The Portland Trail Blazers started a tough, four-game road swing on the wrong foot Monday night, falling to the Washington Wizards 100-90. This marks the 3rd loss in 4 games for the Blazers, who continue to struggle on offense. In those three losses they've failed to top the 90-point mark while allowing opponents an average of 100.
This game started out fairly evenly. Like many Portland opponents, the Wizards seemed determined to fire away from mid-range, a strategy which served them poorly. Robin Lopez's defense made life tough for Washington inside. The Blazers stuck by their men outside the arc. The Wizards hit a few but the Blazers moved the ball well and more than kept pace. Then midway through the first, following a Washington timeout, the home team got their game straight. They started freeing shooters off of penetration or screens, the latter of which would prove successful all night long. They tried to run Lopez around instead of letting him stay in the paint on defense, using his man to set picks or, more simply, sending his guy to spot up for a face-up jumper which Lopez then had to honor. With Lopez out of position and everyone else having to rotate in order to make up the difference, the entire floor opened up for the Wizards. Inside, downtown, and everywhere in between Washington started to hit. A relatively modest, but hard-fought-period morphed into an offensive contest. The Wizards edged the Blazers 32-29 heading into the second.
As expected, Portland's bench had trouble scoring and defending out of the gate. Portland's offense went guard-heavy, with Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, and Wesley Matthews carrying the load. Matthews was ultra-successful, scoring 9 points in the first 6 minutes of the frame. Williams and McCollum managed only missed shots and damaging turnovers. On the other end the Blazers got burned by every Wizard who touched the ball save one. Jan Vesely looked like a Muppet with six separate strings controlling various parts of his body, none in sync with the others. The Blazers stuffed him in a small box and air-mailed him home to mama. But Kevin Seraphin returned all that to sender and the Wizards maintained pace through the 6-minute mark despite Matthews' outburst. The Blazers went on a huge run in the latter part of the period, keyed by LaMarcus Aldridge, but turnovers, fouls, and missed defense on three-pointers allowed Washington to zoom back. The Wizards led 56-55 at the break.
The second half pretty much continued the story, with Washington executing more effectively. Portland showed no defensive capability against screens, particularly from their guards. The Wizards kept drawing Lopez outside or moving him around, resulting in relatively easy buckets and eventually enough fouls against Robin to send him to the bench. The Blazers turned over the ball, allowed run-outs, didn't get to three-point shooters. Only scoring heroism by Damian Lillard in the fourth period, timely rebounding tips by Lopez, and effective whistle-drawing on drives kept Portland close. It wasn't enough though. As the half progressed Portland's ball movement slowed. Shots became more predictable. The offense remained stalled and the defense didn't have enough credit to cover the debt. Washington walked away with the 100-90 victory.
Portland's 26%, 5-19 shooting from three-point land wasn't entirely surprising considering that the Wizards were working to prevent that shot. This has been a trend in recent games but it's overshadowed by another: Washington shot 7-17 from the arc themselves, 41%. Portland cannot cede those shots the opposition else they'll not find an advantage even when their own triples do fall. The Blazers did win the paint battle 40-34 but even those 40 points plus 11 from the line aren't enough to make up the difference if the Blazers can't defend the arc. Portland would need 45-50 to become a true upper-echelon paint scoring team and that's not likely to happen. It'd be far easier to make the opponent miss a couple more threes but the Blazers aren't moving enough nor covering for each other sharply enough to make that happen. 16 turnovers committed, 18 fast break points allowed, only 7 offensive boards, and 6 total bench points were enough to seal the deal. And that's not even counting a 12-22 disparity in free throw points. The Blazers shot well enough at 46% but none of the secondary factors they depend on were present strongly enough to give them a chance in this one.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a great night from the field percentage-wise, hitting 10-18. But everything came from the outside. He drew 0 foul shots against Washington's bigs, allowing them to play any combination they wanted for the entire game. Aldridge had 6 big assists and 10 rebounds though. He held up his end but couldn't make up for his teammates as we've seen him do so many times this year.
Damian Lillard had a monster fourth period (13 scored), put in 25 points, went 7-7 from the line, and added 8 assists and 6 rebounds. That's an eye-popping, All-Star line. Here's the flip side. This guy is playing 37 minutes for his team. They're depending on him heavily, and rightfully so. He's the man. Until he also becomes a man on defense, or at least learns to negotiate a pick and make appropriate rotation decisions, those minutes will be fraught with uncertainty no matter how much he scores and no matter what else he does.
Wesley Matthews had that great streak and a whole lot of not much besides. He shot 4-10 from the field, 1-6 from the arc, and scored only 9.
Nicolas Batum scored 18 on 6-12 shooting, turning the offense on and off like a faucet. He's not the feared defensive presence he was earlier in the year, particularly on the break. Something's missing here. He had 4 rebounds and 3 assists but 5 turnovers. The ball spent plenty of time in Lillard's hands in this game. Offensive responsibility has been shifting out of Batum's hands and into that of the guards slowly over the last month. It'd be interesting to know if that's affecting him or his approach to the game.
Robin Lopez played well, dominating when the Wizards let him make a home in the paint on either end. He ended up with 9 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 12 points on 6-8 shooting. As we said above, Washington didn't let him stay in the middle the whole game. Those in-between times proved rough on Lopez and the team's defense.
Mo Williams has been dribbling a ton lately. C.J. McCollum has been forcing the action. Neither one proved effective at all tonight. Joel Freeland at least had 5 rebounds in 12 minutes and Thomas Robinson had a couple himself plus a block and an assist in 6 minutes.
As the Blazers have faltered we've seen them tighten up. Individual players, starters and bench alike, have been more prone to taking over the offense themselves or taking hero gambles on defense instead of defending sharply and moving well. The starters might be able to get away with that because of their talent but the bench just can't. Coach Stotts has played the bench less and gotten less from them when they have played. It feels like a spiral of navel gazing with a bunch of guys trying to fight their way out of a conundrum that they might be able to solve if they calmed down, re-assessed, and started playing like they trust each other again. The Blazers have two bona fide All-Stars now, it's true. But they also have fewer wins to show for it. Part of this is due to the preparation and caliber of opponent, but the Blazers aren't helping themselves any.
Another way to put it: The Blazers two All-Stars outplayed their Washington counterparts tonight. Did it really matter if everybody else got slaughtered?
Bullets Forever has got to be happy about their team's play of late. Wow.
Lillard scores 25 while Wall scores 22. Lillard scored the most points per minute of any Blazer and also beat Wall in assists. It was a Dame kind of night.
Congratulations to LicensetoLillard, the official winner of our January Jersey contest.