The Portland Trail Blazers got pushed to the limit tonight by the best team in the Eastern Conference. The defense of the Toronto Raptors gave the Blazers fits. Toronto smartly took advantage of almost every matchup imaginable. Portland never found a secure purchase on the boards. But somehow, some way, three-pointers and good, old-fashioned chutzpah carried Portland to an overtime win and yet another notch in their belt in this amazing 26-7 season.
From the opening tip it was evident that the Blazers hadn't switched out of Sixers-Knicks mode and into a serious mindset. Sloppy turnovers and lack of rebounding provided early clues, but you can also tell that the Blazers are taking an opponent lightly when they give up open shots in search of extra assists. If the first-quarter over-passing had gotten any bigger you could have walked a platoon of Boy Scouts and 6 circus elephants over the freeway and still left room for a jumbo jet to land. Multiple possessions passing up 2 decent shots for a rushed three-pointer left the scoring well dry. Meanwhile the Raptors probed the lane against Joel Freeland and company, either posting with Jonas Valanciunas or playing "step up-step back" with their guards. The Raptors jumped out to a 10-5 lead, only sacrificing it when their own jumpers stopped falling. The finish of the first saw the score knotted at 23.
Before the second quarter was 3 minutes old, local law enforcement had issued an Amber Alert for Portland's offense. A bevy of missed jumpers, awkward leaners, and ill-advised floaters twined together in sickly fashion, providing melody, harmony, and counterpoint to a spectacular 15-point period. Normally in these situations you'd point to the bench, but Portland's starters weren't carrying much of the offensive load either. The Raptors had the Blazers bagged up and sewn tight.
Meanwhile the Amber Alert was canceled when it was discovered that Portland's offense had actually run off to Mexico with their interior defense. Toronto's guards destroyed the Blazers every time their sneakers touched paint...no big men required. Rotations proved non-existent, late, or foul-filled. Toronto only scored 22 in the period but you got the sense they could have managed 40 had they foregone jump shots and just penetrated every possession. The Raptors led 45-38 at the half.
The Blazers went to LaMarcus Aldridge to heal their offensive woes in the third...for one possession. After that they seemed to forget he was on the court, trying to win with the guard-based offense they'd run in his recent absence. They didn't find much success early on, but Damian Lillard came to their rescue in the final 5 minutes, hitting a trio of three-pointers, all from well beyond the arc. Those triples accounted for 36% of Portland's offense in the period. Had Lillard been a smidgen less brilliant, we'd be talking about a loss right now.
Meanwhile the Raptors, confident in the double-digit lead their defense had given them, slowed down the pace something fierce. They didn't initiate their offense until 9 or fewer seconds remained on the shot clock. This kept the Blazers from mounting a comeback on rapid possessions and, at least for a while, disrupted Portland's rhythm. It also had the side-effect of taking away Toronto's penetration points. They didn't have time to set up misdirection passes. The Blazers knew where the ball was and only had to defend dribble and paint for 8 seconds, tops. They managed that without problem. As the game progressed from the late third into the fourth period, Toronto shots came from farther and farther outside. They began to wilt just as the Blazers got stronger.
Portland trailed 70-63 heading into the final frame but three-pointers (finally set up well and falling) plus a couple of solid Aldridge shots would bring them roaring back. 24 points in a quarter isn't much by Portland standards, but it felt like a get-rich gusher in this game. Meanwhile the Raptors found it hard to shift out of first gear after they'd established their pattern. Even when they initiated the offense earlier, they usually ended up with a slow-developing jumper. Their only quick and sure points came off of Portland turnovers which grew increasingly rare as the game progressed. The Blazers cut the lead to 4, 2, 1, then knotted it at 83 with 3:18 remaining on an Aldridge free throw. Toronto scored but the Blazers scored twice in quick succession, leaving Portland up 87-85 with 96 seconds remaining. Both defenses held strong until Amir Johnson hit a ridiculously-easy (given the circumstances) 5-footer with 4 seconds left to tie the game at 87. Lillard couldn't answer with a flying layup at the horn and we went to overtime.
Terrence Ross hit a three-pointer to open the extra period. The Blazers responded with not 1...not 2...but 3 "Oh no you didn't" triples of their own in successive possessions. Portland led by 6 with 2:49 remaining.
That's when the Raptors finally cleared the cobwebs and started penetrating again. They'd score 4 more buckets in the game, all of them layups. But they still couldn't hit the open jumpers necessary to bring them all the way back. Portland made their possession free throws and Freeland sealed it with a dunk with 6 seconds remaining after Toronto inexplicably failed to foul for possession down 3. 102-97 was the final score. It's a sure bet that nobody in the building felt safe with the win until that final buzzer sounded.
This was the first game in which the Blazers really, REALLY missed Robin Lopez. Freeland and Chris Kaman played well enough but nobody could seal off the interior to save their lives.
The Blazers managed to keep their heads above water on the boards, otherwise the game would have been a rout. The Raptors are a good offensive rebounding team. They grabbed 13 o-rebs but there was no consistency to their second-chance scoring. That's the one area where Portland at least did decently in the paint tonight. Otherwise it was pretty much...ouch.
Turnovers also hurt the Blazers...not so much in sheer numbers but in giving the Raptors free points in an otherwise low-scoring game. The Blazers weren't focused, weren't hustling, weren't getting to contested balls until the fourth period. Their late effort was enough, but barely. It's rare to see a team with more determination than the Blazers but the Raptors had it for most of the evening.
On that note...Portland's TV crew described the first three quarters as the Blazers "getting the shots they normally get but just missing them". This is the new-generation equivalent of Nate McMillan's "guys were scrapping out there". Sometimes it's true, but in this case not so much. The Raptors really got into the Blazers and deserve an enormous amount of credit. On Sunday we saw a New York Knicks team shading inside and throwing double teams, yet wholly unable to defend the arc as a result. The Raptors defended the lane, double-teamed smartly, and still got out to bother the Blazers on threes to the point that Portland's only relaxed jumpers came from 26 feet out. The Blazers made those (it's in the repertoire) but dang...this was as well as anybody has defended Portland all year.
Once again, though, we get to ask how far an opponent has to get the Blazers down before the game is over. We still haven't found an answer to that one. A 13-point lead is hardly a bottomless well but in this game it felt more like 26. Didn't matter. Portland came back. Again. At this point the Blazers are like John Wayne. If you shoot them, you better make sure they're dead. Then you better get Rick and Daryl to make sure they ain't getting up again anyway.
A non-matchup-specific item: Instant Replay makes the game crawl. Really crawl. Getting calls right is important but they never end up 100% correct anyway. Case in point, one of the officials tonight forgot and made the old, "I'm not calling a foul on you but I'm awarding possession to the other team because you did foul him" move. That worked before replay came into existence. Now that call gets overturned, but it can't be reversed into a foul retroactively. Even if the replay is infallible in its own bubble, it's impossible to use it infallibly.
As the season progresses I find myself not appreciating replay most times it's used. The problem is, the 15-20% of the time I do appreciate it are ultra-critical calls that couldn't be made without it. Since there's no way to differentiate between the two before the fact, I'm living with it. But it's not easy to see a tension-filled, but relatively slow, defensive battle like this one turned into an even longer (and thus less tension-filled) outing. Right or wrong, on most possessions I just want a call and the next play to ensue.
Fun With Numbers
--Neither team shot well tonight--40% on each side--but Toronto shot 4-22 on three-pointers and the Blazers 12-36,
--Only 2 Blazers shot above 45%: Aldridge and Matthews.
--Toronto doubled up Portland in the paint, 64-32.
--Toronto's bench is pretty good but tonight they shot only 8-27 as a group.
The Blazers appeared to want to ease LaMarcus Aldridge back into the rotation but they ended up needing everything he could give. That turned out to be 10-19 shooting, 23 points, and a game-high 13 rebounds. Once they fed him, he distracted enough defenders to allow the three-pointers to fall. Before that the guards suffered big time.
Wesley Matthews shot 50% (7-14 from the field, 5-10 from the arc) and added 6 rebounds to the 19 resulting points. He played the best of all the guards and small forwards tonight, which wasn't saying much on defense but still...
Damian Lillard had a rough night except when the Superman cape went on and he saved the world. 4-15 three-point shooting looks ugly but the Blazers needed every one of those makes. Lillard also had 9 assists and 2 blocks, the latter resulting from lots of opponents driving.
The stat line reads 13 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 steals for Nicolas Batum but he was OUT of it tonight. Messed up defense, bad passess, bad decisions...the steals and 2-5 long-range marksmanship make up for some of it, but not all. It was like he thought the game started at a different time.
The Raptors went right at Joel Freeland with Valanciunas early on. Getting beat up appeared to throw him. But Joel roared back mightily in the second half, using his body to bump the big man off of his spot, getting feisty for rebounds, and blocking shots. It was pretty impressive. 12 rebounds, 2 blocks in 32 minutes.
Chris Kaman had 10 points and 8 rebounds in 17 minutes...just about the only Blazer who seemed unaffected by Toronto's "D". Kaman wasn't the answer for Portland's defense either, though to be fair he didn't get much help.
Steve Blake had a hard time dealing with the Toronto guards and Dorell Wright missed 6 of 7 shots. CJ McCollum was in over his head and got whistled for 3 fouls in 5 minutes. None of the other young guards saw action.
The Blazers take on Atlanta on Saturday in their first game of the new year.
Our Instant Recap contains the usual reaction from around the web and plenty of celebration.
Raptors HQ will view this as a missed opportunity and a job well done at the same time.
Our In-Arena Report covers the tense moments from the Moda Center tonight.
And don't forget to check out all the latest from the Blazer's Edge Podcast.