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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Damian Lillard Goes Supernova

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Damian Lillard dismantles a plucky Lakers squad, giving the Blazers a narrow, but welcome, victory.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

After losing to the Atlanta Hawks in their last game in the Moda Center, you'd think the Portland Trail Blazers would come out with all cannons firing for this relatively simple home matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.

You'd have thought wrong.

Instead of wiping the Lakers off their sneakers like errant slush tracked in from the cold, the Blazers played around with L.A.. Portland even earned their customary double-digit deficit before rallying for a 98-94 victory that remained undecided until the final seconds of the game. As wins go, it was somewhat unsatisfying. Then again, unsatisfying wins against the Lakers count just as much as brilliant triumphs over the San Antonio Spurs.

Chris Kaman started tonight in place of the injured Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland. The Blazers felt the absence of their regulars keenly. From the opening tip and through most of the game, the Lakers rebounded right along with the best rebounding team in the league...sometimes through or over them, even. With Portland's grasp on the boards shaky, every possession felt like a gamble.

The Lakers didn't play particularly well on either end of the court but the Blazers couldn't play better. Nor could they mask their lack of success by getting up more attempts than the opponent. The resulting game flow looked like this:

First Quarter

The Blazers play kind of crappy but Damian Lillard keys an end of quarter run.

Second Quarter

The Blazers play kind of crappy again but Damian Lillard keys an end of quarter run with help from a couple three-point shooters.

Third Quarter

The Blazers play kind of crappy but Damian Lillard keys an end of quarter run.

Fourth Quarter

The Blazers play kind of crappy but Damian Lillard keys the mother of all end of quarter runs, blasting out 16 of Portland's final 21 points.

Fun Stat: Between them Aldridge and Kaman played 63 minutes, scored 29 points, and grabbed 19 rebounds. Lakers center Jordan Hill played 32 minutes, scored 23, and grabbed 14 rebounds.

Fun Stat #2:  Lakers guards Ronnie Price, Jeremy Lin, Wayne Ellington, and Nick Young played 104 total minutes, scoring a combined 49 points. Lillard played 39 minutes and scored 39 all by his lonesome.

39 points from Lillard on a night when his teammates shot a combined 21-62 turned out to be enough for the win...barely. The sight must have looked familiar to Lakers fans; Kobe Bryant didn't make the trip to Portland but Lillard's heroism filled in admirably.

Nevertheless, if this is what the near-term future looks like without Lopez and Freeland, the outlook is bleak. Not only could the Blazers not rebound with their usual ferocity, their defense suffered. The Lakers picked on Lillard and Meyers Leonard and Portland couldn't muster backup defenders to save their sets. L.A. drew Chris Kaman out into ineffective territory with jump shooters. The Blazers missed the hard-nosed, space-eating, shut-up-and-do-your-work approach that their usual centers bring. Leonard and Kaman couldn't muster it. Thomas Robinson couldn't keep in defensive position or out of foul trouble enough to make his blue-collar work pay off. The Blazers have played the rare bad game this season, but never have their systematic weaknesses been so on display. If the Lakers weren't one of the more random teams in the league, the outcome could have turned out much worse.

Randomness aside, the Lakers did manage to keep LaMarcus Aldridge double-teamed and Wesley Matthews under wraps for most of the evening. As is becoming habit for Portland's opponents, L.A. sent quick help every time a Blazer entered the post. Aldridge and Matthews ended up passing the ball in response; Kaman turned it over. The Aldridge catch-and-shoot was the only non-Lillard standard option working tonight. Anything Aldridge did with the ball ended in failure.

Matthews' 1-9 shooting performance may have been aided by a scary fall and knee-grab early in the first period. He went to the locker room but returned later in the quarter. Lingering effects would be unwelcome, as Aldridge looked as slow tonight as he has all year. He wasn't getting up and down the floor, managed only 8 rebounds, and shot 8-20. The Blazers can't afford more lingering injuries. Their margin is too thin as it is.

When they weren't fainting in awe of Lillard's performance, Blazers fans beheld Leonard making his bid for the game ball and more minutes in Portland's "Emergency Big-Man Replacement" project. Outplaying Kaman and Robinson handily, Leonard earned all the crunch-time minutes as the Blazers put this game away. His major distinctions were two:

1. With 9:36 left in the fourth period and Portland down 76-70, Carlos Boozer pushed Leonard on a coffin-corner three. Leonard's shot swished clean through the net and he completed the and-one for the ultra-rare Meyers Leonard 4-Point Play. Boozer gave his best, "What manner of sorcery is this?" look but the play stood anyway. Leonard's triple quadruple brought the house down, closing the gap to 2 points and igniting a fire in Young Meyers that was both comical and effective. Which led to...

2. All of a sudden Leonard was under the rim on every play, grabbing rebounds and swinging elbows like he was The Incredible Hulk. He didn't bulk up or anything. It was as if Bruce Banner grew to 7-feet, stayed skinny, and forgot to turn green but kept the Hulk attitude anyway. THIS IS MEYERS' BALL. YOU NO TOUCH!

(And yes, you've got to pronounce that apostrophe fully to get the right combo of goofy and aggressive.)

Leonard's 4 point symphony provided the only points in the fourth not scored by Lillard or Aldridge. His rebounding total soared to a team-high 12 for the game. He finished with 12 points as well. Meyers will be forgotten in Lillard's blinding glare, but he was a big part of the turn-around that led to victory.

The Blazers will face the Miami Heat on Thursday. A single game against the wacky Lakers isn't enough to pass judgment on. We'll need to watch closely to see how the Blazers' big men operate against a more experienced frontcourt. Cross your fingers.

Boxscore

Our Instant Recap will talk more about the flow of this game plus in-game quotes from our GameDay Discussion Thread and nation-wide reaction around the web.

Silver Screen and Roll gives you the Lakers perspective on the game.

Check out Peter Sampson's In-Arena Report, covering all the frustrations and joys of coming close to losing to the Lakers but ultimately winning because your star player is cheesecake-filled-doughnut-level great.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard @Blazersedge