The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Boston Celtics 90-89 tonight, dropping their record to 31-13 overall, 19-5 at home. It marks Portland's 3rd loss to an Eastern Conference team the season. While it wasn't the most indicative, it was certainly one of the more painful.
Prior to the game, news broke that LaMarcus Aldridge will require surgery for a torn thumb ligament and is expected to miss the next 6-8 weeks. That was the most shocking event of the day.
Early in the 3rd quarter Nicolas Batum aggravated a wrist injury and had to leave the game. His status at this time is unknown. The latest reports have him unable to put weight on the wrist. He'll have an MRI tomorrow. If recent history is any indication, we'll find out the results of that sometime around August. This was the second most shocking event of the day.
Understanding the limbo the team's walking through right now, a loss--even to the 14-26 Celtics--hardly registers on the shock-o-meter. For those counting, the Blazers are now missing their starting center, power forward, small forward, and their second-best reserve big off the bench. Like Curley, Chris Kaman is encasing his hands in Vaseline-filled gloves...at least until the chainmail gauntlets arrive from Under Armour.
All things considered, the Blazers played pretty well in this game...at least by their new, injury-riddled standards. The game was close throughout, neither team escaping from the other. Portland held a slight edge in rebounding, a large one in turnovers and free throws. The Blazers stayed even in the paint and on the break. Their defense was mostly adequate. Boston scored exactly 23 in every quarter except the 2nd, when they scored 21.
On the other hand, that means the Blazers stayed even with, and couldn't escape, a team that never topped 23 points in a quarter.
Once again guard play turned out to be a major culprit. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews scored 21 and 18 respectively. Each shot well from the arc, Lillard 2-5 and Matthews 4-8. But overall they shot poorly, hitting just 14 of 38 shots between them, managing only 6 free throw attempts combined. Absent any frontcourt threats, the Celtics felt free to hound Portland's guards every time they touched the ball. Boston spent the entire first half driving Matthews off of the arc with double-teams, resulting in a 1-10 three-point clip for the Blazers in the opening 2 quarters. Portland got more creative, and more open, in the second half, but the guards never got comfortable for long.
On the other end Avery Bradley torched the Blazers in the second half, finishing with an 8-16 mark from the field and 18 points to keep Boston in the game. Marcus Thornton and Evan Turner also did well. Portland's bigger defenders couldn't offer much help when a Celtics guard popped free off a screen because they had Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass to deal with. Sullinger couldn't find his stroke from range but both forwards ended up bullying the Blazers from mid-range and in. Even Boston's modest attack took effort to stop. Meanwhile the Celtics expended less, having to contain only 2.5 players on a given possession instead of 4-5.
As the game wore on Portland's imbalance--both internal and external--started to tell. They shot only 37%, managed only 16 assists, hit 32% of their three-pointers. Every time you pulled the dipstick out they were a quart low. Lillard and Matthews keyed a magnificent run in the 3rd quarter as Portland scored 30. But Bradley and Sullinger kept the Celtics close anyway. By the time the 4th period came, the Blazers couldn't conjure enough mojo to keep the Celtics at bay. They looked tired. They had too little rebounding, transition defense, guard defense, and lane defense. It was Lillard and Matthews versus the world as Portland tried to cling to the game.
They almost managed it as well, except the last thing they had too little of was luck.
The Blazers led 89-87 with 26 seconds remaining after a Thomas Robinson offensive rebound resulted in a pair of free throws, of which Robinson made 1. Down 2 with a single possession remaining, the Celtics missed a three, then Sullinger grabbed his own miss. The Blazers had him trapped on the sideline but Boston managed a timeout. Portland again played impressive defense, forcing Sullinger to bobble the ball in the lane. It sprayed loose. With the clock ticking towards 0:00 bodies hit the floor scrambling to recover. Sullinger managed to retrieve while prone, twisted and sat up, then found Turner in the deep corner all alone (as everyone from Portland was collapsing on the dribble and fumble). Turner lined up the three and hit it with 1 second remaining, leaving the Celtics ahead 90-89.
The Blazers had 2 tries at the final inbounds pass for the miracle game-winner. Both times the Celtics knew exactly who they should guard. (Hint: It wasn't Aldridge because he wasn't there. Nor was it any of his replacements.) Lillard eventually caught the ball but he was 38 feet from the bucket and so well covered he couldn't get off a shot. The ballgame ended with the Celtics celebrating and Blazers fans shaking their heads like, "That figures."
With just a little bit more--a rebound, a tip-away, a free throw, the lack of a seated pass for a corner three after a good defensive stand, or hey...ANY STARTING FRONTCOURT PLAYER, PICK ONE--the Blazers would have emerged victorious in this game. As it was, lady luck jumping over to the Celtics side after so many long, delirious nights in Lillard's arms was just the last, predictable slap in the face. What are you going to do? Dames are fickle.
This is what it feels like to be Portland's opponent under normal circumstances. It kind of...hurts.
But hey, the news wasn't all bad tonight. Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, Meyers Leonard, Dorell Wright, and CJ McCollum all had strong outings, each in their own way. Nobody played perfectly, but this was one of the best group efforts we've seen out of the bench (and the nominally-starting Robinson) in a long time. It's like they knew what was at stake and who had to step up. Will Barton had a neutral outing. Steve Blake didn't look great on either end. Chris Kaman did well enough with 9 rebounds and 13 points on 6-11 shooting. Batum was 0-6 from the field but had 4 assists before he headed to the locker room.
The Blazers have a day off before facing the Washington Wizards on Saturday. We'll bring you more updates on Batum's status as they emerge.
CelticsBlog will enjoy the evening much more than any of us will.