During the Portland Trail Blazers' impressive 11-game November winning streak they slipped in a few games where they played less than their best ball but were rescued by some timely threes, a key turnover forced, or late-game heroism by one of their stars. Tonight's matchup with the Dallas Mavericks was almost one of those games. Portland played less-than-stellar basketball, particularly on defense. The three ball didn't fall and the offense sputtered in fits and starts. But Portland still had multiple chances to take this game in the closing minute. They didn't get the three-point-based run but they did get the timely turnover and the last-second heroics. Unfortunately less-than-stellar won the day as Dallas had the talent and poise to make the Blazers pay for their sins. Portland ended up playing with fire once too often and got burned by a buzzer-beater, falling 108-106.
This game started out with the Mavericks trying twists that the Blazers hadn't seen much of this season. They reversed the ball on offense, making Portland defenders shift laterally instead of going right at mismatches. Once Portland's interior defenders had moved the Mavericks took advantage of lackadaisical guard defense, blowing past Portland's defenders with regularity and scoring in the lane off the dribble. The Blazers made hay with Robin Lopez's impressive offensive rebounding but Portland also gave up offensive rebounds. Three pointers refused to fall for the home team and turnovers cropped up as well. The Mavericks took the ball out of LaMarcus Aldridge's hands too, doubling with a man running down the baseline, forcing LMA to spin away from the bucket and to pass away from the rim instead of towards or across it. With most of the usual tricks falling flat, the Blazers relied on penetration and foul shots to keep the scoreboard ticking. Despite the shaky start and confusion this worked pretty well, as Portland equaled Dallas' paint production and exited the first quarter up 30-28.
Portland's bad defense continued in the second period. At the same time their offense went flat. Dallas alternated between mid-range strikes and devastating dribble drives the whole period. Portland just looked out of sync. Fortunately Damian Lillard came to the rescue, scoring 11 in the period off of 2 threes and 5 foul shots. The other Blazers combined managed only 12 points total. Were it not for Lillard the Blazers would have gone into the locker room down by double digits. As it was Portland trailed by only 2 points, 55-53. The story looked familiar: semi-sloppy first half followed by halftime adjustments and surgical second-half strikes for the win.
But Dallas wasn't having much of that. They anticipated Portland's corrections, changing up their second-half attack. They stopped doubling Aldridge, instead playing him straight up but trying to force him out farther on the floor than he likes to set up. The Blazers tried to force-feed their #1 option early in the third and it worked, but Aldridge was hitting contested, fairly long shots...not ideal for a sustained attack. Meanwhile the other four Dallas defenders got to stay close to their men and managed to stop Portland from penetrating as much as they had in the first half. Portland's points in the paint disappeared...significant because they had been keeping up before this point. The Blazers also managed to keep Dallas out of the paint on the other end, though, largely due to the efforts of Lopez. He couldn't rotate quickly enough to stop layups when Dallas moved the ball cross-court before penetrating but when they began going straight at the rim he was gold.
Like the Blazers, the Mavs began to drift farther outside as the period wore along. The good news: most of their jumpers missed. The bad news: they began to rely more on Dirk Nowitzki for those "J's". He'd been doing a slow burn throughout the game but he caught fire in the third, scoring 7 and dishing 3 assists. The Blazers had an answer in Nicolas Batum. Dallas had been cheating on defense, keeping shorter men guarding Batum. Nicolas responded with threes, dunks, turn-arounds, scoring a dozen in the period. That kept Portland close. The Mavs led 79-76 at the close of the third.
The fourth quarter featured a mash-up of everything that had gone before. Dallas alternated between single-covering and doubling Aldridge. They penetrated with guards, hit threes off the pass, and watched Nowitki eat up defenders with the one-legged step-back "J". Robin Lopez played as hard as he could trying to make up for other people's mistakes. Aldridge centered the offense, Lillard hit threes, Batum chipped in on mismatches. It was everything and the kitchen sink. Neither team got a regular rhythm going but Nowitzki proved steadier than anybody else. The Mavericks held a 6-point lead with 4:30 remaining when Lillard surged back, splashing a couple of insane threes. Just like that the game was tied at 94. Nowitzki and Monta Ellis scored 12 points in the next four minutes. Portland responded with 6. That left the Blazers down 6 with 45 seconds left.
Probably ballgame, right?
Naw. These are the Blazers.
First Batum ran free for a corner three, cutting the deficit to 3 with 38 seconds remaining. After a Dallas miss Mo Williams got WIDE open for a right angle three. Tie game, right?
Oops. He missed. If you've followed the 2013-14 season at all you know that's not supposed to happen. I'm pretty sure the officials had to stop the game to review, making sure that ball didn't go through the net. It didn't. So now Portland's down 3 with 9 seconds left, Dallas possession. Now it's ballgame, right?
Naw. These are the Blazers.
The Mavs called a 20-second timeout and inbounded from halfcourt. Monta Ellis caught the ball running towards the halfcourt line, expecting to get fouled. Batum and Wesley Matthews trapped him, slapping at leather to break it free. They knocked the ball downward, off of Ellis' leg, and out of bounds. The officials did review this one. Portland ball, 6 seconds remaining, down 3.
You know what happens now, right? Lillard gets the ball, fakes to lose his defender at the arc just about the same spot Williams missed from earlier. Defender gets loose, Lillard squares and fires...BAM. Game is tied at 106, 1.9 seconds remaining. The Blazers are going to do it again.
Except Dallas had other plans. Remember poor guard defense being a recurring theme of this game for Portland? Well, Matthews got hung up trying to get around a screen, Monta Ellis got free with the ball, Portland's bigs stayed with their own men, and Ellis elevated for the game-winning 21-footer at the buzzer. Blazers lose, 108-106.
The last minute of the game displayed the best and worst of everything the Blazers offered tonight: made threes, missed threes, good defense, bad defense. It's not particularly surprising that the Mavericks pulled it out. It wouldn't have been surprising had the Blazers taken the game to overtime and won it either. The lesson here is that you can't win every game in which you fiddle around with the opponent. The magic run, critical three, or amazing stop doesn't always come. Then again, you wouldn't expect it to. It's just one of those things. Sometime the other guy gets to win, especially on a night when you didn't play your best.
One of the funniest things about the game was the reaction afterwards. It was like the whole crowd, and maybe even the Blazers too, got confused. They weren't dejected. They weren't upset. It was like the whole arena needed yet another official replay to verify the final score. "Wait, the Blazers lost this kind of game?" It shows you how good things have been running this year.
The most significant stat for Portland was probably 9-30 three-point shooting, a 30% clip. Not only is that a low rate for the Blazers, 30 of their 87 attempts came from beyond the arc. That's 34% of their total shots when they normally run around 27%. When you factor in 17 offensive rebounds and a bunch of put-backs coloring Portland's offense, a whole lot of their intentional sets ended up in threes tonight. Allowing Dallas 53% from the field and 54 points in the paint was a punch in the gut, particularly since many of those easy scores came off of guard penetration. The Mavericks only average 40 points in the paint on the season. Portland dominated the rebounding race, 50-36. This was especially impressive as the Blazers missed more shots than the Mavs did.
Portland also dominated the foul line tonight, hitting 19 of 24 free throws compared to 8-11 for Dallas. I don't want to hit this too hard but I have noticed it throughout the season and this seems like a good night to bring it up, since it obviously didn't contribute to a Portland win. Folks who traditionally say the refs don't favor Portland have had little reason to complain this season and had particularly little tonight. It seemed like 90% of toss-up calls went Portland's way and the Blazer bigs got to do some physical things in the paint that Dallas couldn't get away with. This game was an extreme example but the refs have generally been crediting Portland as a high-level team this year. Ask me if I'm complaining. They probably owe us.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 19 on an uncharacteristic 7-16 night from the field. Dallas was running those different looks at him and his teammates weren't spreading the floor with made threes they way they usually do. Aldridge did have 13 rebounds.
Damian Lillard scored 32 on 9-18 shooting, 5-9 from distance, and 9-9 from the line. He seems to be getting more comfortable with contact in the lane and those free throws certainly boost his total. It was an amazing offensive night from him. The asterisk is the 32 times we've mentioned poor guard defense tonight. None of Portland's guards helped, including Lillard. Dallas point guards shot 10-14 tonight.
Nicolas Batum tried to plug the dike defensively and took over the scoring load when he had the advantage and his team needed it. Along with Aldridge, he was a key to the third-quarter plans. It was good to see him respond to the scoring role. He shot 8-17, 4-10 from distance, for 22 points with 6 assists. 5 turnovers marred the evening somewhat but frankly those were due to the disjointed nature of Portland's offense as much as to Batum himself.
Robin Lopez worked his tail off in this game. The Blazers leaked dribblers again and again and he tried to get in front of them. He succeeded when the distance was small, not so much when it was great, but he was visibly bothering Mavericks in the lane most of the night. He had 14 rebounds, 2 blocks, only 2 personal fouls (a major achievement, considering), and he scored 14 points on 6-9 shooting, taking full advantage of being the only bulky 7-footer on the floor.
Thomas Robinson also had a pretty good 10-minute run with 3 rebounds and 6 points, though he did have 2 fouls and a couple of semi-ridiculous plays.
Now buckle your seat belts because this gets ugly.
Wesley Matthews had 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Give him credit there. But he shot 2-10, didn't hit a three, and contributed fully to the backcourt embarrassment on the defensive end. This was a night to forget.
Mo Williams shot 3-9, dished 3 assists, committed 3 fouls, dropped 2 turnovers, and also played defense like soggy meatloaf in 22 minutes.
The Blazers get a chance to feel better again on Monday when they take on the Jazz in Utah.