The Portland Trail Blazers barely survived a second half onslaught by the Toronto Raptors tonight, hanging on to a 106-103 victory in a game that was marked by endless whistles, fractured play, and a startling inversion in the closing quarter which nearly cost Portland the victory.
The opening minutes of tonight's contest showcased multiple trends destined to last through most of the game. The Blazers abandoned the slower, matchup-based attack they've been favoring the last couple weeks and returned to quick ball movement and player movement. They made sure they were the first team down the floor and that the ball switched sides and depth in the halfcourt offense. Utilizing their familiar inside-out and swing-reversal style they kept the Raptors chasing instead of defending. This resulted in shots at the rim or open outside with little off the dribble and only Aldridge firing from the middle ranges. The Raptors, meanwhile, shot nothing but mid-range jumpers. Portland will happily facilitate that exchange all night long, figuring the percentages will fall in their favor no matter how many shots the opponent hits. That proved true in the first period, particularly since the referees signaled their intention to call this game tight early on. The Blazers attempted 12 free throws in the opening period, Toronto 8. The Blazers won the battle of frequency and percentage from the line, helping them stretch their lead to a full dozen after one, 31-19.
During the opening period the Blazers also managed to keep Toronto away from the offensive glass, a critical component of the Raptor offense. One-and-done doesn't favor jump shooters, nor would it all evening.
Not being complete ninny-pated woolheads, the Raptors noted the officiating trend in the first period and began driving, juking, throwing up their arms on contact, groaning, grunting, and employing every strategy in the book to make sure the officials realized that they, too, were trying to attack and draw fouls. Combine that with defenders off the Blazer bench--none too proficient, particularly at the smaller spots--and you have the makings of a whistle-fueled tidal wave. That's exactly what happened in the second quarter and much of the third. Play slowed to a crawl as the officials gave observers a guided tour through the NBA rulebook and then some. Toronto drew a flood of calls then the Blazers drew them back. The Raptors won the free throw attempt contest in the second, 10-6 but the Blazers drew moving screens and charges in return. The only pretty part of the period was Damian Lillard driving and finishing at the rim. He had a dozen in the second quarter alone. You'd have thought the Raptors would grab a clue, but no...they still wanted the mid-range "J" when given the choice. Portland led by 17 at the half, 57-40.
The third period was just as disjointed as the second. The Blazers got a serious push from the foul calling, dominating the Raptors 13-2 in free throw attempts during the quarter. But attrition was starting to tell. With everybody and their uncle's cousin in foul trouble both teams had to risk foul-outs or rely on the bench. The Blazers chose the latter. When Portland's bench entered Portland's defense left the building. The Raptors scored 10 points between the start of the third and the 7:05 mark. They'd pour in 24 in the last 7 minutes and change. In the opening exchanges of the period, matched up against Portland's starters, the Raptors were still firing those mid-range jumpers. Their scoring streak ran three-pointer, dunk, three-pointer, layup, and so on. The Blazers did enough in response, hitting threes or drawing fouls themselves. But only a last-minute barrage of Portland triples held off the Toronto charge. The Blazers led by 9, 83-74, heading into the final quarter.
Another couple threes by Wesley Matthews in the opening minutes of the fourth seemed to spell doom for the visitors as the Blazers stretched the lead to 93-77 at the 9:22 mark. But the inversion we mentioned in the opening paragraph was about to hit hard. The Raptors continued their barrage of threes with penetration salted in. They either baked Portland's guard defense until it was crispy or found the open man after creating pressure. The Blazers, meanwhile, did exactly what the Raptors had done while digging themselves a hole in the first half: settle for contested, mid-range jumpers, usually off the dribble. Plus the Blazers lost control of the glass, allowing the Raptors second chance opportunities they'd been denied all night. To top it all off, the referees finally swallowed their whistles. The teams combined for only 6 free throws total in the fourth, two of those intentional as the game closed. But the lack of calls also took away one of the pillars on which Portland's lead had been built. The Blazers spent the fourth quarter turning the Moda Center into a brick house while Toronto's guards looked mighty-mighty, just lettin' it all hang out. The Raptors closed the lead to 8 with 5:18 remaining, then whittled it down to 1 after Kyle Lowry made a three with 2:53 left.
Both teams played each other to a standstill for the next 2 minutes. The Blazers continued to loft foolish shots like someone had stuffed a wet-dry vac through their ear canal and hit "Turbo". But they made up for it by getting up in the face of shooters on the other end, finally quelling Toronto's torrid run. Then it happened. With 25 seconds remaining DeMar DeRozan baited Matthews into a foul on a fake where DeRozan had put his foot barely over the three-point arc. That last detail became critical as, upon review, DeRozan earned only 2 foul shots on the play and not 3. He made them both and the Raptors had their first lead of the game, 103-102, with 8 seconds remaining.
Pop Quiz, Blazer Fans! If you need one shot to win or tie the game, who are you going to go to? If you said, "Damian Lillard!" get down to Voodoo Doughnut and get yourself something with bacon sprinkles. Lillard capped off an excellent offensive evening by driving and lofting a nice little 6-footer over a stunned Toronto defense. ("Where's the step-back three? We were promised step-back threes!") That gave the Blazers the one-point lead back. DeRozan flubbed the ball into LaMarcus Aldridge's hands under pressure on the Raptors' final possession and an intentional foul with 0.1 seconds remaining gave Nicolas Batum the chance to make this a three-point victory, which he did. The Blazers win 106-103 in one of the screwiest games of the season.
This game was so mixed up that few of the statistics hew to the norm. The Blazers usually win by getting up more shot attempts than their opponents, a dependable edge when the game is close. Toronto attempted 87 shots tonight to Portland's 76, a huge spread. Worse, the teams shot the same percentage at 46% apiece. The Blazers bucked recent trends by firing a good percentage from beyond the arc themselves (8-18, 44%) while holding the opponent down (6-20, 30%). That and a 40-36 advantage in points in the paint tells you that the Blazers' defense was doing what it was designed to do: keep opponents out of the middle and off the arc, letting them have the mid-range. The Blazers were out-assisted tonight 27 to 20 but they won the fast-break battle 12-6. Turnovers and points resulting from them were basically even. The one definitive advantage for the Blazers is the same one everybody will be complaining about tonight: foul shots. The Blazers attempted 35 foul shots, hitting 28. The Raptors attempted 25 foul shots, hitting 17. Say what you want about the refs--and they were THE story of this game prior to the fourth period--the frequency of free throw attempts and Portland's skill in making them provided the decisive margin in this game, allowing the last-second heroics to tell.
The Raptors played LaMarcus Aldridge tough tonight. Aldridge hit 5 shots, jumpers and layups, in the first period but would connect only thrice more all evening as the defense adjusted. He finished the game 8-22. But this shows you the difference between 2014 LaMarcus Aldridge and previous vintages. In prior years that would have been an 18-point night. Aldridge also attempted 14 free throws tonight and finished the game with 27 total points. He added 15 rebounds and good defense on Toronto's final play. And THAT is why he's an All-Star.
Damian Lillard also had an All-Star performance with 21 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 0 turnovers. The Blazers switched him off of Lowry early, letting Nicolas Batum do the heavy lifting. They were only semi-successful in hiding him at the defensive end. But it was a really good night for Damian overall down to the final bucket. He and Aldridge playing like All-Stars saved this game.
Wesley Matthews rediscovered his three-point shot at the exact same time the Trail Blazers rediscovered reversing the ball in the offense. Wonders never cease. Matthews shot 5-7 from distance, 7-11 overall, and scored 21. His three-point flurry helped Portland cross the bridge from the third to the fourth period in style and gave them a cushion they'd ultimately use every point of.
Nicolas Batum also played aggressively on offense in spurts, particularly when driving the lane. He and Lillard competed for soaring dunk of the night. Batum went 5-10 from the field and 7-8 from the foul line, second only to Aldridge in fouls drawn. He put up 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, but also committed 4 turnovers.
Robin Lopez had 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a lot of foul trouble in this game but even when he's flying under the radar he always seems to pop up and annoy the enemy, giving Portland breathing space with a tipped rebound or pick-and-roll flush.
We already talked about the bench a little so let's make this quick.
Thomas Robinson played active defense, making a couple nice plays and nice covers.
Mo Williams had 4 assists but hit only 1-4 shots and didn't help in the defense or foul-prevention departments.
"Hi, my name is Joel."
"You know, at first I only used to foul socially, just to fit in an all. But then I started fouling every day. I'd get up in the morning and foul someone. I couldn't go to sleep at night without hearing three whistles. I had to get an apartment by a train depot. But hey...I rebound! That's something, right? Lots of people foul. I mean, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone lead the league in most fouls ever! It's not so bad. And you should have seen it out there tonight. It was a friggin' foul-fest."
Joel, Joel, Joel...the first step to fixing the problem is to stop denying and minimizing it. Please stop hacking me across the arm, Joel. That's really annoying.
That, my friends, was more of a write-up than that game deserved but hey, a win's a win.
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You know the Media Row Report is going to be interesting tonight so stay tuned!