The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers put on a display of playoff-level basketball tonight in the Moda Center. The game had everything you'd want from a Western-Conference showdown: big stars shining, great plays, fast tempo, and neither team led by double-digits at any point in the contest. The only item missing (presuming you're a Blazers fan) was the victory. Though Portland showed signs of pulling their come-from-behind devastation move on L.A. in the fourth period, the veteran Clippers were wise to them and refused to let it happen. The resulting 100-94 loss wasn't satisfying--no defeat can be described so--but it was an interesting display of the type of challenge that lies ahead for the Blazers if they hope to win the conference crown.
The Clippers served notice early that they were taking this game seriously, entering the game with a pitch-perfect plan to run Portland's slower big men off the floor. LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't been spry the last few weeks and Chris Kaman is more pickup truck than hot rod. The Clippers made 5 buckets in the first 4:30 of this game. J.J. Redick accounted for 1. The other 4 were DeAndre Jordan working his way around the rim before the Blazers could catch up. He scored twice after Portland makes by streaking down the court faster than anybody else. He also scored off an offensive rebound and a turnover. Portland patched the Jordan leak fairly quickly, but the Clippers knew exactly who they were playing against and it showed.
The middle quarters of the game ebbed and flowed based on minor trends. Kaman dominated the Clippers bench in a way he couldn't manage against the starters. Portland failed to get out and cover the three early in the second half and let the Clips gain momentum. But those provided contrapuntal texture to the two main themes:
1. Further demonstrating their knowledge of the Blazers (and late-vintage Skylanders releases) the Clippers went Trap Team on Damian Lillard for most of the game. Throughout the season we've talked in general terms about Portland's guards being vulnerable to pressure. L.A. narrowed that down to a single guard--the most important one--and cranked the vise until it hurt. On Portland screens they used their bigs to throw up a hedge so thick that even Terminator Homer couldn't get through. Damian couldn't pass, couldn't shoot...mostly he ended up retreating. Often they pinched in on him, not caring if they rode him back to halfcourt as long as he didn't see any daylight. When you see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin bum rushing Lillard toward the time stripe while their teammates defend 3-on-4 you think, "That shouldn't work." But it did. Damian ended up scoring exactly 3 points in the first 3 periods. Not 3 points each quarter, 3 points total.
2. Point #1 almost didn't matter because coverage choices left the Clips 1-on-1 (at best) against LaMarcus Aldridge and he made them pay like a jilted loan shark. LaMarcus would score 37 in this game, shooting 14-28 with 4 offensive rebounds to his credit. He was masterful and the Clippers barely survived him even with Lillard sewn up in a sock.
The resulting back-and-forth left the teams knotted at 72 headed into the fourth period. At that point everybody in the stadium knew what time it was.
While checking out the game clips on those shiny iPad Air2's the Blazers sport on the bench, Damian Lillard said, "Siri? Set an alarm for 8:00 left to go in the fourth quarter. It's Lillard Time."
To which Siri replied, "I found a lot of pet stores quite far from you. Let me know if you want to hear the whole list.'"
To which Dame replied, "Nevermind. I'll do it my own damn self."
And he did.
Lillard would score 9 points in 3 minutes with his usual death-defying shot selection. For those counting, that's 3 points in 3 entire quarters, then 9 points in less than the time it takes to get a latte at Starbucks.
It looked like things were going to swing Portland's way, except that the Blazers couldn't defend during that span. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul combined for 10 points even as Lillard was scoring his 9. Plus "Lillard Time" by nature precluded "Aldridge Time"...Portland's formula for success during the other 45 minutes of the game. After scoring 35 points in the first 36 minutes, LaMarcus would attempt only 2 shots the entire fourth period. When the Clippers finally got a hold on Lillard, Portland had no safety valve. Aldridge never touched the ball. L.A.'s supporting cast hit a couple shots and Portland's didn't. The Clippers defense held a little better than the Blazers'. The result was a 6-point loss...harsh, but fair.
The defeat itself is indicative of little. The Blazers have played too well, conquering too many excellent opponents, for this to be any kind of stain or harbinger. You can't win them. Tonight the Blazers didn't.
The scheme the Clippers employed against Lillard may become a lingering ghost, though. Not every team has the chops to make it work. With a little better preparation the Blazers can deal with it better. But Doc Rivers knew where to hit Portland and exposed a vulnerability for the rest of the league. You can bet opposing coaches will be running back that game tape. It's hard to imagine Portland's machine-like offense getting derailed for lack of dealing with a pretty basic screen-and-roll defensive technique. On the other hand, this isn't a new weakness. In the best-case scenario the Blazers don't have to face that kind of pressure much during the regular season, but they're going to see it again at some point in the playoffs. Stay tuned.
It's worth noting that turnovers also played a part in this game. The Blazers committed only 12 but the Clippers scored 19 points following (compared to only 7 TO's forced and 7 points scored after for the Blazers). This buoyed L.A.'s 14-2 fast break advantage as well. Interestingly enough, L.A. scored only 24 points in the paint tonight. They were happy to take the mid-range shots the Blazers gave them. Portland only got into trouble a couple times when they interpreted, "We're OK with the Clippers shooting from the middle ground" as, "We're not going to defend anything beyond 15 feet if they pass the ball more than once." At that point L.A.'s three-point shooting became devastating. But those moments were brief.
LaMarcus Aldridge had another one of those "More than MVP" outings. I've written about this team for nearly a decade now. I don't even know how to describe what he's doing out there other than saying, "You'd better watch, because this is as awesome as anything you're going to see."
Damian Lillard ended up shooting 5-16 overall but a very nice 4-9 in the all-important three-point category. He scored 15. The Clippers kept him to 4 assists against 3 turnovers. Factor in a little sloppiness getting around screens as a defender and this wasn't a great night for Dame.
Wesley Matthews couldn't provide much of an outlet with his jumper tonight, taking a serious bite out of Portland's offensive power. Matthews shot 3-13, 2-8 from distance, scoring 8. He appeared most comfortable in the post against less powerful Clippers shooting guards but L.A. was going to let him beat them from that position all night long.
Chris Kaman had an impressive stat line at 15 points on 7-11 shooting with 11 rebounds but he had a bad matchup against Jordan and never ended up looking as good as his numbers. It's hard to say "it was a bad night" with that kind of production but....it was kind of a bad night.
Speaking of bad nights, we might be able to start a game show called, "What Is Nic Batum Doing?" We'll give him 6 assists and 5 rebounds but he had some ghastly turnovers, even more ghastly-looking three-point attempts (firing back-to-back airballs at one point, after which he just stopped shooting altogether) and even blew a critical defensive assignment late. If Batum is going to look like this after playing year-around basketball for a couple years straight, he needs to take a summer off.
Only 3 guys made it off Portland's bench tonight. Meyers Leonard--a.k.a. "The Mid Ranger"--was the superstar. All he needed was a mask and one of those ponies on a stick. He wafted a bouquet of open jump shots under the noses of the Clippers and used the resulting energy to drive him to 10 rebounds and 3 assists to go along with his 4-7 shooting and 11 points. Granted, those numbers come in 31 minutes of play, but for Meyers this was spectacular. The best thing about his game right now is the lack of hesitation. We've waited a long time for Leonard to even see a proper play, let alone see a play, make a play like good players do. He made plenty of plays tonight.
Steve Blake had 5 assists and 2 turnovers in 20 minutes, CJ McCollum 3 assists and 1-5 shooting in 18 minutes. Between them they scored 4 points.
The Blazers now jump out of the frying pan and into a nuclear reactor, heading to Texas to take on the San Antonio Spurs on Friday followed by a tilt with the Memphis Grizzlies in Western-Conference hotbed Tennessee on Saturday. That's a heck of a back-to-back.
Let's end with a humorous note. In the usual pre-fourth-quarter coaches interview ESPN's sideline reporter referenced Damian Lillard's 3-point performance in the first 3 periods, put a microphone in Terry Stotts' face, and asked him how he was going to get his star point guard to produce in the fourth quarter. She might as well have asked a Pompeiian how he was going to get Vesuvius to erupt. The look Stotts gave her was...priceless. To his credit, he managed to suppress a chuckled and answered the question straight.
Our Instant Recap talks more about game flow and reaction from around the universe to Portland's loss.
Clips Nation should be pretty happy about this victory, as they haven't gotten to write about many quality road wins this year.
Don't miss the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast, during which Phil Naessens and I wax poetic about Meyers Leonard even before tonight's performance.