The Portland Trail Blazers lost a close, 100-101 contest to the Philadelphia 76'ers tonight. The focus of the game will be the crazy ending, which we'll get to, but the improbable twists in the final minutes of this game should not obscure its horrendous start. The real story of the night is that the Blazers once again dug themselves a hole, showed "spirit" (or whatever peppy word you care to apply) getting back in the second half, and left themselves at the mercy of another close finish. The finish didn't go their way, but what do you expect? They can't win all the close ones.
The first quarter of this game saw the Sixers outrunning, outhustling, and just plain outplaying the Blazers. Jrue Holiday was a problem for Portland from the start, but guys like Damien Wilkins were scoring free and easy as the Blazers played defense like they were at a rap show: throwing their hands in the air then waving them around like they just don't care. On the other end Portland seemed content to hoist jumpers. Misses led to rebounds, leading to more running and more conversions. Lather, rinse, repeat. Only a prodigious 16-point period from LaMarcus Aldridge--making like the sole rock sticking above the battering waves--saved the Blazers from utter disaster. The Sixers led 32-28 after one.
The second quarter defense didn't improve. Portland's reserve big men tried...you have to give them that. But the impending back-to-backs on this road trip forced Coach Stotts to ride them even when Philly was making hash out of their well-meant efforts. The Blazers piled on plenty of turnovers in the period, throwing the ball right into Sixers' hands on multiple occasions. The offense finally got rolling and Portland ended up with 50 at the half but the Sixers, shooting near 60%, tallied 58.
As usual the Blazers put in a better second half than first. They tightened the defensive holes, rebounded better, stopped allowing quite so many fast break conversions. Aldridge started the period cold but then warmed up again towards the end, causing the Sixers to gang tackle him every time he touched the ball. That left teammates free. They converted. The Blazers finally won a quarter, albeit by 2 points.
Trailing by 6 entering the fourth, the Blazers engaged Philly in a dogfight. Each team made runs. Lillard championed the Blazers. Holiday hit right back for the Sixers. The turning point came with 6:00 remaining and the Blazers still down 5. Luke Babbitt, inserted for the first time in weeks, hit a three on his first shot, cutting the lead to 2. A minute later he'd hit another one even farther out to give the Blazers a lead. Now the Sixers defense was spread and they were ripe for the picking. But the Blazers could only follow up with one Aldridge layup surrounded by turnovers and missed threes. Meanwhile the Sixers scored on nifty passes and quick sidesteps. With 33 seconds remaining the Blazers found themselves down by 5 again.
Needing a three Portland found Wesley Matthews. His attempt missed but Babbitt got the offensive rebound. The Blazers almost panicked trying to get another three and somehow the ball ended up in the hands of Aldridge, way out beyond the arc at the left angle. Having nothing else to do he threw up the ball in traffic while falling forward.
Bingo. Three-pointer made. Portland trailed by 2 with 17 seconds remaining.
Holiday made the possession foul shots, pushing Philly up by 4 again with 13 seconds left. The Blazers skipped the timeout. Lillard ran the ball down the court, Holiday overran, Lillard pulled up beyond the arc.
Bingo. Three-pointer made. Portland trailed by 1 with 7 seconds remaining.
When Philly tried to inbound the ball on the ensuing play Holiday tripped over a teammate's foot. The pass intended for him bounced out of bounds instead. Portland had possession, down 1, 7 seconds remaining.
The Blazers opted to go with the Aldridge post clear-out on the right side for the final possession. Aldridge caught, banged defender Spencer Hawes, faked one way, turned the other, and fired a fade-away from 15. It missed. Portland couldn't get the rebound and time expired. Blazers lose by 1.
Aldridge has hit game-winners for the Blazers this season, although that post move doesn't get him great looks in that situation. Three-point shooters have also succeeded in that situation. People can debate whether that set was the right call. At this point in the season, that's not the real story. No matter what set you run, you can only expect so much success when you're putting yourself in that position. Watching the Blazers is like watching a reality show where a girl stomps out on her fifth boyfriend in the last two months. She gets on camera and debates whether she should have slapped his face or yelled at him before she slammed the door. Ummm...maybe you should change the way you date and stop picking these clowns in the first place? If you made better decisions early, put focus and energy into the process, you wouldn't be stuck choosing between slapping and cursing at the end.
How many times can you watch that reality show before the pattern becomes predictable and unacceptable? How many times can you see the Blazers shuffle through the first half before you throw up your hands in disgust? Yes, it's led to plenty of exciting endings and close games, but in a way that's cheaply-manufactured excitement. It doesn't count if you win or lose by 2 in a thriller when, with a more consistent effort, you could have won by 8, period.
I'm not suggesting that the Blazers could have won all their close games this season. I am asserting that these inexplicable flat starts grate more and more as the season ages.
Indicative of Portland's early efforts tonight: The Sixers scored 23 points on the break. The Blazers scored only 28 in the paint. The Blazers had to scrap hard in the second half to bring the Sixers' shooting below 50%. At halftime Portland was on pace for 20 turnovers before righting the ship and finishing with 13.
LaMarcus Aldridge finished the game with 32 points after that 16-point first period. He took 28 shots to reach that point, though. He had 14 rebounds, 5 offensive, which helped keep the Sixers honest. As we said, his hot stretches freed up the court for everyone else.
Damian Lillard scored 27 on 10-20 shooting, an incredible 5-7 from beyond the arc. His defense against Jrue Holiday was scoring the exact same amount of points. Holiday netted 8 rebounds and 6 assists while Lillard contributed 7 and 7. When money time came, Lillard stepped up and hit, as did Holiday. The only place where Damian lagged behind: committing 4 turnovers to Holiday's 1.
With minor exceptions the rest of Portland's starters never emerged from their early funk. J.J. Hickson never got shots off against Evan Turner on one end and couldn't get rebounds against Spencer Hawes on the other. He had 4 points and 6 boards in 16 minutes. Nicolas Batum's big contribution was 3 cold-blooded three-pointers made. Those 9 points comprised the entirety of his scoring, though. He went 3-8 from the field, 3-9 overall...meaning he only attempted one shot that wasn't a three. 4 assists and 3 rebounds didn't do much to help the cause either. Wesley Matthews shot 3-12 for 6 points, though he also had 6 assists and 4 steals. Other than those thefts and a couple of blocks from Batum, neither wing played great defense.
All four major bench players for Portland tonight had good outings. Eric Maynor had 4 assists in 17 minutes. Meyers Leonard looked much better on defense tonight and hit a couple nice shots. Luke Babbitt hit those 2 late threes, though it should be said that he shot 2 more immediately afterwards in ill-advised misses. There's helping your team and then there's losing your mind. Joel Freeland played nicely, hitting 2 shots and grabbing 4 rebounds in 12 minutes. Let's hope the decent play carries over to the rest of the trip.
So...close game, near miss, but this was also the easiest game of the 5 on this road swing. The Blazers fly to Milwaukee to meet the Bucks tomorrow and it only gets worse from there. A near miss still counts as a loss, and the Blazers sure could have used a "W" to pretty up a tough trip.
Liberty Ballers will like the win.
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