MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It took a near-perfect February for the Memphis Grizzlies to stay teetering on the fourth spot in the Western Conference.
One bad loss and it would have felt Wednesday night like the city had fallen into the Mississippi River, floating out of playoff contention.
A strong second half against visiting Portland prevented that and Memphis beat the Blazers 91-85 at FedExForum.
The Grizzlies went 9-2 in February and entered Wednesday winners of nine of their last 10 games. But they had only a one-game lead on Denver for the fourth spot and still trailed the Clippers by two games. The Clippers had won eight of their last 10, Denver seven of 10.
“We understand that the West is loaded and we’ve understood that from day one,” point guard Mike Conley said. “We’re almost to the point where we’re like ‘Man, we might need to win 60 games in order to stay where we’re at.'”
It was a hobbling Memphis (40-19) team. Ed Davis drew his first start with Zach Randolph benched by a sprained ankle. Jon Leuer was the backup with Darrell Arthur suffering from neck and back spasms. Dexter Pittman got his first 3 minutes, 28 seconds of playing time.
Randolph and Arthur had plenty of time to stare at the standings board at the entrance of the Grizzlies locker room. Conley said it’s tough not to pay attention to the standings.
“It’s tempting, man. It’s tempting,” he said. “We know how close it is. We have it up there on the board and every day we walk in and we see. But we can’t worry about it. We’ve just got to worry about what we’re doing and not worry about who’s losing and who’s not.”
Portland led by as many as 13 in the first half and 17 on a pair of free throws from LaMarcus Aldridge in the third quarter.
Memphis closed the third on a 19-4 run and trailed by two on former Blazer Jerryd Bayless’ 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was Bayless again in the fourth with a 3 to give the Grizzlies their first lead since the first quarter, 72-71.
Portland inched to another six-point lead on one of Eric Maynor’s three 3s. Following a timeout, Bayless again connected from deep, Tayshaun Prince grabbed an offensive rebound and Marc Gasol put it back in to get within one. Prince’s 20-foot jumper then gave Memphis a lead it wouldn’t lose at 83-82.
Memphis out-rebounded Portland 52-38 (16-7 on the offensive glass) and had 20 second-chance points to the Blazers’ eight.
It’s not exactly a thrilling stretch for Memphis. After a much-hyped game in Miami last Friday, the Grizzlies got Orlando and Portland. They visit Cleveland Friday, host New Orleans on Saturday and play at Portland Tuesday before games at the Clippers and at Denver. Los Angeles, third in the West, and Denver, fifth, play a crucial game tonight.
“I think we’ve grown to the point to where focus isn’t an issue,” Conley said. “I think we’ve just got to get off to a better start. We seem to click it in the third quarter.”
Memphis came back from 25 down a week earlier here against Dallas and has now come back to win 10 times when trailing by at least 17.
“We can’t keep doing that,” said guard Tony Allen, who scored 10 points and had seven rebounds. “Everybody is not going to lose leads like that, but that just shows the character of our team. We are grinders.”
Gasol had a game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds. Conley scored 11 of his 20 points in the third quarter. Bayless finished with 13 points, all in the second half, 10 loud ones in the fourth quarter.
Rookie of the Year favorite Damian Lillard scored the last seven points of the first quarter as the Blazers led 26-18. Lillard’s 3-pointer in the first quarter gave him 130 on the season, the most by a rookie since Stephen Curry’s 166 in 2009-10. Lillard had only six points in the second half as Portland (28-32) shot 28 percent and scored only 35 points.
Portland finished with six guys in double figures. Lillard’s 20 led the way. J.J. Hickson and Maynor had 12 each. Hickson also had a game-high 13 boards.
Memphis went from big to small. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said Lillard leading the pick-and-roll led him to go with a smaller group.
“They played a small lineup but took the pick-and-rolls out of the game,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “They tightened things up but I do think their offense helped and affected their defense.”
Memphis has reached 40 wins quicker than any other Memphis team. Prince came to Memphis from out-of-contention Detroit. He says this stretch of games against sub-.500 teams doesn’t affect his focus. He had only six points, but nine rebounds.
“I was in a situation where we were losing right and left,” Prince said. “For me, that’s not the case. I’m in a situation, like tonight, where I couldn’t make any shots, I have to do other things on the floor.”