With the Portland Trail Blazers coming off their 3rd game in 4 nights, playing the second night of a home-away back-to-back, tonight's contest versus the Los Angeles Lakers wasn't earmarked as a highlight-reel effort. The Blazers sported 29 wins coming into the game, the Lakers but 12. It was no surprise, then, when the first three quarters ended up a cat-and-mouse affair during which the Blazers played with middling effort and distracted execution. But even on their sub-par nights, this team serves up something special. The maxim held true again this evening, as Damian Lillard violated the "no highlight reel" rule something fierce, carrying his team to a cascade of fourth-quarter goodness and a 106-94 victory.
The less you hear about the first three quarters of this game the better off you'll be. Portland played Trail Blazy, ignoring Coach Stotts' pleas to push the ball in all but the most obvious situations, content to hang around with the Lakers in an exhibition of rat ball. Portland and L.A. traded decent shots and less-than-decent defense. Things went poorly when the Lakers dominated the Blazers in second-chance points. Wesley Johnson added fuel to the fire, scoring at will in the first half. Carlos Boozer made a Meyers Leonard-shaped doily and drank his tea off of it. Saving graces for Portland proved sparse:
--Nick Young shot like a blind man in a tornado.
--Jordan Hill wasn't lighting up the scoreboard like he did in last week's meeting between these two teams.
--Even though their passing seemed a tick off, the Blazers took care of the ball, limiting easy buckets for L.A.
Those slim threads were enough to give Portland a 72-69 lead heading into the fourth quarter. That's when all heck broke loose.
As the period opened, Young carried his team to a 75-75 tie with a couple layups and free throws. Then Leonard and Steve Blake hit threes to spread L.A.'s defense. With the floor wide open, the gong sounded for Lillard Time.
Damian's reign of terror started when an impossibly long three-pointer put the Blazers up by 6 at the 8:14 mark. It climaxed with a thunderous dunk to put Portland ahead by 8 with 1:04 remaining. Then Dame salted in a long two and another three in the final minute, pushing his fourth-quarter contribution to 17 points and his game-high scoring total to 34. Dropping Dairy Queen off the Eiffel Tower wouldn't create a blizzard with that kind of splatter effect. Shock and resignation mingled on the faces of the Lakers' players as they wiped Lillard's residual sweat off of their jerseys. The Staples Center crowd was all but forced to give Portland's point guard an ovation. If the world ran on justice they'd have been tapping their smart phones on the way out of the building, hastily retracting their All-Star votes for Kobe Bryant and bestowing them on Lillard instead.
Thanks to Damian, a pulse-free 36 minutes of play swelled into a memorable crescendo during the last 12 and Portland walked away with yet another win.
In case you're not counting, the Blazers now own a 30-8 record, 12-5 on the road. They've now eclipsed last year's 29-9 start. The absolute worst they can finish at the halfway mark of the season is 30-11, on pace for 60 wins.
That is remarkable.
During a weekend interview on the East Coast I was asked if the Blazers were legit or playing above their heads, with the record outstripping their level of play. I answered candidly. Last year I said 29-9 was a bit above their level of play. This year 30-8 is rock solid. You can count the number of bad games the Blazers have played this year on 2-3 fingers. This is only the third time in franchise history I've seen this level of excellence: 1977-1978, 1989-1992, and right now. They may not get to 60 wins (the schedule gets tough) but they're inhaling rarefied air and showing few signs of descent. Even ugly games are worth taking note of. If you're not paying attention to this team, it's time to start.
Besides Lillard's 13-23, 34-point performance we also saw Chris Kaman grab 12 rebounds, Wesley Matthews and Steve Blake can 6 three-pointers between them, and Meyers Leonard score 10 on 4-5 shooting to almost make up for his little Boozer problem (13 points on 6-8 shooting for Carlos tonight). LaMarcus Aldridge and Kaman had rough shooting nights. Thomas Robinson contributed his usual 4 rebounds with 2 fouls. The Blazers shot only 65% from the line. But it hardly mattered. One superstar performance, 42% three-point shooting, plus some old-fashioned Blazers mojo carried the day. Nothing to complain about there.
Portland faces three semi-nasty games this week, hosting the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday before traveling to meet the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies in a back-to-back next weekend. But there's time enough to worry about that later. Right now a 79% win rate, the second best record and point differential in the NBA, and the capacity to win just about any type of game while relying on multiple combinations of players merit nothing but the heartiest applause. Enjoy this, Blazers fans. Your team is something special.
Our Instant Recap includes post-game reaction from around the web, as usual.
Silver Screen and Roll's reaction to this game probably went something like, "Yes...yes...yes...YES...hold onto it... hold on....... NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!" I'm OK with that because, you know...Lakers.