The Portland Trail Blazers tried to follow their tried-and-true formula of turning 16 good minutes of play into a victory tonight but the Sacramento Kings, themselves familiar with that kind of play, were having none of it. The Blazers dropped their second straight game and their 4th in the last 6, losing 123-119 in Sacramento.
In a reversal of recent fortune,the first quarter provided 12 of Portland's good 16 minutes. The Blazers started hot behind their big men. LaMarcus Aldridge alternated between jumpers and multiple free throws, scoring 11 in the period. When the Kings moved to shut off Aldridge, Robin Lopez went to work. He hit free-throw line "J's", layups, dunks...you name it. Lopez and friends feasted on the offensive glass, killing any momentum Sacramento tried to build. Things got worse when the Kings' second unit came in. Negligent defense, reaching instead of moving, and hair-trigger refs combined to swamp the home team. The only thing working for the Kings in the period was their usual Hillbilly Offense: scoring with Cousins or nothing. That wasn't enough. Portland cruised out of the first with a 35-24 lead, all according to plan.
As the second quarter commenced Portland's reserved looked at their Sacramento counterparts and said, "You think that was bad defense? We'll show you bad defense!" And so they did. It took the Kings 2 minutes and 49 seconds to trim an 11-point deficit to 2. Jimmer Fredette gave them 1 three-pointer. Other than that it was all about the lane. You know how you can go to certain amusement parks and pay extra for a "speed pass" that lets you shortcut the long lines everybody else is standing in for the most popular rides? Well the rim was Space Mountain tonight and Sacramento's mommy and daddy sprang for the plastic so they could go first. Derrick Williams and Quincy Acy started the procession. The Blazers called a timeout to right the ship for about 2 minutes. Then the Kings sent DeMarcus Cousins back in. A tidal wave ensued. Meanwhile Portland's offense struggled mightily in the latter half of the second, buoyed only by free throw trips. Those charity tosses, plus a breakdown by the Kings' defense in the final minute of the period, disguised how badly the Blazers were faring. Sacramento trimmed 6 off of Portland's first-quarter lead but the Blazers still walked into the locker room with a healthy 60 points scored and a 5-point advantage.
This was not to last. The veil came off in the third period and the exposed picture wasn't very pretty. Several factors combined to make this one of Portland's worst quarters of the season. The Kings took advantage of mobility to harass Aldridge something fierce. They doubled as he caught the ball, using a small to delay him. Several times they sent more help in the form of Cousins, big and quick enough to close before Aldridge could react. Once DeMarcus arrived on the scene they felt comfortable leaving him in single coverage for Aldridge to shoot over, sending the initial defenders back to their men. All of this happened in the space of 5-6 seconds, not long enough for Aldridge to see his way out of trouble, let alone for Portland passes to find open targets. Cousins and point guard Isaiah Thomas should be commended for their work in this regard.
With Aldridge all but out of the scoring picture the Blazers couldn't exert their customary defense-bending, open-shot-creating sets. Every Trail Blazer had a hand in his face and on the rare occasions they didn't, they usually missed anyway. Many sets devolved into guards dribbling frantically trying to escape for a clean look. That's not Portland's game...at all. Turnovers, a game-long problem, got magnified. Offensive rebounds disappeared. The refs weren't in the mood to bail out ugly. Scoring ground to a complete halt. With no Aldridge, no open jumpers, no free throws, no second-chance points, and no court control Portland managed only 13 points in the period.
On the other end Cousins and Rudy Gay began a long contest to see which would end up the leading scorer in tonight's game. Cousins began the proceedings catching flat-footed beyond the foul line and hitting jumpers like he was in practice. Anyone who's watched the Blazers for half a second this year knows what happened when Lopez had to move out to counter. The lane opened up and didn't really close for the remainder of the game. The Kings spent much of the third period shooting foul shots off of drives. They also hit a couple long jumpers to make sure the court stayed spread. In the fourth period they turned that spread court into a non-stop procession through the key. In that closing quarter they'd hit 6 shots within 7 feet of the bucket and attempt 27 free throws. Some of those were intentional as the Blazers played catch up; others were somewhat ticky-tack. But the majority of them came because the Blazers could not keep anybody in front of them or, in the case of rebounding, behind them. The Kings came from the top, from the elbow, from the baseline. They found a warm welcome in the paint whichever way they approached. The Blazers found themselves down by 7 at the end of the third and Sacramento's lead extended to 19 points as the fourth quarter progressed.
Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Wesley Matthews all provided brief flurries to keep their team on life support and the refs looked more kindly on Portland's efforts in the fourth than they had in the third but the Blazers still trailed by a dozen with 1:57 remaining. With the game all but over anyway, Lillard offered one last Horatius at the Bridge moment, chopping down Sacramento defenders left and right to the tune of 16 points in 2 minutes with an assist to Lopez for a couple more. In the process he drained 3 triples and secured foul shots on a fourth, barely missing the shot and a four-point play in the process. Unfortunately for the Blazers they had to foul in order to generate that many possessions in such a short time. The Kings had been shaky from the line most of the night but they hit enough to keep the game from ever closing to a single possession with the ball in Portland's hands. With the Big Scare averted, Sacramento walked away with the 123-119 victory.
Giving away 123 points to a team that averages fewer than 101 should tell you something about Portland's night. Yes, the offense struggled...nearly died in that third period, in fact. But the Blazers still shot 43% from the field and 37% from the arc (10-27 on threes). That's below the usual standard but not fatally so. But then you look across the board and see DeMarcus Cousins with 35 points, Rudy Gay with 32, Isaiah Thomas with 22 and you start to understand. The Kings shot 47% from the field and the arc (7-15 on the latter). 50 free throws for Sacramento stick out like a sore thumb. The Blazers attempted 36...also a huge number. More importantly, the Kings hit only 36 of those attempts while Portland sank 31 of theirs, leaving the deficit only -5 at the stripe despite the disparity. When you figure 8-10 of Sacramento's foul shot attempts came off of intentional fouls at the end of the game so Portland could regain possession, this game wasn't lost on the foul line. Bad matchups, lack of team defense, lack of consistent glass control, and lack of a response to Sacramento pressure (outside of turnovers and hero ball) doomed the Blazers.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 24 tonight but looked as pained as he has against any defense this year. He shot only 8-20, relieved by his 8-10 clip at the foul line as he made a concentrated effort to get inside in order to bail out his team's sputtering offense. He did manage 5 assists but also committed 4 turnovers...an awkward night overall. His 8 rebounds, 5 defensive, don't register as great but there wasn't much he could do on that end. Everybody else was getting scored on so quickly his help was irrelevant,
Damian Lillard's close was amazing...a feat worthy of its own highlight reel. He ended up with 41 points on 13-24 shooting, 7-13 from the arc. This guy is hitting three-point shots that nobody's invented yet. He also went a perfect 8-8 from the line and added 7 rebounds and 4 assists to his scoring. All of that credit given, a couple disturbing trends have manifested over the last few weeks. First, Lillard's attempts at true point guard play often end in slow passes and turnovers. He accumulated 6 of the latter tonight. Second, you can set your watch by the number of times he loses defensive containment and has to be replaced by Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews on a hot scorer. Lillard had 5 personal fouls and few good defensive stands tonight.
Nicolas Batum was about the only Blazer exhibiting typical defense tonight. Rudy Gay's scoring jag was not his fault. Batum was busy putting out fires everywhere and collecting 10 defensive rebounds, 11 total. The story on offense was mixed: 5 assists but 4 turnovers, 3-7 shooting and 11 points, some really nice plays mixed in with some odd ones in which a simple shot would have sufficed. But at least Batum can play at a reasonable level when the world is falling apart around him.
Wesley Matthews showed up for about 4 minutes of this game. That's not a description of effort as much as impact. He was moving; it just didn't mean much. He shot 3-12 from the field, 1-7 from the arc. He missed open shots he usually makes in his sleep, including one down the stretch that could have turned the game. 6 rebounds were nice and he was the only significant Portland guard to go without a turnover but his defense was ineffective and, like the rest of his friends, he earned fewer gold stars than personal fouls on that end.
This was another "What do you want him to do?" night for Robin Lopez. He scored 18 points on 7-13 shooting. We've said this before but his positioning and technique are so precise on offense and on rebounds that he makes nearly every play he should and then some. We saw a rare crack in the armor as the game wound to a close as Lopez let a couple plays get by him but those have been so infrequent this year that they actually surprised. (And he was hardly alone in letting plays get by him tonight. In fact having only a couple pretty much puts him at the head of the class in this game.) On the other hand Lopez is no match for Cousins, nor Cousins' shooting, nor for what happens to his team's defense when he has to move more than 8 feet from the hoop. This was a night when Lopez really could have used help and support from his teammates. Instead they all jumped in the water with bowling balls around their feet and screamed for him to throw them a life ring. Robin Lopez will do great work for you if you keep the wall around him solid. If you crumble around him he cannot bail you out. If you crumble around him on a night in which he's also facing Cousins you deserve what you get.
Mo Williams registered the usual Mo nigh with some variations: plenty of dribbling, 3-9 shooting for 9 points in 22 minutes, 6 assists, and not much defense. He went low on the turnovers, dropping only 1. He went high on the personal fouls, committing 5. On this night the former was more of an aberration than the latter.
After watching this experiment for a couple weeks now, I am prepared to say that Meyers Leonard is an absolutely toxic combination when paired with Robin Lopez on defense. Leonard doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't stop anybody even when he figures it out. Lopez is too slow to cover for the kid's mistakes. The Blazers are starting to get killed when that pairing is on the floor and no amount of jump-shooting from Leonard can cover it. I'm not sure Leonard would pair better with anyone else on that end but at least Aldridge would be more mobile. Leonard had 4 rebounds and 4 personal fouls in 8 minutes tonight.
Leonard's woes meant a brief return for Thomas Robinson as Coach Stotts fished for answers at the big positions. His only alternative ended up being overtaxing Lopez because Robinson committed 3 fouls in just 4 minutes of play.
Long story short: there's plenty of Coach Stotts' bench that he just can't play for long, even against the Sacramentos of the world.
Will Barton ended up taking 9 minutes at guard tonight. At least he didn't put the Kings into penalty foul shots singlehandedly. He hit a 3 and zeroed out the rest of the stat line except for a foul.
The Blazers return home for a game against Orlando tomorrow night. The losses to Philly and Sacramento shouldn't bother them on merit alone but we're seeing longer stretches of un-Blazer-like basketball lately: shots missing, confidence flagging, plays breaking down. A win against the 10-24 Magic should be fairly automatic. It'd be nice to have it accompanied by a return to true 2013-14 Trail Blazer style.
Sactown Royalty will consider this a crowning achievement for their team, no doubt.
Cross your fingers, but the scores for the Jersey Contest look accurate tonight and the form for tomorrow's game is ready to be filled out RIGHT HERE.