In a Nutshell
The Blazers play an amazing and energetic first half, shutting down Chris Paul and destroying the Clippers with precision shots and hustle defense. Predictably (given the circumstances) the drive started to peter out in the third period and completely collapsed in the fourth, not from lack of heart but from lack of energy. The Blazers struggled to field a serviceable big man or a competent point guard in the final period and Chris Paul brought the Clippers all the way back against a team that had simply run out of steam.
The first period of this game was brilliant. No, it was astonishing. Either way, it was most improbable given the circumstances. On their third game in three nights the Blazers dismantled the Clippers. Nicolas Batum fired like a machine gun, on target every time. Wesley Matthews rode shotgun and hit his jumpers too. It was like the basketball gods patted both of them on the head and said, "You go have fun now." The other Blazers supported the offensive drenching by playing the most heart-on-sleeve, all-out defense we've seen in forever. They were on the boards, not always successfully but they battled. They were all over the floor for loose balls. They forced turnovers and ran. The Clippers were stationary pins and the Blazers were the bowling ball. Before L.A. knew what hit them Portland was up 7 at the quarter, 27-20.
Portland's bench spread around the scoring with considerably less success in the second period but they kept the ball moving on offense, making the Clippers defend honestly. The effort seemed to sap the life out of the Clips, as they wilted even further under Portland's strong defensive swipes. Every once in a while they'd get free for a layup but other than that it was missed jumpers, turnovers, and watching Portland run circles around them. The lead ballooned to 15 with 3 minutes left in the period but came back to 11 at the break. Portland led 43-32 at the half while the Clippers walked off the floor to the strains of the TNT crew explaining how tired they were because of their 3 games in 4 nights schedule. (By the way, TNT would also remind folks how the Clips were missing Chauncey Billups for this game. Yes, they mentioned Aldridge's absence a couple times too but the slant on these things is funny.)
L.A. futzed around at the beginning of the third period as well, settling for poor Randy Foye-based possessions as the Blazers netted a quick 7 to push the lead to 18. Then the Clippers determined to go through Blake Griffin. They pounded it to him and he responded. This, in turn, opened up Foye's shots and he actually hit a couple. Portland responded with Jamal Crawford who hit a series of acrobatic jumpers and drive finishes in the period. Still, it was hard to ignore Portland's deteriorating shot selection, ball and player movement, and interior defense. The bigs started picking up fouls instead of great plays. Shoving replaced moving feet. Jumpers off of isolation moves or sloppy picks took the place of the incisive passing of the first half. The Clippers cut the lead to 8 by the end of the third, 60-52.
In the fourth period everything fell apart. The issues were myriad. Kurt Thomas was playing like something you'd scrape off your shoe but Marcus Camby was just as tired and carrying fouls to boot. The Blazers had to play one or the other, else they'd field a lineup where Gerald Wallace played center. This left a massive hole in the middle, complicated rebounding, and made the offense untenable...4-on-5. Every time one of the bigs touched the rock on the offensive end or even got near a play disaster ensued. But what are you going to do? Similarly Raymond Felton was playing poorly but pulling him for the better-producing (and defending) Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford left the Blazers prey to turnovers. Chris Paul feasted on steals until Felton returned. Then the Clippers feasted on missed shots. Crawford kept the Blazers alive for a while with more made one-on-one shots but that well ran dry as he tired and the Clippers started collapsing on him. What was he to do, though? He has a hard time running the offense under pressure when everybody is alert. With the entire team standing around save the guy who was offering him a half-hearted pick he had no choice but to try and score enough to keep his team ahead. As jumper after jumper missed and layup after layup rolled off the rim the Clippers got progressively closer. The Blazers couldn't stop Paul's step-back jumper. When they did manage to contain him a simple pass found an outside shooter open. L.A. pulled ahead at the 3:50 mark on a Mo Williams three and never looked back. The Clippers win, 74-71.
Say what you want about Portland's structure and execution. Plenty of flaws were evident in that fourth period, not only in the way they played but the way the roster has been built. Nevertheless he real enemy there was fatigue. Had they been better rested they would have pushed past those late-game flaws, made fewer mistakes and covered better for the ones they did make, and would have finished this game and the Clips. As it was the Blazers could do nothing. Nobody could have saved them from that period except Aldridge rising like a Phoenix from the not-suited list. Failing that, the slow-down was heralded from the moment this game tipped. The thing to concentrate on here is the heart they displayed early and the 18-point lead they built, not the inevitable slip in the 11th and 12th quarters played in 50 hours, real time.
Also of note: how pained the Blazers looked to have put in all that effort and lost at the end. It was a combination of agony and being utterly spent. As we said, their hearts were on their sleeves tonight. But you know, that's all you can ask. A win would have been improbable. They didn't get blown out, they threw their punches, they just got clipped in the last round. Everybody should be fine with that. This was the best ugly game, the best 18-point lead given up, the best end of a back-to-back-to-back that could be hoped for. Give these guys a serious ovation not only for giving their all, but for not being satisfied with a loss or the easy way out.
LaMarcus Aldridge did not play tonight. Do not forget the forest for the trees.
Gerald Wallace looked tired, making a few nice defensive plays but finishing low at the rim and missing his jumper. He did battle for boards when it counted but he couldn't come up with his usual rip-aways. He had but 7 points on 2-7 shooting with 4 assists and 3 rebounds in 43 minutes. An energy guy without energy is just a guy.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, fired 8-16, 2-4 from distance, for 19 points with 6 rebounds. His defense was energetic and profound. He didn't touch the ball in the latter stages of the game. I would have loved to see him make a miracle shot or two that Crawford missed. On the other hand NOBODY was moving to get the ball in that fourth quarter including Batum. Everybody was standing with a defender planted near. That makes those spectacular plays hard to set up, let alone execute.
Marcus Camby had 6 rebounds and 4 assists in 22 minutes but also had 5 personal fouls. He's picking his spots anyway, more so in this game. Even with the short minutes this schedule has to be killing him.
Hats off to Wesley Matthews who hit jumpers early, played defense late, and had the presence of mind to (what looked like) intentionally miss the second of two free throws with 5 seconds left in the game and the Blazers down by 3, then rebound his own miss as others reached for it at the side of the key, then get to the three point arc. Sadly he picked up his dribble, had no outlet, had no timeouts, and had to loft a horrible attempt over smothering arms which, to his credit, hit the bracket before bouncing into oblivion along with Portland's hope of keeping this game alive. On the other hand, I don't think anyone wanted to see this game go into overtime...at least not in the big picture. 6-13 shooting, 2-5 from distance, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 15 points.
What happened to Raymond Felton? You'd think at least by dumb luck he'd come out with more good games than this. But this one was an eyesore. 0-7 shooting, 0 points, 2 assists, 5 turnovers in 24 minutes. And somebody else had to guard Chris Paul when he was on the floor. The Blazers played him as little as possible and still suffered for it. In an even bigger cosmic joke they still suffered without him in that fourth period too.
Jamal Crawford had 19 off the bench on 7-18 shooting. That shooting percentage looked a lot better before the last four minutes of the game too. He kept the Blazers in the game with his second-half scoring. He kept the Blazers from winning the game with his late misses. But cruelly, he was really the only one who could do anything. Blame him for missing if you wish but his teammates did nothing to take the ball out of his hands, even if he had the instinct to give it up. He was the only one with enough energy and handles to get a shot as the fourth quarter progressed. Was some of that his own drive to dominate the ball? Sure...we all rely on instinct when tired and pressed. But again...nobody else even moved to take the ball. I don't blame him for the period any more than I blame a game-show contestant for picking the wrong door when the host says, "You can choose between Door #1 and...that's all. Just Door #1. What's your pick?" Door #1 was a zonk tonight. But at least Crawford tried.
We shouldn't even talk about how Kurt Thomas played on the offensive end in that fourth period. He was pretty much [chicken]-blocking scoring attempts with his ill-timed screens or standing near the key, keeping an extra defender in the way of potential scorers. He did have 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 26 minutes.
Craig Smith had 3 rebounds in 14 minutes. Elliot Williams had 3 rebounds and a nice dunk in 8 minutes...a little bit of a heady shift for him.
Fun With Numbers
Every number in this game should be thrown out. 74-71 will tell you that this was an abnormal evening. Portland shot well from distance again, hitting 6-14 from the arc for 43%. Ironically that's better than either team fired from the field overall, Portland averaging 38%, Los Angeles 38.5%.
Also Chris Paul had but 3 assists and 13 points. The Blazers did a good job on him. Sadly those points came when it counted.
I want to say, "Thank goodness that brutal stretch is over" but like Schedule of the Living Dead the calendar brings Atlanta on Saturday, the Lakers in L.A. on Monday, and red hot San Antonio back home on Tuesday. Ugh. At least the All-Star break follows. None too soon, either.
Clips Nation will give you the Clippers' side of this ugliness.