Horribly outmanned--starting Will Barton, Victor Claver, and Meyers Leonard--the Blazers came out of the gate with the perfect game plan. Nobody in the league does less with more than the Lakers. They showed it tonight. The Blazers ran their sagging rears into the ground. L.A. did not want to defend at all. The Blazers burned them in transition. The Blazers fricasseed them from the three-point arc. The Blazers roasted them in the paint. It was an all-you-can-score buffet of shots on the run, attempts early in the clock. Damian Lillard stuffed points down the throats of the defense: threes, the drive, the drive and dish...you name it. Crisp passing and dead-eye marksmanship from the arc propelled Portland to 41 first quarter points. The Blazers suffered on the other end as one would expect from a team fielding a lineup of four rookies, three of whom barely played until the season slipped into oblivion. Still, it took 17 points from Kobe Bryant (matching Lillard's 17 in the quarter) to keep the Lakers within shouting distance. 41-33 after one.
L.A. made a surge as Lillard sat in the early second quarter. This would be a theme all night. When Damian went down Portland's offense went limp. The Blazers couldn't score with their third-stringers promoted to the second string. Neither could they run. Los Angeles slowed the pace and ate away the lead. Then Lillard returned and so did the scoring. The Blazers rang up 28 in the period for a 69 point first half. They doubled Bryant in the second, trying to stop his torrential scoring. It worked somewhat, but at the cost of Dwight Howard picking up offensive rebounds off of misses. The Blazers preserved their lead, however, ahead 69-61 at the half.
The third period turned the tide of the game. Had the Blazers been able to keep up the tempo the story might have been different but the pace slowed as both teams shifted towards an inside game. The Lakers version featured Dwight Howard posting up Meyers Leonard in isolation sets. There isn't enough defensive help in the world to make that work for the Blazers. Between chip shots and free throws Howard scored 6 in the first 4 minutes. With the Blazers now shading inside Bryant hit a couple of jumpers. There goes the lead.
The Blazers tried to force the action on the other end, exploiting L.A.'s weak guard defense. Damian Lillard and Will Barton got the step on Bryant and Steve Blake pretty much whenever they wanted. Three factors kept Portland's drives from success, however. Howard earned his keep by blocking and intimidating in the paint. The Blazers would display hitches in their layups for the rest of the evening, glancing over their shoulders for Dwight. Second, the refs made it clear that the Blazers would get no help on the drives. The Blazers drew contact on almost every penetration play to the sound of no whistles. Eventually they abandoned the drive and went to pull-up jumpers or three-point passes. Being able to defend in the lane without much help, the Lakers were able to close on the perimeter and Portland's jumpers stopped falling. Third, Kobe Bryant took full advantage of the lack of whistles to lay the lumber on Will Barton. Kobe got legitimate blocks on Barton. Kobe also got some smacks and grabs. The combination took the rookie out of his game completely. Barton's confidence shriveled to the size of a baby Lima Bean. He wasn't just looking over his shoulder, he was actively ducking and covering as he put up shots.
Absent Barton's offense and an inside game, the Blazers survived the second half on the strong outside shooting of Luke Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic. Both stroked threes. Babbitt grabbed rebounds. Pavlovic played the best defense on Bryant of any Blazer tonight. That's not saying much, as Bryant's scoring spree continued in the final two quarters, but those two saved the day for Portland, preserving the chance at a win as the game closed.
In the end this game came down to a few plays that nobody predicted, almost as if it were a playoff game. The Lakers won because Pau Gasol was able to flip a couple smart alley-oops to Howard and because Steve Blake (of all people) grabbed two offensive rebounds late when the Blazers had forced misses. The quintessential play came with 56 seconds remaining and the Blazers down by 4. Earl Clark lofted an idiotic three-pointer that missed badly but the Blazers couldn't secure the rebound. Gasol to Howard followed and blam, the opportunity to force a single-possession game disappeared. The Blazers would never be so close again.
Oddly enough, the Blazers appeared to be more fatigued than the Lakers in the final minutes. Portland had great opportunities, among them wide open threes from Lillard and Eric Maynor, a layup from Maynor, and an open 20-footer that LaMarcus Aldridge usually hits in his sleep. The Lakers finished the game by making plays. The Blazers didn't. L.A. walks away with the 113-106 victory.
This turned out to be a game of "almosts" for Portland. Had the Blazers hit one or two more open shots, grabbed one or two more rebounds, had even one more player get hot, had either one of their starting wings available, gotten one or two more calls to go their way this could have been a victory. The Lakers needed 47 points from Bryant to secure this win. Had the Blazers contained him to 40 they would have won. But this is the NBA. "Almost" equals an "L" in the record book and tomorrow's headlines will only say that Kobe had a monster game to keep the Lakers' playoff hopes alive. That's the way it goes.
L.A. ended up shooting a robust 59% to Portland's 45%. Portland's percentage seems pretty good until you remember that they shot 75% in the first period. Things slid from there. The Blazers shot 12-26 from the arc, 46%. (That's right, they shot better from three-point distance than from the field as a whole.) Portland had 11 fast break points to just 3 for the Lakers. L.A. outscored Portland in the paint 54-32. The Blazers showed well in the energy numbers. They beat L.A. 9-6 on the offensive glass, 10-15 on turnovers, 24-19 on assists, 10-7 on steals.
After the debacle in Los Angeles last month people will want an assessment of the referees in this game. Outside of the aforementioned lack of respect for Portland penetration the game wasn't too bad. Bryant earned a couple of ghost fouls against Portland defenders early. He and Howard got away with some second half paint brutality on defense. But the refs didn't turn the tide of this game as much as the Blazers' defensive weaknesses did. The Blazers shot 20 free throws for the game. Kobe Bryant shot 18. He was having that kind of night. But the Blazers only ended up -3 points from the line for the game. That's not horrible on a night when they went +18 from the arc. If you wanted to find something to complain about in this game you probably could. Lillard drew a technical foul and Aldridge almost got another. But the reffing was hardly egregious. Good enough for this league, these two teams, and this situation.
Damian Lillard was a cold-blooded assassin tonight. Had Bryant not gone batpoop crazy this would have been all about the Rookie of the Year. What he did to the Lakers in that first period had to be seen to be believed. It was like everything you've seen from Damian all year distilled into just a few minutes. He ended up with 38 points, 9 assists, 3 steals, and only 2 turnovers. He was forced to guard Bryant in the first half when Barton went down with foul trouble and he didn't do worse than the other Blazers.
LaMarcus Aldridge played more of an opportunity outlet role on offense tonight, shooting 7-13 on mostly face-ups, finishing with 17 points and 2 assists. He was the Swiss Army Knife of Portland's defense though. Playing among youngsters and bench guys he gave the Blazers anything they needed, from bodying up Howard to helping out on Kobe beyond the arc. He wasn't dominant on defense but the Lakers pretty much went where he wasn't. Aldridge registered 16 rebounds and 3 steals. It was a great line for a guard-heavy game.
Meyers Leonard played 32 minutes and got chewed, about as expected. What was he going to do? He had a couple nice passes--one of the hidden, stronger parts of his game--but he was no force at all on the boards, grabbing 5, and scored 4 points.
Victor Claver didn't play poorly but he also couldn't hit a shot, going 3-11 for the evening. His defense was active until he tweaked his ankle on a breakout in the third period. He barely played after that. 9 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds in 27 minutes.
Will Barton looked like he wanted to follow up his career night on Sunday with another mega-effort but Bryant intimidated the heck out of him. First Barton drew a couple early fouls, one of which fell into the "What did I do?" category. After sitting for a while he came back in the game only to watch Kobe lay off him and dare him to hit outside shots. Barton couldn't. He tried driving more in the second half and got swatted and bumped into oblivion. In the end he only managed 4-12 shooting for 9 points, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers in 29 minutes. Coach Stotts went with Pavlovic and Maynor in his place down the stretch.
Luke Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic did everything they could in this game...an unabashed success for each considering their level of participation this year. Babbitt went 4-5 from distance and Sasha 1-3. Luke scored 12 with 5 rebounds, Pavlovic 8. Pavlovic picked up 4 personal fouls in his 22 minutes but at least he knew how to lay a body on Bryant (unlike Portland's younger defenders who seemed either clueless or scared). Between them these two guys provided enough unexpected punch to give the Blazers a chance at a win. As we said above, had Portland just gotten a good game from one more guy...
Statistically Eric Maynor looked pretty good in this game, shooting 3-8 for 9 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals plus 2 turnovers in 23 minutes. He was pretty good compared to Portland's other option at guard (cough, Barton). But the tempo slowed with Maynor in the game and the offense was nowhere near as sure. Plus he missed those two late, critical shots, one of which was a mostly-unopposed layup. It felt like the Blazers were playing by the skin of their teeth whenever Maynor was at the helm.
A win tonight would have been nice, but it was a great game to watch anyway. It reminded you how great Bryant and Howard can be--albeit not at the same time--when they put their minds to it. Sadly it also reminded you that the Lakers don't have a ghost of a chance to do anything significant this year. But for a couple of experience-advantage plays by Gasol and Blake, L.A. would have gotten taken out in their most important game of the season by a team of first-year third-stringers plus Aldridge, Lillard, and Sasha Pavlovic...and that's despite 47 from their captain. Let the headlines trumpet Kobe's game...and really, go ahead and stand in awe of his great offense tonight. The home team acquitted themselves pretty well nevertheless.