisky during the first 10 weeks of the season, the Grizz have finally decided to pull the plug and embrace the tank. The Grit-n-Grind Grizzlies will go down as one of the most memorable teams of my young adulthood, simultaneously thrilling and frustrating to watch. They were thrilling because they were a legit defensive juggernaut during the pace-and-space revolution, and watching the NBA’s top offenses try to penetrate that defense—and the Association’s top players try to play 35 minutes with Tony Allen in their jersey—was always fascinating.

They were also frustrating because when they did get the advantage, they didn’t run away with games. They slowly ground their opponents down into the red Memphis dirt; watching a winning Grizzlies game was kind of like watching a python strangle a boar, then try to eat it. You knew the snake could do it, and would—it just took forever.

Memphis officially started turning the page when they dealt Marc Gasol to Toronto on February 7, but the actual death of Grit-n-Grind happened over a year ago, when Mike Conley injured his Achilles. The impetus to trade Gasol came from a really bad stretch of games, and the realization that a team helmed by the two veterans (and good friends) could no longer compete in the West.

Having gone 7-24 since December 29, Memphis revved up the tank even before they sent the best player in their history to foreign soil, but where the Grizzlies are driving old World War II-era Shermans, the Bulls and Cavaliers are rocking Panzers, while the Knicks stripped down their roster to almost nothing and have gone full Poland. The Grizz are sixth-worst in the NBA right now, not the best place to be if they want to land a premium youngster to pair with Jaren Jackson Jr. (who’s out with a thigh bruise).

With a limited chance to land the top overall pick (and Zion Williamson), Conley still on the roster with a very expensive contract, Chandler Parsons still on the ledger for one more season after this (though I bet the fans in Memphis are gleefully anticipating calling Parsons “Chandler Parsons’ Expiring Contract” this summer), and the painful process of rebuilding only beginning, things are pretty grim. At least the barbecue is awesome.

Matchup to Watch:Jonas Valanciunas vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Two Eastern European behemoths cut from roughly the same cloth, Valanciunas probably wishes he had Nurk’s support system in Portland. While Nurkic is constantly put in the best positions to succeed both on offense and defense by Terry Stotts, the Lithuanian big man was constantly derided for his slow feet, didn’t fully click with HIS star backcourt, and was always in trade rumors—while the Raptors regularly brought in players to replace him.

Some of the blame for the issues in Toronto does lie on JV himself, some on former Raptors coach Dwane Casey (also a former co-worker of Stotts; they were assistants on Rick Carlisle’s staff when Dallas won the 2011 NBA Championship), and some on the outsize expectations that come with being a top-five overall draft pick. With the trade to Memphis, hopefully he can re-establish himself as a starting-caliber big man; Valanciunas is averaging 19.1 PPG as a Grizzly.

A low-key interesting subplot is whether Valanciunas will pick up his player option this summer. It’s a $17 million option, and I’m not sure if he’ll get a long-term offer that’s better than Nurkic’s four-year $48 million contract—though he could be well-positioned to pounce if he declines his option, and a big-market team completely whiffs on all the big fish. Toronto is a cosmopolitan place, and Memphis might seem bucolic by comparison despite the increased opportunities Valanciunas is getting with the Grizz.

Memphis might not mind if JV picks up his option—they get a longer look at the Lithuanian, and he’d come off the books the same time Parsons and Avery Bradley do. He’s also going to be only 27 years old when the 2019-2020 season starts, so there isn’t as much of a divide in age between him and Triple J/Draft Pick X as there was between them and the 34-year-old Gasol. If nothing else, he’d be a decent bridge between Grit-n-Grind and the Triple J Era.

Prediction:Portland is tired, but Memphis is rumbling in the Ardennes, stuck in a ditch. Blazers win.

Thursday, March 7: vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder, 7:30 PM, TNT

The Skinny:The stage is this: Two teams tied near the top of the Western standings, both desperately vying for the third seed, playing their last of a four-game series. One team has been red-hot for weeks, the other has OWNED the first team all year long. Damian Lillard vs. Russell Westbrook. CJ McCollum vs. Paul George. Jusuf Nurkic vs. Steven Adams. Reggie Miller vs. Good Announcing. National television on hand. The winner gets a full game up on the loser with only a few short weeks to go.

This game could make ALL the difference between facing a punchless Utah team in Round 1 and a callow Denver team in Round 2, and getting thrown into a deathmatch with the Rockets for the right to be Golden State’s Round 2 ritual sacrifice.

Emotion. High stakes. Beer. And I get to actually attend this game.

This theme is perfect for this game. My body is so ready.

Matchup to Watch:Paul George vs. Maurice Harkless. Westbrook might be the $200 million man and former MVP, but George has been the Thunder’s best player all season long. There’re some folks out there saying George has been the best player overall in the NBA in 2019, which is awesome—we’re always looking for more converts to the Church of St. George, patron saint of elite two-way play.

The dark side may have cookies, but the Order of St. George has cookies, cake, beer, whiskey, AND wine. Registration is to the right.

(Seriously: PG-13 has been rated F****** R all season long. He did hurt his shoulder recently, which will have a humongous impact on many aspects of the NBA if he’s limited in what he can do.)

Prediction: The Thunder have been dominating the Blazers all season. If George can get over his recent shoulder issues, I see no reason why that won’t continue.

Saturday, March 9: vs. the Phoenix Suns, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW

The Skinny:While the Memphis game features a team far removed from its past glory, and OKC is a team that’s very strong in the present, this contest highlights a franchise that’s all about the future.

At 13-51, the Suns have the worst record in the NBA, a half-game below the Knicks. But while New York is blatantly trying to get the top pick so they can package it in a trade (instead of, you know, developing a top-tier big man prospect. Because screw that, right?), Phoenix would look positively terrifying with Williamson and Deandre Ayton at the 4 and 5—even if the Suns would be much better off with Ja Morant.

Phoenix is so terrible because they’re extremely young and extremely poorly-run at the top, but there are things to like here. Ayton—like Marvin Bagley and Trae Young—is doing his very best to make people forget that he was chosen over Luka Doncic, averaging 17-10 with nearly 60% shooting. Devin Booker is parlaying a massive Usage Rate into an equally massive 24.5 PPG, with a 33% Assist Rate (meaning he assisted on one-third of his teammate’s field goals while on the court) and a 15% Turnover Rate (meaning that for every 100 possessions he uses, Booker coughs up 15 turnovers). Mikal Bridges looks like the wing role player Booker needs to help him find team success.

This franchise still needs a couple young pieces—and a point guard–and has missed far too often on draft picks. It’s common to whiff on high choices, to think you’re getting a star only to find out you got a starter. Phoenix, though, has turned mismanagement and poor scouting into a God-damned art form, both in the Draft and in free agency.

The Suns have bricked on every big man draftee until they lucked into the first overall selection last year. They went from having three starting-caliber point guards to none after upsetting all three, and trading them away for pennies and dimes on the dollar one at a time. Josh Jackson has been a non-entity without the ball and merely bad with it, which sucks because Booker and Ayton also need the ball. They brought in seasoned veterans to help build winning habits, like Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, yet the youngsters are too green and too stat-obsessed to need those lessons; Chandler and Ariza are now on different teams.

For all the trading and activity around the Suns this decade, they’ve mostly spun their wheels while on cinderblocks since Steve Nash was traded. After a highly successful and trend-setting 2000s, Phoenix has been left behind. Hopefully, with Booker, Ayton, Bridges, and whomever they select this year, the 2020s will see a return to relevance for this proud franchise.

Matchup to Watch:Devin Booker vs. Damian Lillard. The next step for Booker is learning how to score efficiently. He already can distribute the ball—there’s hope in Phoenix that the 22-year-old can develop into James Harden Lite someday—but he’s going to have good-looking counting stats since he’s reaching Westbrookian levels of ball-hoggery. Being more economical and inclusive is Priority No. 1 for the young man from Michigan.

He can learn many things from watching Lillard, and not just on-the-court stuff. Though painfully young, Booker will have to try to be a leader. It sucks being so young and having to be thrust into the big chair—trust me, I know.

That’s the situation his talent and potential have put him in, however. Just like my dad told me long ago, Booker just has to suck it up and do what he can.

Prediction:Portland tallies an easy win—whether to pad their lead over OKC, or to start salving their wounded pride, remains to be seen.

Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 3-1      

Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 39-24

Jared’s Picks Record: 3-1

Jared’s Picks Overall: 38-24

More about: