MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Memphis Grizzlies are continuing their winning ways headed into the post-season even if the recent performances aren't exactly stellar.
The Grizzlies almost let a 12-point lead evaporate in the final 4 minutes before holding on for their fourth straight victory, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 93-89 on Saturday night.
Rudy Gay scored 21 points and had a key block in the final seconds to preserve the Memphis victory as the Trail Blazers scored 10 straight points down the stretch. Gay, who was 9 of 16 from the field, turned away Wesley Matthews' 3-point attempt with about 5 seconds left to seal the win and send the short-handed Trail Blazers to their fifth straight loss.
It marked the second straight night Memphis has struggled against a sub-.500 team. The Grizzlies had to battle in the fourth quarter Friday night before winning 85-80 at Charlotte.
"Sometimes, we play to the level of our opponents," said Memphis centre Marc Gasol, who had 12 points. "If we play a good team, we play a lot better. If we play the not-so-good teams, we play to their level. That's a part of the process of getting better and being a good team. At least, we get up at the end and realize that we've actually got to win."
O.J. Mayo scored 14 points for Memphis, Marreese Speights had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Dante Cunningham finished with 12 points.
"Right now, we're just trying to continue to build and get better for these playoff runs," Cunningham said. "Just trying to sharpen all our tools and make sure everything is right going into the playoffs."
J.J. Hickson had 23 points and 13 rebounds to lead Portland, while Jamal Crawford had 21 points despite going 5 of 13 from the field, part of the Trail Blazers' 37 per cent shooting for the game. Matthews had 16 points and Luke Babbitt added 10.
Hickson's performance continued a nice run for the fourth-year forward out of North Carolina State. He entered the game averaging 14.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in the 14 games since he was signed off waivers by the Blazers on March 21.
"I thought J.J. had a great night, especially on the boards" Portland coach Kaleb Canales said. "He ended up with seven offensive rebounds. J.J. has been terrific for us, and we are excited to have him."
The win kept Memphis' hopes alive to try to reach the fourth seed in the Western Conference that would mean homecourt advantage in the first round. The Grizzlies moved within a half-game of the idle Los Angeles Clippers, who hold the fourth spot.
Memphis dominated inside holding a 58-32 advantage in the paint, and seemed in control until a final Portland burst late in the fourth quarter.
Hickson scored seven early points in the fourth, part of a 10-2 run that pulled Portland within 83-77 with about 7 minutes left.
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins responded by putting his starters back in the game. The Grizzlies rebuilt the lead to double digits as Gay scored inside and Gasol had two baskets.
Still, the Trail Blazers pushed back with 10 straight points and trailed 91-89 with 10.1 seconds left and they had the ball.
But after Gay blocked Matthews' 3-point attempt with about 5 seconds remaining, Mayo hit two free throws with 3.2 seconds left for the final margin.
"I was just trying to make a play," Gay said of the block. "I wanted to body him up and try to contest the shot. Obviously, he's one of those guys who can hit that shot, so I kind of knew he was going to shoot it."
The Portland push that fell just short still made for a valiant effort from the Trail Blazers, who were short-handed and playing without key pieces, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Przybilla and Raymond Felton. Nicolas Batum, the team's second-leading scorer at 13.9 points a game, was with the team but did not dress against Memphis with left quadriceps tendinitis.
"We just knew we had to give ourselves a chance," Crawford said. "We are banged up. Everybody is banged up. We are missing a lot of key guys."
Memphis led 54-45 at halftime, bolstered by Mayo's nine points in the second quarter. The Grizzlies outscored Portland 30-18 in the period, erasing an early deficit.
Memphis connected on its first five shots in the game, but managed to shoot 49 per cent in the half. The Blazers, meanwhile, were at 38 per cent. Seven turnovers, leading to 10 Memphis points, also hindered Portland, while Memphis committed three miscues.
Portland would end the game with 15 turnovers compared to 10 for Memphis.
The Trail Blazers were within striking distance at the end because they outscored Memphis 22-14 in the final period as the Grizzlies shot only 24 per cent in the quarter.
"We held a very good team to 14 points in the fourth quarter," Canales said. "That is the defence that I am talking about, continuing to build. We responded in the second half.
"We put ourselves in a good position down the stretch, but just didn't make enough good plays."
Memphis has won 14 of its last 18 games, a stretch that included road wins at Oklahoma City, Miami and in Los Angeles over the Lakers. The Grizzlies also have home wins over Dallas and the Clippers.
"Those are the kind of games these guys get up for," Hollins said. "Then after we had that stretch of those teams, all of a sudden, we get a stretch of a bunch of teams that aren't in the playoffs. I can't say we struggled. We haven't been as focused to go out and dominate them. But we won the game, and that's also important."
Notes: C Hasheem Thabeet, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Grizzlies, started for Portland, his second start of the season. ... Portland, facing all kinds of injury problems, dressed only nine players. ... The Trail Blazers entered the game with a three-game winning streak in the series. ... Memphis F Zach Randolph did not play. Asked about it before the game, Randolph said "rest." The stat sheet said "DNP-Coach's Decision."... .Memphis has won a season-high nine consecutive home games. ... Hickson's 13 rebounds matched his season high.