The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 107-106, at the Moda Center on Monday night, dropping Portland's record to 41-19.
This will be remembered as a woulda, coulda, shoulda perfect storm -- exactly what the Blazers didn't want to endure in a rivalry game, especially when the Lakers' only visit to Portland this season was diminished by their injury-ravaged, rag tag roster. It took until the final 35 seconds for Los Angeles to eke this one out, and their dramatic road victory came only after five consecutive game-determining moments went their way during that stretch.
If their poor energy, nonexistent transition defense and turnover problems hadn't rattled the Blazers, then those wild final 35 seconds, where a comeback died as everything went wrong, gave them a good shake. In the minutes after perhaps the most regrettable loss of the season, various Portland players were heard: questioning a crucial decision by the officials; taking themselves to task for their effort level; expressing confusion as to how the Lakers pulled off their game-winning lob; and running back through their own final possession, in search of possible alternatives.
Unlike on Saturday, when the Denver Nuggets were unable and unwilling to take advantage of opportunities thrown their way by the Blazers, the Lakers seized the tempo from the outset and created their own chances and luck. This is a frenetic, entirely unpredictable squad. On one play, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Farmar found themselves unable to complete a simple inbounds pass, drawing a five-second call. Not a minute later, Farmar raced ahead in transition and jumped as he approached the baseline, rifling a pass back to the three-point line, where Meeks was calmly waiting to drain a trailing three-pointer. Los Angeles, then, was capable of making the easy look impossible while also making the very difficult look easy.
Portland seemed to think it had things all figured out, until they didn't. Lax ball-handling and lazy tracking back combined to set up the Lakers with a 15-point first quarter lead; the Blazers, who have spent much of the last week talking up their defense, managed to concede 63 points by halftime. Still, the feeling was that the screw-turning was coming eventually. How could it not after the Lakers found easy looks on break after break and curl route after curl route? At some point, the Blazers were bound to get serious.
It finally happened midway through the fourth quarter, after the Lakers held off one Blazers push to reopen a nine-point lead. From the quarter's 6:06 mark to its 0:06 mark, Portland held L.A. to just two points and zero field goals. On the other end, Portland scored 14 points, with contributions from four different starters. The "better late than never" vibe built to a crescendo when Nicolas Batum committed his fifth turnover of the game, sending the Lakers off to the races again. Instead of yet another L.A. layup, though, Wesley Matthews successfully jumped the drive and came up with a clean steal. He then found a cherry-picking Batum wide open for a three-pointer on the other end. It was the bailout play of all bailout plays, and the five-point swing in a matter of seconds brought Portland to within two points.
That high point proved fleeting, as everything unraveled in short order. One: Damian Lillard missed a key free throw after giving Portland a one-point lead with 34 seconds remaining. Two: Portland couldn't get a good shot out of a timeout after Lillard rebounded his own miss. Three: the referees overturned a crucial out-of-bounds call that gave L.A. possession with just seven seconds remaining. Four: Portland fell victim to a gorgeous game-winning lob play thrown from the sidelines. Five: Lillard wasn't able to get a decent look when presented with his own chance to win the game.
Five pivot points; all five went against the Blazers. If Lillard hits the free throw, overtime becomes a possibility. If the Blazers gets a better shot out of the timeout, the Lakers are facing a three-point deficit or a two-possession game. If the referees stick with their original call, the Lakers are down one and forced to foul with just a few seconds left on the clock. If Portland was better prepared (or a touch clairvoyant) on the final defensive possession, the lob pass never gets thrown and things might end differently. If Portland called a play on its own final possession, or if Lillard had acted more decisively, perhaps a last-second miracle could have been achieved. If, if, if, woulda, coulda, shoulda.
"There's a lot of things we could have done differently, [that] I could have done differently," Lillard said afterwards.
The overturned call was the item that Portland had the least control over. After a Matthews three rimmed off, Kent Bazemore headed towards daylight in the open court. He quickly found himself in a jam, as Nicolas Batum stepped into his path and Matthews chased the play from behind. Picking up his dribble, Bazemore was lost and stuck before Matthews poked the ball away from behind. It was a bang-bang play on the ball. To the naked eye, it looked as if Bazemore had been the last to touch the ball before it went flying out of bounds, and the officials initially ruled that Portland would take possession with a one-point lead and seven seconds remaining.
After a review, the officials determined that Matthews had knocked the ball away from Bazemore without Bazemore's own hand making final contact. The Moda Center crowd, which had been able to watch multiple replays of the close call, was stunned when the referees reversed course and gave the ball to the Lakers.
"Yes, I was surprised," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I didn't see the replays. I couldn't tell. It's hard to argue when they had the benefit of replay. They have all the angles. If they saw enough to overturn it, they saw enough to overturn it."
Both Matthews and Lillard also expressed surprise at the call.
"I know I made contact with the ball, I'm swinging upwards," said Matthews, who posted seven points (on 3-for-12 shooting), five rebounds and four assists. "The ball goes off to the side. The fact that they called it for us, that was going to be a tough call, looking at their monitor to overturn it. They had three sets of eyes, they saw it that way, [and the Lakers] were able to take advantage of it."
Lillard added: "It looked like it went off Kent at the end of the play. [Bazemore's] hand went to the left, the ball kind of was still on his fingertips. But they gave them the ball."
The Lakers were prepared to make the most of their opportunity. Setting up a crowded bunch near the top of the key, L.A. ran two players back towards the ball at the top of the arc, precisely where you would expect the ball to go with seven seconds left and the shot clock turned off. Instead of getting the ball in and burning some time before launching a final shot, Bazemore decided to loft a lob to the front of the rim. It was a risky but perfectly-executed pass that hit Wesley Johnson on the money. Johnson, who had been freed from LaMarcus Aldridge thanks to a back pick from Farmar, coolly completed the play, and the Lakers took a one-point lead with 6.3 seconds remaining.
"Obviously Bazemore made a great pass," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Johnson did a great job of executing it, but we were trying to get two or three guys open and he picked the lob, which was spectacular. It was a great pass."
Stotts, who has been on the right side of plenty of pretty ATO (After Time Out) plays this season, tipped his cap.
"It was really good execution," he said. "Farmar set a good screen on L.A. L.A. got there. It was a very well-executed play. L.A. was a couple inches below the ball. It was a great pass. Nic was pressuring the ball. It was a good play and well-executed."
The Blazers had watched a few of the Lakers' sideline set pieces on film recently, according to Aldridge. Portland's All-Star forward admitted that he was expecting the ball to go to Farmar, who popped out to the top of the arc after setting the screen that freed Johnson.
"We had watched a few on film," Aldridge explained. "I don't remember them really going for the lob too many times. Most of the time they went to Jordan Farmar for the three. I was trying to body my guy, I got the little brush screen from Jordan Farmar, and then once I was trailing [Johnson], he's very athletic and they just threw it up."
Johnson confirmed that the play could have gone to Farmar, but added that his teammate made a point to tell him to be ready for the lob.
"It's really the same play to get Jordan the shot," he explained, according to The Columbian. "But he set a good screen and he told me before [the play that] I was going to be open. And then Kent threw a wonderful pass to me. It was a misdirection for Jordan to come off and for them to bite off that, and then have him set the screen for me."
As it turned out, there was just enough bite and no help to be found. Robin Lopez, who stepped out to the three-point line to deny a pass to Farmar, said he "didn't see" the lob. Batum, who was pressuring the entry pass, said he "didn't see it." Lillard, who would have been at a size disadvantage had he switched onto Johnson, was otherwise occupied trying to fight through a pick set by Pau Gasol for Farmar. Matthews was doing his job, locking up Meeks outside the arc. The window to find Johnson was tight and Bazemore hit it perfectly.
"We knew they kind of do the football bunch formation thing," Matthews said. "We contested the pass and we contested the shot. It was just one of those plays, you give a team confidence and it can bite you in the long run."
The quick-strike score did open the door for the Blazers on the other end. Inbounding down one with 6.3 seconds on the clock, Portland turned the game over to Lillard, allowing the All-Star point guard to go one-on-one against Meeks in search of the best look he could find. Lillard attempted to set up a step-back three-pointer, only to have Meeks crowd him without fouling, making a shot difficult. Thinking better of his first potential shot attempt, Lillard picked up his dribble and realized that he had no clear passing option. With the clock ticking down, he had to force up a fall-away jumper that wound up well short as the buzzer sounded.
"[Meeks] did an unbelievable job on Lillard on the last play," D'Antoni said. "He shut him down, stayed in front of him. It was great."
Thinking back on the empty possession, Stotts said he opted for the Lillard isolation because he was concerned that the Lakers would jump any pick-and-roll plays. Portland's coach did think twice about the decision to run the one-four flat for Lillard, while making it clear he understood why Lillard took the shot that he did.
"I just wanted to get him a shot," he said. "I probably should have run something different. When you're up there and have the ball, whatever's available is available. I can't second-guess [Lillard's shot]."
What did Stotts want to run instead?
"I don't want to get into that," he said, shaking his head. "There are different things. Plenty of things you can look at. It is what it is."
Lillard, meanwhile, confirmed to reporters that Stotts didn't call a play in the timeout and that he was following orders by going one-on-one.
"We didn't really draw up anything," he said. "We just said run a line, get [the ball] in and flatten out. I got the ball, two seconds went off by the time everybody got out of the way. I could have done a lot of things but I went to a jumper. It was a tough look. I tried to head fake him. It ended up being a tougher look than I thought it would be, and it didn't go in."
Later, he added: "We could have [run a play]. We had six seconds to draw something up."
The 23-year-old guard has delivered multiple game-winners this season and he acknowledged that the final result in this one wasn't his best work.
"I could have tried to attack, get in the paint, maybe look to dish it off," he said. "I could have attacked and got a shot for myself in the paint. It sounds a lot easier than it actually is. I wanted a three, I tried to pull up [and] hit a three and it didn't work out."
Lillard, who finished with 20 points (on 8-for-19 shooting), five rebounds and five assists, said that he opted against driving because he saw the Lakers' help defenders ready to pounce. If he had the play to do over again, he would have tried to get a cleaner look at a jumper.
"I saw that [the Lakers] were trying to get to the boxes and elbows, [trying] to suck in on me because there was so little time left," he explained. "I didn't want to get in there and [have] it be too crowded. I probably could have done that. If I could do it again, I would probably try to make [Meeks] back up a little more and do the same thing."
Although he was willing to reflect at length about the other options available to him, Lillard didn't appear upset with himself or with how the final sequence unfolded. If ever there was a time and context for his frustration to show in his post-game comments, this would have been it. Instead, he was calm and steady, business as usual.
"It's worked for us," he said of the isolation approach. "[Stotts] had faith in me to do that. There was time for us to draw something up. But that's what he gave us and I'm sure everybody in this locker room believed that that could have worked. There's always something you could do different at the end of the game, but that's what we did and that's what we've got to live with."
Aldridge -- who shot 1-for-3 in the fourth quarter and watched Lillard's shot unfold from the paint -- expressed no dissatisfaction with Portland's approach on the final play.
"[The play call] is not up to me, that's up to [Stotts]," he said, after finishing with a team-high 21 points (on 9-for-19 shooting) and six rebounds. "That's what he wanted. It was fine. We have to [live with it]."
The willingness to live with it - the decision not to dwell on or over-analyze the game's final play - seemed to be the product of a collective realization among the players that they hadn't earned the right to feel like they had let this one slip away. Not when the game was played in the Lakers' style; not when the Lakers "started in fifth gear" and the Blazers "started in third," as Stotts put it; not when the Blazers' talent advantage took 3.5 quarters to reveal itself; not when a team on a five-game winning streak, at home, put itself in a position where a tight game swung on an overturned call, a picture perfect lob, and a split second of indecision with the buzzer about to sound.
"We just were deflated all the way around," Matthews said. "[The Lakers'] energy just was a little bit higher than ours."
Lopez, whose 19 points (on 9-for-13 shooting) and 16 rebounds went for naught, put it as bluntly as possible.
"I don't think we came to play tonight," he said.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 20,013 (a sellout). Fewer Lakers fans than usual but the ones who did show up seemed to be fairly die-hard, as I saw a number of real old-school throwback jerseys (Jamaal Wilkes, etc.).
- People are still wearing No. 8 Kobe Bryant jerseys...
- NBA.com has your game highlights.
- On Monday, the Blazers opened "Dr. Jack's," a new restaurant adjacent to the fountain in front of the arena. A team press release noted that Hall of Fame coach Dr. Jack Ramsay supported the establishment's name. The restaurant serves "sandwiches, flatbreads, soups, salads, side dishes, desserts and other small-plat accompaniments" plus "Northwest brews and wines."
- Blazers president Chris McGowan mentioned the new restaurant in his meeting with reporters back in February. The restaurant will be open on game days (both before and after games). Apparently there were a fair number of people there before the game on Monday. Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com has a few pictures of the inside of the restaurant if you're interested.
- Jodie Meeks dunked hard over Nicolas Batum (video here). Robin Lopez dunked hard over Robert Sacre (video here).
- Signs: "Rip City Loud and Proud," "Last Place" (with the "L" in both words drawn like a Lakers logo), "Mo Mo Shots," "I hate the Lakers but I love LA," "Beat LA," "Raise Your Hand if you hate the Lakers" (alongside a picture of actor Jack Nicholson with his hand raised), "Laker H8ers," "I'm a Blazer Girl," "Kobe ain't got nothin' on Lillard," "Rip it Real Good," "Dry up the Lakers," "Let's drink the Lakers," "Daaaamn-ian Lillard," "Lillard's Ladies," "Lakers: second best team in LA," and "Batum Oui for 3."
- The Blazers helped an army sergeant who was home from Afghanistan surprise his family members by showing up unexpectedly at the game. Bruce Ely of The Oregonian has the video. The touching scene drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
- Former Oregon Ducks football player Ed Dickson was in attendance.
- Maybe I was more conscious of this due to Ellen's selfie insanity at The Oscars on Sunday, but I realized during this game just how common it is becoming for people to take pictures of themselves or their family members when they are shown on the JumboTron at Blazers games. As in, they point their cameras towards the JumboTron to take a picture of themselves taking a picture of themselves on the JumboTron. (This isn't really all that new and I'm sure it's happening at sporting events across the country.) Here's my free million dollar idea for McGowan, who is always in search of new revenue streams: Why not come up with a method for selling fans high-quality digital (or hard copy) photographs of themselves when they appear on the JumboTron?
- This is the exact same concept that you see at Disneyland or other theme parks after a popular ride. Are you getting some screen time wearing an awesome Blazers shirt, or holding up a cute baby, or waving a hilarious sign, or sticking your tongue down your girlfriend's throat during the Kiss Cam? Want to savor that moment forever? Why settle for a blurry selfie of a screen that's hanging from the ceiling (while also bringing your camera into the shot)? Instead, for a low, low price of $9.95, you can rock out on the screen without sullying the moment by taking out your phone. Afterwards, at your convenience, you could then report to a photo booth at the Fan Shop and have a customer service employee help you get a picture to go home with, or you could purchase the digital rights and share it instantly via Facebook and Twitter to show your friends, family and stalkers just how famous you are. There are a few logistics to work out (how to monitor when each fan is on the screen, how to condense and search the crowd footage quickly, etc.) but otherwise this is a cash cow waiting to happen.
- I wonder how much Terry Stotts' decision to turn things over to Damian Lillard was impacted by meh shooting performances by LaMarcus Aldridge (especially late) and Wesley Matthews.
- I wasn't surprised that Portland went to the isolation with Lillard, mostly because of the possibility of blitzing a high screen-and-roll that Stotts mentioned. Dealing with a trap in less than six seconds could have produced an even worse outcome. I was, however, surprised that Lillard seemed caught off guard by Meeks' defense. Credit to Meeks for his play, but I'd wager just about any amount of money that Lillard's next late-game play looks a whole lot more decisive. He's not the type of player to make that same mistake twice.
- Aldridge, on whether he agreed with Robin Lopez that the Blazers didn't come to play: "I guess. That's tough. [The Lakers] definitely came out more fired up than us, a little bit more ready to go from the beginning. They got a lead on us, we fought back and gave ourselves a good chance to win at the end."
- Aldridge on his health: "I'm getting back. I don't feel as good as I will. It's a process. I was out almost two weeks without playing competitive basketball. I'm just finding my rhythm right now. Just timing, not cardio. My cardio has been fine. I [missed] some rebounds tonight that maybe I would have grabbed pre-groin injury. Find my timing, hitting guys and going to grab it."
- Aldridge said that Portland's winning streak and L.A.'s record were not factors in the result: "Nah, no record. We've played teams with below .500 records all year and we've taken care of business. They just came out more energetic tonight, got a lead and just milked it. ... I don't think the winning streak had anything to do with it. We just didn't bring it tonight. We didn't have that intensity that we had played with in other games."
- At the end of the game, Lillard approached the officials for a discussion. He was not asking for a foul call on the final play. Rather, he wanted the referees to review his shot because it was tipped before it hit the rim. That wound up being a non-issue.
- Portland missed eight of its 19 free throws against the Lakers after missing just 10 of their 116 free throws over the previous five games combined.
- The life of a second-round pick: play great and get toasted by the town one night and then watch your playing time evaporate the next night after you get beaten backdoor twice in quick succession. Will Barton played just five scoreless minutes in this one.
- Nothing new on the Chalupa/McMuffins front.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's a disappointing loss. I thought the Lakers played very well. They put pressure on us all game. They came out with more energy to start with. They sustained it throughout the whole game. In the second half, we did a good job defensively but we couldn't quite get over the hump. We weren't good enough tonight.
Damian Lillard's final offensive possession
I just wanted to get him a shot. I probably should have run something different. When you're up there and have the ball, whatever's available is available. I can't second-guess that.
Plan on final possession
Just wanted to get him an opportunity to get a shot off. I felt like any pick-and-roll, they probably would have trapped it. I felt like the best opportunity for us was for him to try to get a shot off.
Lakers' lob catch Blazers' defense by surprise?
I thought it was really good execution. Farmar set a good screen on L.A. L.A. got there. It was a very well-executed play. L.A. was a couple inches below the ball. It was a great pass. Nic was pressuring the ball. It was a good play and well-executed.
Transition defense, energy was lacking?
To start the game. We gave up 22 in the first half, by our count, we gave up 32. Most of it was after rebounds, not necessarily off of turnovers. We knew that transition and threes is a big part of what they do, make or miss, they were getting it out. They did a good job. We didn't do a good enough job of stopping their transition.
Did you wait too late to flip the switch?
I don't know about flipping the switch, but they started in fifth gear and we started in third gear. Eventually we caught up. We made a great comeback to take the lead. That's what you want, to be in position to win a game. If you look at the whole game, the fact that we were ahead with under a minute, with whatever seconds [left] that was, we were in a good position to win the game. But we didn't quite have enough.
Surprised by overturned call?
Yes I was surprised. I didn't see the replays. I couldn't tell. It's hard to argue when they had the benefit of replay. They have all the angles. If they saw enough to overturn it, they saw enough to overturn it.
What did you want to do differently on final possession?
I don't want to get into that. There are different things. Plenty of things you can look at. It is what it is.
Did you overlook Lakers?
I think it's a credit to the Lakers. They sustained their style of play from the very beginning. They got out in transition, they were aggressive in the passing lanes, they forced eight turnovers in the first quarter. They got us on our heels right away. We got back but I thought what the Lakers did more than anything was come out and sustain it for the whole game.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter