Tonight's Portland Trail Blazers 119-114 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers had everything you could possibly want in a pre-season game. Well, unless you want defense, but if you're looking for a defensive struggle in a game that doesn't count you're some kind of sicko anyway. Damian Lillard's continued absence didn't mar the proceedings one bit, instead providing opportunity for a new star to shine through en route to Portland's first win of the year.
If you're wondering where 233 combined points came from, look no further than guards, no closer than the three-point arc. Each team attempted more triples tonight than free throws. The Clippers hoisted a prodigious 39 three-point attempts, connecting on 19...a 49% clip. That became so much barstool trivia on when the Blazers hit 17-25 beyond the arc for an eye-popping 68% rate.
Portland earned most of their threes honestly. Wesley Matthews started the evening with some off-the-dribble, in-your-face bombing runs but the balance of those long attempts came off of smart screening and crisp ball movement. Full confession: L.A.'s "veteran" defense translated to "slow" in many halfcourt sets. Once they sagged down to the basket they recovered slowly, leaving Blazers shooters squared up and loaded. But the Blazers made recovery harder by putting obstacles in their way and passing the ball faster than feet could move. Despite the stats, Portland didn't run an outside-in offense. They hit 'em where they weren't. "Where they weren't" happened to be at the arc.
In short, the Clippers played walkers tonight and every Blazer guard brought a Daryl mask and crossbow.
Matthews was the star of the game early, shooting quickly and decisively at the least hint of daylight. He finished the night 6-7 from the arc with a team-high 22 points. His fireworks will be eclipsed by the 19-point, 7-12, 5-8 from distance performance of CJ McCollum, substituting for Lillard. McCollum accepted every open shot the Clippers gave him early, then drove past them with dishes fine enough to make your wedding registry. 19 points and 6 assists is a Lillard-esque line, made more impressive by getting crammed into 26 minutes of total playing time.
Portland's starting guards stole the show but the reserve guards followed gamely. Will Barton and Allen Crabbe scored 10 apiece, hitting 3 triples between them. Steve Blake went 1-2 beyond the arc. Nicolas Batum poked his head in as well, dropping 2 three-pointers out of 3.
The Clippers' guards also fared well, highlighting one of Portland's issues. Chris Paul struggled, firing 1-6 from range, but Jamal Crawford (6-8), J.J. Redick (2-5), Reggie Bullock (2-3), and Jordan Farmar (3-5) turned Paul's crash-and-burn into a trust fall. Spencer Hawes sweetened the deal with 3-6 shooting himself, but Matt Barnes' 1-5 canceled him out and left the L.A. forwards far behind the guards.
One could question Portland's rotations to the perimeter as much as those of the opponent, except most of the missed moments came from reserves not normally tasked with such assignments. That's no excuse for losing the ball, but the defense lack cohesion and recognition more than effort. McCollum, Crabbe, and Barton aren't expected to lock anybody down at this stage of their development, though their inability to do so makes scoring crucial when they're on the floor. The final verdict reads, "They're great to have in as long as the ball is falling." Tonight it fell plenty and they looked good.
With artillery shells flying all over the court, the big men for both teams were relegated to ducking and rebounding. The marquee matchup of Blake Griffin vs. LaMarcus Aldridge never got off the ground. Griffin found himself behind plays on defense and in constant foul trouble. Aldridge feasted at the foul line, shooting 8-8, but outside of the third period never got his offense going. Even firing 4-13 tonight, he still commanded enough defensive respect to free up teammates, though. Griffin couldn't make the same claim, though his 4-16 shooting mirrored Aldridge otherwise.
As has been the case this pre-season, Portland's center story was far more interesting than anything the forwards managed. Robin Lopez looked good except when DeAndre Jordan was driving around him. Jordan is one of the few centers in the league who gives Lopez fits inside of 15 feet.. Chris Kaman put an end to most of that by throwing his body around, playing more of a true center game than we've seen so far. He hit jumpers but he also worked in the post and muscled rebounds. 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 5-8 shooting speak well of him, making him the non-guard player of the game for Portland.
A couple moments of forward-based excitement came from Joel Freeland and Thomas Robinson. Freeland mixed good with bad, hitting a couple opportunity jumpers but also getting in foul trouble like he was
short a contact at summer league Blake Griffin. Robinson came in late, fiddled around with some obvious rebounds, and didn't seem to leave as much of a mark as we're used to seeing from last season. His lack of T-Robbishness is one of the ongoing stories of the pre-season.
If the Blazers had a dim spot tonight it came courtesy of 20 turnovers. Unfamiliar lineups explain much of that. Last pre-season we worried about Portland's turnover rate; it calmed down immediately once the game started counting. Absent evidence to the contrary, we'll assume the same will happen this year.
This game didn't alleviate concerns over the Blazers' chronic issues. Backcourt defense, vulnerability to quick and/or deep-shooting centers, and the cost/benefit analysis required by every reserve player still raise eyebrows. Nor did the evening clear up rotation questions (other than Chris Kaman further recommending himself as a good find and the presumed primary big off the bench). But at this point in the pre-season the Blazers needed a free-and-easy outing, the chance to open up the throttle, and a win. They got all three tonight. Good enough.