The Portland Trail Blazers out-dueled the Toronto Raptors on Sunday morning, claiming a 118-110 overtime victory in a game of peaks and valleys. The game extended a 6-game winning streak and pushed Portland's record to 8-2 overall.
The stylistic contrast between these two teams became clear from the opening tip. The Raptors featured a bold, athletic, single-man attacks centered on the paint. They put a bullseye on Portland's centers and hammered hard. The Blazers shared the ball, penetrating enough to set up assisted three-point shots. Which one worked? Well, in the first period both did. The Blazers hit 4 threes, plus a jumper just inside the arc, plus 3 free throws from a foul on a triple. That's not even counting the 19-footer and 21-footer that also fell. Meanwhile the Raptors shot approximately 800,000% in the period while bulling, skating, dipping, and dunking their way through the key. Toronto's defense on Portland was pitiful. They couldn't compensate for passes at all. The Blazers tried harder on defense than the Raptors did but were no more effective. When the smoke cleared Portland led 31-29.
With the Raptors slicing by Portland's perimeter defenders it wasn't long before Robin Lopez got in foul trouble. His 3rd personal came just 3 seconds into the second period. Joel Freeland came off the bench and quickly picked up 2 fouls of his own. That left the Blazers without centers and potentially in deep trouble. Oddly enough, though, the misfortune led them into the defensive strategy that would eventually win them the game. If you're down two 7-footers, just send four 6'6" guys into the lane instead! The Blazers packed the paint, keeping 4-5 men within swiping distance of any drives. The Raptors feature formidable individual scorers but they don't pass and they can't shoot outside to save their lives. With all kinds of extra bodies in the paint Toronto scoring opportunities morphed into turnovers and botched floaters. Meanwhile Wesley Matthews got hot from three-point land, allowing the Blazers to outscore the Raptors by 1 in the quarter despite the foul difficulties. Portland led 57-54 going into the break.
Not being total fools, the Blazers crowded the lane again in the third. The bigs still picked up fouls but this was balanced by nice rebounding and a total lack of easy scoring for Toronto. The Raptors managed only 15 in the period and Portland cruised to a 10-point lead at the end of the third which they would extend to 17 at the 8:49 mark of the fourth.
That's when everything fell apart for Portland. Ironically it probably started because the lead had jumped so far, so fast. Damian Lillard was making free with early shots and hitting them, drowning the Raptors in a sea of scoring. It was like somebody hit the "stim" button on the offense. Portland's early shooting would continue through most of the quarter. Actually hitting shots would not. When the Blazers weren't shooting within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock they were stalling to near-24-second violations or worse, turning over the ball entirely. Having given up on keeping any bigs in the game, the small lineup couldn't secure offensive rebounds and second shots. Scoring evaporated. Meanwhile the defense changed from packing to slacking as mobile defenders, perhaps feeling fatigued, seemed glued to the ground. Toronto stormed back with a flurry of paint points: dunks, layups...10 shots made within 5 feet of the hoop in that quarter alone, the vast majority right at the rim. Free throws followed, of course. Meanwhile the Blazers hesitated on shots they were hitting blindfolded in the first three quarters. Everybody tightened up, even the normally-unflappable LaMarcus Aldridge. When Rudy Gay leaped over Nicolas Batum at the horn, converting a final layup to even the score at 102 and send the game into overtime, all you could do was throw your hands up and say, "It figures."
Damian Lillard made sure Portland's fourth-quarter follies didn't turn into a full-blown defeat, scoring 7 quick points in overtime and dishing to Nicolas Batum for the first of two game-icing three-pointers. The Blazers were aided by Toronto experiencing the same kind of momentum-based euphoria that had infected the Blazers in the fourth quarter. Apparently the Raptors thought that forcing the game into overtime after having been down 17 made any shot good. They settled for jumpers instead of drives and the Blazers cruised to the 8-point win.
You can just about split this game down the middle in every way save the obvious ones. The Raptors scored 62 points in the paint to 28 for the Blazers. They also drew 31 foul shots to 20 for Portland. But the Blazers drained 15 three-pointers, shooting 47% from the arc, while Toronto made only 3 for 18% on the evening. Both teams broke down but Portland showed more poise in their recovery and that was enough to win it today.
The good news for Portland: 8-2 and another road victory, this one under unfamiliar circumstances. The bad news: opponents are starting to zero in now. Toronto was aiming right down the throat of the lane from the first second of the first quarter. They couldn't shoot well enough to make the defense play honest and thus faltered, but if you're Portland you have to feel a little bit like Cinderella hearing that clock tick. The Blazers are getting great performances and pulling the fat out of the fire but the gap seems to be closing, the margin for error shrinking.
That said, this season isn't going to be decided by the next loss, or even the next losing streak. If the coach turns into a pumpkin the Blazers may drop a couple. What happens after that will tell you a lot about this team. If they can re-establish equilibrium, retain confidence, trust in each other and their style of play, and ride these things to another winning streak they should end up fine. If they get knocked off their pedestal and devolve into stutter-step series, not stringing together wins, or start to lose their cohesiveness under pressure they're going to give opponents a huge opening. This team is not winning on talent. They're winning on the back of LaMarcus Aldridge, fantastic three-point shooting ability, and a combination of chemistry and effort. Aldridge should be reliable all season. The three-point shooting may come and go, though you hope it's on the high side. When the pressure's on and doubt creeps in, you hope the chemistry and effort will be more like it was in the second quarter of today's game and less like it was in the fourth.
LaMarcus Aldridge shot poorly today, hitting 11 of 27 shots. "Poorly" is relative, though. He scored 25 with 11 rebounds. Aldridge was pressed into center duty with Lopez and Freeland foul-bound and Meyers Leonard not in uniform. He didn't do bad at the 5 but Toronto isn't flush with centers anyway.
Damian Lillard did his usual "quiet early, earthquake late" routine. He shot 3-10 from beyond the arc but 10-22 overall. Math wizards will note: that indicates a 7-12 clip on two-pointers, arresting his trend lately. A couple of his finishes at the rim were slippery voodoo magic. It was good to see him take it to the hole against a team that doesn't defend that well. Lillard added 8 assists.
Nicolas Batum went up and down but ended up solidly in the "up" column in this game. He played some masterful defense in the third period. He also slammed down a mighty dunk over Toronto center Jonas Valanciunas in the same frame. His twin treys in overtime put the game far, far, far beyond reach. Batum shot 8-15, a healthy 5-8 from distance, for 24 points plus 2 blocks, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Wesley Matthews also acquitted himself well despite some momentary vacillation, taking advantage of Toronto's inability to rotate to the tune of 6-12 shooting, 4-7 on three-pointers, for 17 points and 6 rebounds.
Robin Lopez fouled out of this game in 24 minutes with 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
Joel Freeland did Lopez one better, collecting 5 fouls in 12 minutes.
While the foul development isn't completely unexpected, both Lopez and Freeland gave away at least one foul that they didn't have to...just mental/emotional error stuff like wrapping up a guy when the ref wasn't actually going to call the foul you just committed (Freeland) or power walking through a shooter instead of defending him (Lopez). Not a huge deal, but indicative of the team's loss of focus when things weren't going right.
Thomas Robinson played 18 minutes thanks to the fouls of his frontcourt friends. He grabbed a couple of authoritative rebounds, managing 3 total. But he also sowed chaos in Portland's offense, finishing the day 2-8 with 4 points and 3 turnovers.
Dorell Wright got 14 minutes, shot 1-4, and mostly held ground otherwise.
Mo Williams didn't go into Super Mo territory today but he hit well-timed and accurate shots, shooting 4-7 overall and 3-5 on threes for 13 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in 33 minutes. The difference between this and games when he really turned the fortunes of the team was Toronto's defense. He didn't have to turn around an offense that was sputtering because the Raptors didn't make the Blazers sputter much. Williams simply added to the momentum...plenty good. Mo's defense was generally Mo-like but he did have a couple of nice moments on that end of the court too.
The trial run road trip continues tomorrow in Brooklyn with a 4:35 p.m. Pacific tip. Be sure to check out the preview and the GameDay thread.