Back on December 14th the Portland Trail Blazers took the Philadelphia 76'ers to the woodshed in Philly's own building, administering a 139-105 spanking that left the Sixers sore and looking for salve. They found it tonight, turning the tables on Portland by defeating the Blazers 101-99 in the Moda Center.
The 76'ers threw vicious combo punches early in this game to rock the Blazers back on their heels. Forced turnovers served as jabs, causing Portland to flinch. Those were followed by quick, hard gut punches down the lane either via the fast break or off the drive in the halfcourt. Spencer Hawes kept Robin Lopez occupied outside early and absent Lopez Portland's interior defense crumbled. Philadelphia built leads of 7-0 and then 16-2 before Portland managed any reply whatsoever. That response came in the form of Old Reliable, LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 11 of Portland's 19 points in the first period. When the smoked cleared Philly's pressure defense, forced turnovers, and lane driving had given them a 32-19 edge in the quarter.
If the Blazers have proved anything this season, it's that every lead is surmountable. It didn't take long for Portland to turn the tide in the second quarter. Philadelphia's second unit had trouble scoring. On a night when everybody in white outside of Aldridge played tentative, Mo Williams plied his trade in the usual, devil-may-care fashion, splashing down 14 points in his first duty shift. Joel Freeland provided good defense. The Blazers finally started offensive rebounding, a trait noticeably absent in the opening period. Philly's lead when in the dryer on high and emerged six sizes smaller, with Portland trailing only 52-50 as the half closed.
As usual the third period belonged to Portland. The tempo beat far faster than the Blazers are used to but the Blazers didn't lose sight of their best option, getting the ball to Aldridge on multiple occasions and letting him rack up 14 in the quarter against a defense that had no tools to stop him. Aldridge not only carried the team on offense again, he also set the tone defensively. The Sixers spent much of the quarter on the perimeter except for, oddly enough, Hawes who spent much of the quarter trying to drive. Every time Philly got the ball inside Aldridge and Robin Lopez were haunting them. LMA came up with highlight-reel blocks, encouraging the Sixers to spend even more time outside. That's not how their team is built, of course. Long misses led to rebounds and more Portland offense. When the Blazers missed, on the other hand, they simply scooped up their own shot and tried again. The result was a 26-17 quarter in Portland's favor and a 76-69 lead for the Blazers heading into the final period.
Unfortunately the Blazers started the fourth with some of the most miserable rim defense they'd shown all game. Philadelphia scored 6 points in just over a minute, scoring at the cup twice and getting fouled for shots once. Portland would claw back to a 7-point lead by the 7-minute mark but Evan Turner's three-pointer with 6:52 left started a run that would see the Sixers re-energized and Portland looking for answers. Philly's scoring after the three consisted of a 10-footer followed by 4 straight layups. Portland saw Aldridge miss twice and Lopez once inside before they gave up on the paint entirely, missing 4 three-pointers in their next 5 possessions and turning the ball over on the other one. All of a sudden Philadelphia led by 6 with 4:28 remaining.
For the next 4 minutes and 10 seconds the Blazers would make only 1 field goal. But they went to the line 5 times in that stretch, hitting 9 of 10 free throws to keep themselves in the game. During that same stretch Philly got only 2 trips and 4 free throws but they kept pace with a couple of short shots.
The Blazers had a chance for the ball down 2 with 21 seconds remaining as Michael Carter-Williams missed the 2nd of a pair of foul shots but Lopez and Lavoy Allen tipped the rebound nearly simultaneously and it flew out of bounds. The initial call went for the Blazers but replay showed that Lopez technically touched the ball last by a fingernail. This shows one of the problems with instant replay and "getting the call right". According to the letter of the law the officials made the correct decision in overturning the possession call and awarding the ball to the Sixers. But Allen had come from behind Lopez to make his bid and the momentum of his touch, not Lopez's, propelled the ball out of bounds. When that happens--a player coming from behind to affect a tip--the call nearly always goes to the player in front. Had that play happened any time prior to the last 2 minutes of the game the Blazers would have taken possession. But replay demanded that the call be made on technical merit instead of custom. The refs aren't free to look at the tape and say, "But we make this call the other way routinely and have probably done so at least three times over in this very game." Replay doesn't change the rules but it does change the basis on which they are interpreted.
In any case, Portland fans will probably point to this and a couple other calls down the stretch as critical to the outcome but Spencer Hawes got shafted a couple times in the fourth quarter leading to Portland points, Wesley Matthews got a questionable call for shots late in the game as well, the Blazers shot a dozen free throws in the final period, and on a night when Philadelphia was clearly driving and scoring inside more than the Blazers Portland attempted 30 free throws overall while Philly got only 24. Had the Sixers lost their side would have had reason to complain as well.
The late-game referee decisions masked the real elephant in the room: why did a two-point deficit feel like climbing a cliff for the Blazers tonight when in every close game heretofore it's been a written invitation to win the game in grand style? The answer: Portland's 3-22 (14%) rate from the three-point arc tonight. Granted, Philadelphia did a decent job covering the three when they got their defense set but the Blazers had multiple open looks from distance tonight which they just didn't hit. As the fourth quarter progressed we saw something we've never seen since the ball tipped on Game 1 of the season. The Blazers looked hesitant to take the three, actively passing up long-distance attempts. It was like they saw a spider out beyond that arc and nobody wanted to squish it for fear it'd jump on them. You almost had to rub your eyes in disbelief, especially following on the heels of a record-setting night from distance against the Charlotte Bobcats just a game ago.
The three-point nerves left the Blazers trying to win this game the old-fashioned way, which frankly they almost did. Nicolas Batum hit Aldridge for a leaner at the rim with 18 seconds left to pull the Blazers back within 2 and then fouled Evan Turner intentionally. Turner sank both free throws but Damian Lillard converted a quick layup. 7 seconds left, Portland down 2. And then the near-miracle happened. Philly botched the inbounds pass, Robin Lopez stole it, and the Blazers called timeout with 5 seconds left. The heaven-sent three wasn't coming tonight, though. It wasn't even attempted. Lillard missed a layup attempt and Philadelphia walked away with the 101-99 revenge victory.
That 3-22 rate from the arc was the stat of the night for Portland but the Blazers kept close even when the threes weren't falling. They dominated the boards 59-37, crushing the Sixers 19-6 on offensive rebounds alone. A +7 advantage in foul line points didn't hurt. But despite the rebounds and free throws 18 big turnovers and 64 points given up in the paint didn't allow enough margin to overcome the bad shooting night Portland ended up shooting 36% from the field, making 4 fewer field goals than Philly did even though the Blazers attempted 11 more shots overall than the Sixers.
This was just an odd night for the Blazers, not so much for the loss but for spending so much of the game playing the other team's style, for not being able to respond with great offense when the opponent made a run, and especially for the weird aura that surrounded the arc. This game was fairly unique among Portland's efforts this season. Hopefully that means it won't be repeated.
When Portland's ship struck Philadelphia's iceberg early and everybody else was scrambling around the deck wondering what to do, LaMarcus Aldridge headed down to the engine room and said, "I got this." One of the sad things about the loss is that it will obscure one of Aldridge's best all-around games in recent memory. He's scored more than 29 and shot better than 13-30 but his individual defense was just amazing tonight. He stopped springy forwards, quick guards, anybody the Sixers sent into his vicinity. His 5 blocked shots stand testament. 14 defensive rebounds as well. For a while there he looked as elite as Tim Duncan or David Robinson or any great defensive big you care to name...and this in a game where he carried everyone else offensively as well.
Damian Lillard had a rough night and if it weren't for 4-4 free throw shooting he would hardly have had a night at all. He shot 6-20, scored 17, had 1 assist, committed 6 turnovers, and had trouble containing on the perimeter against guards that you probably wouldn't have minded sagging off on.
Ditto Wesley Matthews. He hit 5-7 free throws but outside of a couple bright moments passing everything else was problematic. He shot 4-12, 0-5 from distance, scoring 13.
Nicolas Batum had 10 rebounds and 10 assists but shot 1-9 from the field, 0-4 from the arc, and at times seemed to be playing a game with himself to see how much he could affect the game without scoring. That's cool, but maybe not as much on a night when his team scored only 99. He helped on Michael Carter-Williams but overall his defense was on and off. He fouled out of the game with that last intentional foul and committed 4 turnovers. Worst of all, as Chris Haynes of CSNNW tweeted he fractured his finger in the fourth quarter. It was his non-shooting hand and he's considered probable for Portland's next game.
Robin Lopez at least had an all-positive game even though his effectiveness was limited by having to guard shooters and smaller, quicker guys. After a slow-ish start he came on for 15 rebounds, 9 offensive (the flip side of playing against shooters and smaller, quicker guys). Lopez also drew 10 foul shots, making 6, shot 4-8 from the field, and scored 14. Coach Stotts even called a high-low play out of a timeout to get Lopez a shot in the fourth...a first that I can remember.
After starting the game as the only Trail Blazers outside of Aldridge resembling his normal self, scoring 14 in the process and spurring the initial Portland comeback run, Mo Williams went on to score only 2 more in the second half and finished with 16 points. In isolation that number is good, especially considering Mo played only 24 minutes. But when the shots stopped falling and the dribbling stopped working Mo pretty much disappeared. He shot 5-13 with 5 assists and 3 turnovers. Nevertheless Mo was the King of tonight's first half and should be recognized as such.
Joel Freeland also had a really positive game, playing tight and effective defense and grabbing 5 rebounds in 14 minutes. He had 3 personal fouls but again, those Philly big guys are quick and athletic.
Meyers Leonard had a couple of man-sized rebounds among 6 in 11 minutes tonight. It looks like he's starting to get comfortable with the idea of being a board hound. However, remember the miserable rim defense that started the fourth quarter? Leonard and Lopez were mixed up in that. I'm not sure Robin bears the brunt of the blame.
Dorell Wright had 3 assists in 11 minutes but he's back to his early-season form of, "What exactly is he doing out there again?" Then again, holding the fort may be good enough for a Portland bench player right now.
Next up for the Blazers: the on-again, off-again Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday night.
Liberty Ballers went on a roller-coaster ride tonight.
Cross your fingers. We think we've FINALLY got the Jersey Contest fixed. CLICK HERE and login to fill out the form for the Sacramento game.