In a repeat of their December 2nd performances in the Moda Center earlier this season, the Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers battled like titans tonight, each team reaching deep into a reservoir of resolve in the face of heroic onslaughts by their opponent. After a struggle that seemed to hinge at various times on offense, defense, rebounding, and pure chutzpah the combatants found themselves at a standstill, tied at the end of regulation. But the Blazers broke form in the extra period, committing crucial mistakes where they usually invoke miracles, losing to the Pacers 118-113.
The Blazers started off the night magnificently. They beat Indiana at their own game: defense. Portland forced their opponent into contested mid-range shots, most of which missed. When Indiana did push the ball inside they pursued the most unimaginative of options, having Roy Hibbert post up Robin Lopez or driving straight-line. Neither worked. The Blazers policed the boards, denying the Pacers even a single offensive rebound. The Pacers appeared discombobulated as Portland marched to an 8-2 lead.
But Indiana did have one factor in their favor...tempo. Though the Blazers were efficient on offense and stingy on defense, both teams had a chance to set up and think before each play commenced. That would work to Indiana's favor as the quarter progressed and their defense took hold. The Pacers would block 5 shots in the opening frame, chipping away at Portland's lead and tying the game at 10 by the 5:00 mark. That's when the Blazers decided they'd had enough of slow ball. They didn't fast break as much as organize and execute their halfcourt offense quickly. Portland tossed the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge who didn't hesitate long enough to draw a double team, turning and firing with accuracy. Strikes from Damian Lillard supplemented Portland's attack and when the first-quarter horn sounded Portland led 28-16. For those counting that's a near-30-point period against the best defense in the league and a sub-20-point stand by one of the league's shakier versions.
The fun was not to last as Portland's bench, shorthanded because of the absence of Mo Willams due to a family emergency, laid its predictable egg. Joel Freeland, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Lillard, and Earl Watson (soon replaced by Wesley Matthews) managed only a pair of free throws in the first 4 minutes of the period, allowing the Pacers 11 points in that span. Aldridge would return to spearhead the offensive attack and Lillard would again strike true, but by this time the Pacers had a head of steam. Point guard George Hill began an assault on the rim which would end in a career scoring night for him. The damage wasn't critical yet; Hill was working a one-man show at this point. But Hill's scoring heralded the cracking of containment for Portland's "D". Indiana put up 29 in the period. Lillard and Aldridge kept the Blazers on top 50-45 at the break.
The third quarter was a back-and-forth affair. Portland's cavalry arrived in the form of Wesley Matthews playing offensive superhero and Robin Lopez finally breaking the ice on the offensive glass. Between the two of them they kept Indiana at bay, scoring at the cup when Portland's jumpers weren't falling. On the other end Hill continued his onslaught, bowing Portland's defense to the point that David West found open jumpers just beyond the free-throw line. He hit these with a frequency bordering on impunity and the fight was on. Hill on the drive, West mid-range, Lopez scoring at the rim, Lillard making threes, Hill responding in kind...we saw two great teams breaking each other down. A four-point play by Lillard with 5 seconds remaining gave the Blazers a single-point edge in the period and Portland led 77-71 heading into the final frame.
The Blazers' reserves redeemed themselves somewhat in their second shift, straddling the third and fourth period. Freeland offered masterful defensive stands. McCollum scored. But the bench success was aided by lack of exposure. None of Portland's starters sat too long and the deeper bench players didn't see the light of day. Still, it was enough...almost. The greatest casualty of the lineup change was losing momentum on the boards. Offensive rebounds allowed the Blazers inroads into that tough Indiana defense for most of the third. Those disappeared in the fourth. Portland didn't secure caroms on either end of the floor. The action was all offense vs. defense. The war became one of attrition, favoring the Pacers and that suffocating "D".
The Blazers reprised all of their earlier hits as the quarter progressed. Aldridge scored from the post and drew fouls, Lillard canned a three, Matthews skipped going ham and went whole hog instead, pouring in 13 in the final 8 minutes of regulation. But Hill and West continued to thrum along, providing the base of Indiana's offense supplemented by the occasional Rasual Butler three or Paul George drive. The Blazers provided fireworks, the Pacers a steady drum beat. It worked out to a 103-100 Portland lead with 12 seconds remaining when George, a non-factor all night, missed a three-point shot to tie. Roy Hibbert snagged the rebound, however. He fired it to (who else?) Hill who drifted slightly left for an amazing three-point splash to tie the game. Nicolas Batum's 20-footer missed at the horn and the game headed into overtime.
All season long extra periods have been the province of the Blazers and of Damian Lillard. Blazer fans know that "OT" stands for "Omen Time" and Lillard did his part tonight. He scored 8 of Portland's 10 points in the extension. But even with Dame going full-throttle and even with Matthews switching over to Hill on defense, the Blazers couldn't stop Indy's beat. Overtime started with yet another West jumper followed by a sequence wherein the Pacers made 4 shots within 4 feet of the hoop. Two offensive rebounds were included in that process and on a third play the Blazers recovered only to see Aldridge whip the ball to West right under the hoop for an easy dunk, a turnover that in soccer parlance could have been termed an Own Goal. 8 points in the lane for the Pacers in a little under 3 minutes undid all of Lillard's offensive work. Damian tried to make it interesting with a couple late three-pointers but George hit a rare jumper and the Pacers weren't missing their intentional free throws. Indiana walked away bruised but victorious, their 118-113 advantage revenging the earlier loss in Portland.
The Blazers accomplished a couple of their goals tonight. They attempted a prodigious 104 shots, no small feat against a team that would have preferred to slow the tempo and limit opportunities. Portland's 43% clip from the field wasn't awful, nor was holding Indiana to 46%. The Blazers shot 7-20 from deep, not their best outing but not damaging either. Indiana hit 5 triples out of 13, an acceptable rate. Most of all the Blazers wanted to contain George, sticking Batum on him from the opening tip and never letting go. George fired 5-23 for 17 points, a far cry from the 43 he scored in December.
But the Blazers lost the overall war by not being able to contain the players around George. Hill scored 37 on 12-19 shooting from a lack of point guard defense. West scored 30 on 13-16 attempts as the rest of Portland's defenders collapsed to cover. Plus the Blazers couldn't sustain their intensity on defense as the game progressed. Missed mid-range jumpers in the first half turned into drive after drive for the Pacers in the second, drawing foul shots alongside. The Pacers shot 35 free throws to Portland's 20, going +13 from the line. That's usually a Portland strong spot. The Pacers bested the Blazers 13-4 in transition, mostly due to turnovers. The Blazers only gave up 40 points in the paint (plus foul shots) but they only scored 24 themselves. Two dozen points inside might do on a night when you stroked 15 threes but with only half that number it's not enough. Finally, and predictably, Portland's bench wasn't up to the task despite good efforts from a couple individuals thereupon.
LaMarcus Aldridge's night wasn't great. He scored 22 on 9-24 shooting...somewhat ouchy. He also gave up that late turnover. He provided 9 rebounds but he also fouled out. Mostly he looked like he was feeling pressure to carry the team on a night when good defenders were trying to make sure he didn't succeed. We didn't see a lot of passing from him, nor many quick strikes or pick-and-pop success. He got forced into odd positions defensively and couldn't recover. The Pacers did a good job on him and what they failed to do, his teammates finished for him.
Damian Lillard had a great-looking offensive night with 15 hits in 26 shots, 4-7 triples made, 38 points and 11 assists. You know what's coming on the other end, though. Batum couldn't help him by watching the point guard. It took the Pacers the better part of 12 minutes to figure it out but when they did...whoo boy. But that shouldn't overshadow the magnificent display of offensive prowess Lillard provided tonight. He is turning into a singular player.
Wesley Matthews' contributions were choppy but when he got rolling he bowled over everyone in his path. Unfortunately that amounted to 7-22 shooting, 2-8 from distance, in order to get 19 points. I'll repeat a comment from the last game recap: Matthews has the ability to score in more ways than the catch-and-shoot three but when he pursues those other routes almost exclusively opponents will win in the long run. This is not entirely Wes' fault. The Blazers are relying more and more on Lillard and Aldridge. Instead of being a secondary option in a team-oriented set Matthews is stuck being the third option for iso plays. That will not do.
Nicolas Batum...what should we say? He did a great job on George. That took up nearly all of his defensive attention. Then again, he did a great job, right? But he had another one of those games where he seemed to actively avoid shooting, where he fired only 1-8 when he did launch, where 4 assists were balanced by 4 turnovers. Is there a streak of complete, all-around games in Batum somewhere or will success in one area always come with a trade-off in another?
Robin Lopez killed it...KILLED IT in the third period tonight. He made himself available on the roll, grabbed offensive rebounds, and outplayed Roy Hibbert something fierce. His first half wasn't all that bad either, especially when watching Hibbert or stopping the foolish straight-line drives into traffic Indiana thought would pass for offense. Lopez finished the game with 17 points and 14 rebounds, 5 offensive. He also seemed to run out of steam as the game progressed until eventually he became a non-factor. But honestly the Blazers have got to give him more help than they did.
C.J. McCollum had a great scoring night off the bench, hitting 4-4 shots for 9 points in 12 minutes.
Joel Freeland did some awesome defensive work and grabbed 5 rebounds in 18 minutes.
Earl Watson knew enough to get the ball to the right people in the offense but he got picked on big time on the other end. He committed 5 fouls in 12 minutes plus 2 turnovers. The Blazers probably couldn't afford to play him as long as they did.
Thomas Robinson looked bad tonight in 8 minutes of play. Bad offense, bad defense, non-existent recognition.
Despite the tough loss the Blazers have to put tonight behind them and face the Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow night. Blood always seems to boil between those two teams. The Blazers have to be ready.
Indy Cornrows will love this win.
Your Jersey Contest scores and form are ready HERE. Tonight's correct responses: Indiana's bench scores 23, the Blazers do break 100, do not win the game, and the margin is less than 10 points.