The Portland Trail Blazers embarked on their first losing streak of the season Friday night, falling 115-106 to the Chicago Bulls for their second straight defeat.. Though LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard had impressive outings, Chicago knew where and how to pick apart Portland's defense and their methodical, near-scientific approach prevailed over the Blazers' fireworks display.
As if Bulls fans don't rue trading LaMarcus Aldridge on draft day, 2006 enough, Aldridge dumped a truckload of maraschino cherries on their regret sundae in the first quarter of this game. Portland's All-Star forward went Wilt Chamberlain on the team that drafted him, shooting 10-12 in the period and scoring 21 points in the process. 10-12 and 21 points would be a great tally for an entire game. Aldridge did it before the first dance team routine.
Honestly it's hard to talk about anything else in the quarter besides that scoring spree. It was disgustingly sick and as legit of a performance as you'll ever see...jumpers falling like acid rain, pitting the court and Chicago's confidence. Had the streak continued for another 12 minutes, United Center attendees would have started spiraling towards a LaMarcus-shaped laser gem in the ceiling hoping to renew, only to get blown out of the sky with Aldridge's shining brilliance the last thing they beheld on this earth. There was no sanctuary, at least not in this 12-minute stretch.
Putting aside awe for a moment, Chicago's attack scheme also became clear in the first, along with the fact that they know the Blazers well and are disciplined enough to hit Portland's weak spots. In the absence of Joakim Noah, the Bulls started Pau Gasol at center. They used his jump-shooting ability to draw Robin Lopez outside the lane. Fortunately for the Blazers, Gasol would miss most of those attempts. No such luck with Derrick Rose, whose eyes got progressively bigger as he saw Portland's permissive paint defense. Rose sliced and diced his way to 11 points in the period. Despite that the Blazers led 28-24 after one.
When you see a 21-point explosion with a 4-point score differential following, two interpretations present themselves:
1. The Blazers are in control here because Chicago can't stop the Big Guy.
2. The Blazers might be in trouble here because it took a record-breaking 10 field goals and an 84-point pace from Aldridge to keep the Blazers ahead by 2 buckets.
Portland's bench wasted no time solving that riddle as the second quarter commenced. Chicago ripped off a 16-2 run, swamping the Blazers with defense and speed. The Bulls bench outran and out-passed their Portland counterparts. In response the Blazers coughed up turnovers and bad shots in equal measure. Portland couldn't get free for threes and couldn't grab offensive rebounds. They just went limp.
Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews shot like crazy to keep their team in it once the starters returned but the damage had been done. Chicago led 59-51 at the half, countering the brilliance of Portland's stars by surgically slicing at vulnerabilities: free throws, fast break points, points after turnovers, bench play, and defending guard penetration.
The third period went better for the Blazers thanks to Aldridge resuming his scoring kick in the early going and Steve Blake hitting a pair of threes in the final three minutes. Portland's defense looked as good as it would all evening, forcing Chicago to the perimeter where they often missed jumpers. The Blazers still had no answer when Rose penetrated. Neither did they keep Chicago off of the offensive glass. But a 27-23 period cut Chicago's lead to 82-78 entering the fourth. Finally we were going to see who was really in control of this game.
Unfortunately the answer turned out to be Chicago. With Rose on the bench, reserve point guard Aaron Brooks took over his scoring role, hustling for 3 layups in the first 4:30 of the period...a stretch in which the Bulls converted 5 layups total. Portland's inability to shut down the lane left Chicago with an AMEX Black Card inside the candy store when Rose returned to the game. If he wasn't scoring at the rim outright, a single jab-step was enough to send frightened defenders scurrying backwards to stop penetration, allowing easy short-range jumpers. Between them Rose and Brooks scored 22 points on 11 made shots in the period, not a single bucket coming from beyond 10 feet.
The Blazers weren't done, though. Damian Lillard played an impressive game of one-upmanship with Rose, pouring in a dizzying array of three-pointers for 18 points in the period. When he wasn't stroking deep, Lillard foiled Chicago with smooth, twisting layups. It was another tour de force in a game replete with them.
For a while the fourth period became the Rose vs. Lillard Hour. The results were spectacular. Nothing--no switching Batum onto Rose, no pinching down on Lillard, no method of dealing with screens--could stop either guy. It was like a video game on easy setting for both. But on balance Rose's squad scored on inside attempts while Lillard's squad remained on the perimeter. This left a slight edge to Chicago in field goals made and a big edge in free throws attempted which ended up counter-balancing Portland's threes in the period. The end result was a 33-28 fourth quarter for the Bulls and a 115-106 final score in favor of the home team. This game contained some of the best individual offensive efforts we've ever seen from the Trail Blazers but it still goes down in the record book as a loss.
The final boxscore reads similarly to the halftime one. Tonight the Bulls exploiting all the things the Blazers don't do well. Chicago owned a 19-5 edge on the break, 60-34 in the paint, 19-8 in points after turnovers, 28-11 in free throws attempted, 22-8 in free throws made.
The Blazers could not stop the Bulls inside...ever. Scoring 106 on Chicago's defense is no mean feat. They usually allow 99.5. But when you give up 115 to the Bulls you've ceded your chance for a win. They could do ultra-manly tequila shots after each Rose layup and still not give up that many points. The constant defensive lane leak was Portland's main problem tonight.
Portland's bench also approached this game with the facility of an amoeba putting together a model plane. Blake and Joel Freeland scored but nobody else stepped up as the reserves put on a lethargic and wholly ineffective performance.
In short, it's like the Blazers got in a time machine and transported to mid-season of last year. Like stitches ripping violently following surgery, problems that have seemed muted in the early going this season came back in full force. Much of that has to do with the Bulls, whose coaches and players are in the business of understanding other teams' weaknesses and making them look bad. But part of it might be Portland running into another above-.500 team. It'll be interesting to see if this was an aberration or if this is what the Blazers end up looking like when the competition knows how to play.
Fun With Numbers
--Aldridge started the game with a 21-point quarter and Lillard finished it with an 18-point period. Think about that. You can watch a whole lot of basketball and never see it happen again.
--49% from the field and 50% (12-24) from the three-point arc ought to spell an easy win for the Blazers. They didn't tonight, for all the reasons mentioned above.
--High scorers: Aldridge 35, Lillard 35, Rose 31.
--Bench points: Blazers 15, Bulls 40
If we skipped the rest of the recap and just started singing Christmas carols to Aldridge it wouldn't be out of place. O come let as adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him...35 and 9! 2 blocks too. And Taj Gibson fired 2-10 on the evening. Total domination.
After that we could just switch over to heralding Lillard for that late-game performance. The Blazers finally had to push the "Bail Us Out!" button and boy did Dame deliver. 13-21 shooting looks sweet, but 7-11 from beyond the arc is INSANE. "Lillard we have seen on high, sweetly shooting o'er the "D". And the scoreboard in reply, tallies up another 3. GLO-O-O-O-O....(etc.)".
As might be expected on a night when Lillard went crazy, Wesley Matthews didn't get many touches. He shot 4-10 for 10 points.
Nicolas Batum got plenty of touches, even absorbing some of Matthews' usual shots. Unfortunately he ended up 3-12 and by the end of the game was actively running away from shots. 5 rebounds and 5 assists accompanied 7 points. But Batum did get a nice elbow across the bridge of Mike Dunleavy's nose which was accidental but still nice karma for Dunleavy shoving Lillard the last time these two teams met.
Robin Lopez had 5 offensive rebounds to provide Portland's only traction in that area tonight. Unfortunately that was the only traction Lopez got. His style might have been served better had Joakim Noah played. At least he'd have had someone to bang against instead of having to chase people all night. His perimeter defenders did him no favors in that department either.
Steve Blake hit a couple of threes off the bench and provided 9 points, singlehandedly keeping the Blazers ahead in the latter stretches of the third period.
The most interesting bench development of the night was Meyers Leonard taking Joel Freeland's reserve power forward minutes for the 1st-2nd period bridge stretch. It was a disaster. Leonard shot 0-2 with 2 personal fouls, a rebound and an assist in 5 minutes while getting outrun and pushed around by the Bulls.
If the rotation change was a referendum on Freeland's recent performances, Joel got the last laugh tonight with 4 points in 4 minutes during the second-half bench shift in which Leonard was nowhere to be found.
The Bulls were ready for Chris Kaman. He got up only 4 shots in 19 minutes, hit 1, and 2'ed up the rest of his stat line with matching pairs of rebounds, assists, turnovers, personal fouls, and points.
Allen Crabbe played 13 minutes and had a nifty 2 assists but didn't attempt a shot.
The loss drops Portland to 17-6 overall, 7-4 on the road, 3-4 against +.500 teams. You also wonder what the effort will take out of the Blazers for tomorrow's tilt against the defensive-minded, bruising, and (like Chicago) revenge-seeking Indiana Pacers. That game begins at 4:00 p.m. Pacific.
The Boxscore...the prettiest you'll ever see in a loss.
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