Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies, 5 p.m.


Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

In one of the final games of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season, the new addition to the Trail Blazers’ lineup, J.J. Hickson, had one of those games that we’ve grown accustomed to witnessing as of late.

During that April 11 game, Hickson scored 23 points (tied for the second highest total of his season) and pulled down 14 rebounds. What’s even more, in spite of Memphis’ hefty frontline of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Hickson has feasted on the Grizzlies through his career. In nine games (six starts), Hickson has posted some his best offensive numbers against Memphis: 13.1 ppg and 84 percent free-throw shooting; better than his totals against any other team.

Which brings us to the Question of the Day:

Which Memphis player posts his best career scoring average against the Blazers?

Answer below, after your Starting Five

1. Memphis, the most “Eastern” Western Conference team around

A lot of the slow-paced, muck-it-up, bore-us-with-your-defense tactics that defined the NBA’s Eastern Conference through the 90s and early part of this century are still alive today. Look at the opponent points-per-game statistics, and seven of the top 10 teams hail from the East side. But right near the top spot, there’s Memphis battling with Indiana. ( ranks Memphis at 89.2 just behind No. 1 Indiana with 89.1). However, Memphis reigns atop the NBA world in Defensive Efficiency (.951) and there are many more categories that complete this simple thought: the Grizzlies are the best defensive team in the league.

Memphis has the NBA’s longest active streak of forcing at least 10 turnovers in 132 consecutive games, so the Blazers can’t have another sloppy start as they had in the Toronto loss.

They don’t score an awful lot (94.6 ppg) — another hallmark of Eastern Conference-style ball. But the Grizzlies have turned this identity into a success in the Western Conference. The Griz are 20-9, fourth in the playoff standings and play like a bear at home, with 13 of their wins coming inside the FedEx Forum.

2. Blazers still thin in frontcourt

You won’t see 7-foot-1 rookie center Meyers Leonard until the team returns to Portland. On Thursday, Jason Quick of the Oregonian reported that Leonard (sprained ankle) will remain at home while the Blazers complete the final two games on this road trip.

Without Leonard in the big-man rotation, the lineup hasn’t shifted greatly as coach Terry Stotts has given brief looks to backups Jared Jeffries and Joel Freeland. While Jeffries played 15 minutes in New York and Freeland got the DNP, the roles were reversed in Toronto when Freeland got in for 21 minutes while Jeffries sat the entire game. Freeland scored a career-best 11 points and made 4-of-6 shots. He also finished four rebounds.

But the one guy who has most benefitted from Leonard’s absence? Luke Babbitt, who continues to sub in as a hybrid-four. Through the two games of this trip so far, he’s averaging 20.5 minutes but only 5 points.

3. Is there a more random athlete on Twitter than Tony Allen?

I highly doubt it…

Follow Allen @aa000G9 to learn whenever the Memphis Grizzlies’ team plane touches down in cities, how his naps went and whether or not it truly is a happy new year.

4. Why he’s the Rookie of the Month (again)

The honors and buzz continue to build for point guard Damian Lillard, who won his second consecutive Rookie of the Month award. Now, he’s featured in the top 10 rookie plays for 2012. Be sure to check out No. 4 … hat trip to Blazer blogger Casey Holdahl for the heads up.

5. That’s what he said

Gritty can be good, but gorgeous is better. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal tells the Griz to pick up the pace and get offensive.

“The Grizzlies opened the season practicing what they preached. However, their actions have belied those words over the past month. They played a plodding, boring brand of basketball on offense. Their laboring to score led to a .500 winning percentage in December.

If the Griz have a New Year’s resolution, it must be a renewed commitment to playing faster. The Grizzlies’ recent downshift in offensive pace is a regression that won’t serve them well in 2013.”

Prediction: After two bouts against Eastern Conference opponents, the Blazers will finish the road trip with back-to-backs against teams from their own conference. Always a good thing to build up these conference Ws whenever possible – great for confidence and playoff seeding. But that’s easier said than done in Memphis

Grizzlies 102, Blazers 92

Question of the Day: Which Memphis player posts his best career scoring average against the Blazers?

That would be Z-Bo. During the Knicks game, someone mentioned to me on Twitter that he was glad Raymond Felton wasn’t playing. His theory was that former Blazers tend to do well against the Blazers.

Good point. Zach Randolph averages 21.3 points per game against his old team – head and shoulders above his averages against other teams in the NBA.

Tipoff: 5 p.m., Comcast SportsNet • 1190 AM/102.3 FM KEX

Officials of the night: Bill Kennedy, Brent Barnaky, Sean Corbin.

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