The Portland Trail Blazers played 18 minutes of magnificent basketball and 30 pretty good minutes besides as they faced the Los Angeles Clippers in Staples Center this afternoon. That amounted to a fine effort, a good game, but ultimately a narrow loss to a team that was able to put together its best basketball at the close of the game rather than the start. This would have been the most solid--and perhaps most important--victory of the young season for the Blazers but heroic individual efforts by the Clippers and a couple recurring systemic issues conspired to rob the Blazers of the chance.
You'd have to run through the alphabet to get enough adjectives to describe the Trail Blazers offense in the first period. Awesome, Beautiful, Completely Dazzling, Effective, Fun...you get the idea. (Go ahead, try G-Z in the comment section!) The Blazers lived out the dream: tempo, ball-movement, potent offensive rebounding. It was everything they dreamed up when this offense was designed. They hit their first 6 three-pointers en route to a 6-9 quarter beyond the arc. They grabbed 5 offensive rebounds and scored 14 second-chance points. They attacked off the dribble and found shooters or a neglected Robin Lopez in the middle. Lopez scored 11 points in the first 6 minutes of the game, which had the Clippers checking their scripts and going, "What the...??? Where does it say that happens?" Meanwhile Lopez was all, "Ha ha! Plot twist! This will be a graphic novel someday. Lopeztilence has descended on all of you!!!"
The only hitch in Portland's plan came on the other end of the floor. Their defense didn't live up to their offense as the Clippers shot 50%, including 12 points from Blake Griffin in the period. Though the Blazers scored 38 in the frame, L.A. managed 33.
Nevertheless it was a masterful performance by the Blazers. Portland aficionados should save that period on DVR, watching it again whenever they feel blue. It was the Blazers' answer to a half-gallon of chocolate brownie ice cream in your jammies on the couch.
And then came the bench. To be fair, it wasn't the whole bench, as Terry Stotts sprinkled starters throughout. And the bench didn't do that poorly! They never surrendered the lead. They defended well enough. But crisp turned to slightly-soggy once the starters took their rest. Turnovers increased; rebounds faded. After scoring 38 in the first period the Blazers managed only 10 in the first 6 minutes of the second. The return of the starters rectified that situation but Portland would never regain the fire that blazed so brightly in the opening 12 minutes of the game.
The Blazers scored 24 in the period to 20 for L.A. (whose bench wasn't producing much either). Portland exited the half shooting 51%, down from their early clip but still fantastic. The catch: the Clippers also shot 51%. Portland led 62-53 by virtue of second-chance points and distance shooting. But the story would turn after halftime.
The second half began with L.A. trying on Portland's shoes, pushing the tempo, trying to generate quicker shots and more possessions. They goosed the Blazers with pressure defense. Portland didn't fall apart but passing was nowhere near as free and turnovers started creeping upwards. The Blazers also lost their advantage on the boards. DeAndre Jordan--a missing man for most of the first half--amped up his defense, keeping the Blazers from clear attempts in the lane. Portland's shots became more contested. Jumpers became the norm. The Blazers scored only 17 in the period. The free-wheeling Clippers ripped off a 14-0 run in the middle of the quarter and finished with 26, leaving the score tied at 79 headed into the final period.
Portland's reserve unit took up the frailties of the starters as the fourth period commenced. Turnovers and a stalled offense allowed the Clippers to build a 90-81 lead with 7:20 remaining in the game.
The Blazers came storming back behind long balls from Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, followed by a torrid flurry from Damian Lillard in the last 3 minutes. Lillard would score Portland's final 11 points, all with 3:04 or less remaining on the game clock. It was a vintage performance, the kind that won games for the Blazers last season.
Yet no matter what the Blazers did, the Clippers managed to shoot 50% throughout. Portland never found a way to stop them. J.J. Redick and Chris Paul made up Lillard's points and more in the period. Every time a Portland shot seemed decisive, the Clippers would rip off another one.
L.A. even obliged the Blazers by missing 3 free throws in the final 2:00 of the game, leaving the door open for the Blazers. Lillard kept trying to pull his team through it, but every time he thought he was out the Clippers kept dragging him back.
Portland forced Paul into a miss with 10 seconds remaining and the score sitting at 104-102 for L.A.. A rebound would have left the Blazers with the ball, down 2. But they couldn't get their hands on that board. A small lineup and switches left Matthews going against Jordan for the ball. Jordan won the battle, tipping out to Jamal Crawford. He sank the ensuing possession free throws and a Matthews three-pointer rimmed in and out of the cup to end the game. The Clippers emerged with the 106-102 win. The Blazers had to settle for playing a good game on the road against a good team, but no victory.
We've already mentioned 2 of the 3 major issues that led to Portland's demise.
1. The offense worked flawlessly early on but the Blazers couldn't maintain separation because their defense didn't live up to the scoring. Portland went rabbit with the great start but couldn't sustain it. The Clippers played the turtle, shooting near 50% throughout. Except 50% is a really good rate, so in this case the turtle had a Ferrari.
2. The Blazers didn't hold up well under pressure defense, particularly as the second unit came in. If they didn't turn over the ball they got flustered. Easy shots evaporated as the ball stayed in place longer. It wasn't pretty.
3. Screens once again reared their ugly heads in this game. In the first half the Clippers involved smaller players in screens and the Blazers tried to defend without switching. The result was open jumpers. As has been their wont, the Blazers switched more in the second half. As usual this resulted in defenders in front of jump shooters and a temporary dip in L.A.'s effectiveness. But the Clippers compensated by pulling their centers into the play. Portland still kept a defender in front of shooters but now that defender was Robin Lopez. He's not built for that kind of defense and L.A. took advantage.
Tempo, rebounding, and turnovers all played a part in Portland's downfall, but that screen defense was once again at (or at least near) the heart of the slow leak that let the Clippers run with, then eclipse, the Blazers during a pretty good offensive outing.
Fun With Numbers
- Portland shot 40% from the arc. hitting 10-25 triples. Keep in mind, though, that they started the game 6-6. After the 4:00 mark of the first period the Blazers shot only 4-19 on threes.
- Similarly, the Blazers had 5 offensive rebounds in the first quarter but only ended up with 9 for the game.
- Portland's 25 assists on 36 made buckets gives you a clue how well the offense was going.
- Ending up on the wrong side of a 16-7 turnover tally mitigates that somewhat. It translated into a 19-5 points-after-turnovers deficit.
- L.A. shot 49% from the field, 42% from the arc, for the game.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge