Last night's road win over the Portland Trail Blazers is the signature win of the season so far. The Grizzlies put on a clinic on both sides of the ball in Portland on Monday night, and the Blazers—the third place team in the West, looking to bounce back against a poor showing on the road at Golden State—were helpless to do anything but stand in and take the body blows the Grizzlies were dishing out.
Portland has the highest-ranked offense in the league, in both points per game and offensive efficiency. Last night, the Grizzlies held them below 90 points at home for the first time all year. It was only the 10th time the Blazers had even been held below 100, and the second time below 90 (the first being that aforementioned Golden State loss).
But last night wasn't just about the Grizzlies' defense clamping down in a way that it hasn't often done this season—it was also about the offense, coming close to 100 points for the second time in two games after spending the first five games after Gasol's return hovering around 90. The Grizzlies' offensive efficiency last night was 107.4. The Grizzlies shot 51.8% from the floor and 46.2% from beyond the arc. Zach Randolph had 23 points (and 10 rebounds, which topped Pau Gasol's Grizzlies franchise record for most double doubles with 190).
And everyone who played (sorry Jamaal Franklin and Jon Leuer) contributed to the cause (except Ed Davis, who did an OK job on defense but overall struggled mightily on both ends against the much bigger and supremely gifted LaMarcus Aldridge). Nick Calathes played 13:24 and while he only made one bucket, he had 4 rebounds and 4 assists to go along with it. Mike Miller was 3-3 from long range. Tayshaun Prince took too many midrange jumpers. James Johnson's numbers don't reflect his defensive contributions (or how quickly he racked up those 4 fouls).
This is what we were promised when the Joerger Era began, though, isn't it? The same suffocating defense, augmented by an offense with the ability to go on big scoring runs when the conditions were right, bolstered by outside shooting and driven by ball movement run through Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?
(Speaking of Marc Gasol ball movement, he's got to stop hitting the wide open Tayshaun Prince with the ball instead of going to someone else. It's the same thing he did hitting Tony Allen in the corner for a wide open three. Yes, Marc, they're wide open. Let's consider why that might be the case before we pass, hmm?)
At any rate, the Grizzlies are now 6-1 since the return of Marc Gasol, and he's not even all the way healthy yet—or even particularly close. I'd say he's playing at about 70%-80%. Four of those wins have come over Oklahoma City, Houston, and Portland, teams the Spurs haven't been able to beat yet. The Griz are now 1½ games back of Dallas for the 8th playoff spot, but it doesn't stop there—now they're 2½ games out of the 6th and 7th spots. Only 5 games out of the 5th spot. The Western Conference playoff race is starting to tighten up at the bottom, and it's only going to get tighter as the season races toward its conclusion.
For comparison, the Grizzlies, currently 9th in the West, are closer to the top-seeded Thunder (11.5 games back) than the 3rd-seeded Raptors are to the Pacers in the East (12 games back). If they keep winning games like this one over the West's best opponents, the Grizzlies are going to make some noise, both in the regular season, and potentially in a first-round playoff matchup. They've beaten all of the top teams in the West except for San Antonio now. The only two teams above them in the standings whom the Grizzlies have yet to beat are the Spurs and the Mavericks, and they still have to play both teams at least one more time.
The Grizzlies appear to be starting to round into shape, coming together to make a serious run at the right time. Between now and the All Star break, the Griz have an excellent chance to stockpile wins and move up the standings and then take a week off to rest. Last night's win over Portland is further proof that this Griz squad can hang with the West's elite, and that the Grizzlies' opponents should all be wary of running into this particularly burly, non-bluffing buzzsaw.