The Portland Trail Blazers aren't expected to be Western Conference powerhouses. The Los Angeles Clippers very much are.
After retaining DeAndre Jordan by placing him on temporary house arrest to keep him from the clutches of Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks, then adding free agents Josh Smith, Paul Pierce, and Lance Stephenson, the Clippers are hoping to reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. So it may have been a bit of a shock for most fans (of either club) to tune into the Blazers/Clippers game early to see Los Angeles down 15 in the first half. Then 25. Then 35... still in the first half. But what happened next was even more unlikely.
While the Blazers opened the game facing a 6-1 deficit, the offense woke up after a few early threes by CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard. Easier shots followed, as the Blazers’ perimeter game opened up the middle, allowing Damian Lillard to slash, Mason Plumlee to dive, and McCollum to spin around the lane like a little girl in a field of daisies… if that little girl had handles and a deadly floater.
The Blazers’ run reached 20-0 before a Blake Griffin jumper stopped the bleeding for the Clippers, but the Blazers closed the quarter strong, as a McCollum fadeaway at the buzzer had Portland up 45-17 after one. Beyond just the deficit, the Los Angeles crowd was none too pleased that their entire team was nearly outscored by both McCollum (15) and Lillard (14) alone.
The second quarter saw some expected adjustments, but not before the Blazers’ new bigs showed what they can offer: Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh worked hard to alter shots and grab some very tough rebounds. And while Mason Plumlee isn’t known for his defensive chops, he’s nothing if not brave, going high and sacrificing his body to contest hard dunks by both DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, saving points on both plays while surrendering fouls.
While the Blazers’ energy sagged a bit and their lead was cut down, it's tough to be upset over having an 18-point halftime lead, even with the knowledge that they once led by 35.
Unfortunately, the Blazer's woes continued, as shot after shot and three after three clanged off. With their home crowd behind them, the Clippers got their groove back and then some. Even though Lillard had no problem getting to the rim and finishing at the rim (even squirming around DeAndre Jordan a few times), their three-point shooting went ice cold. Just as their perimeter offense opened up the paint in the first half, the closer shots dried up mighty quick in the second as the Blazers’ shooters failed to connect. Portland were lucky to be up 89-80 after three.
In the NBA, the fourth quarter can be a time for assessing, evaluating, and regrouping when a team's lead is slipping. Instead, the Blazers took the opportunity to change… nothing. And the results reflected it. With the Clippers getting handsy on defense and the Blazers relying on offensive rebounding just to tread water, 38-year-old Paul Pierce was thumbing through his AARP magazine when Clippers coach Doc Rivers called him into the game. Eyebrows raised, Pierce put down his magazine, dusted off his sneakers, and checked in, then rattled off three straight unanswered threes to pull the Clippers to within 1. Not even Damian Lillard and his 39 points could save the Blazers, as the Clippers completed the comeback and walked off the court winners, 115-109.
So what did we see tonight? While debates rage over the usefulness of taking much from preseason games, it’s all we have, dammit, so take from it we will.
We can take that Meyers Leonard, unfortunately, has not worked the timidness and hesitation from his system, especially on defense… at least not completely. One play in particular, in which Leonard got turned around and flailed his arms helplessly as he fouled DeAndre Jordan for the and-one, was especially troubling. But it doesn’t take away the major, noticeable strides he’s made over the years: it just means he has more work to do.
We can take that McCollum running the backup point isn't as far-fetched as it seemed just a year ago. He may have finished with sub-50% shooting and just 4 assists, but he looked comfortable most of the game, even while pressured, and his ability to take (and make) difficult shots is eclipsed only by Lillard.
And speaking of Lillard, we can definitely take that his 39-point, 30-shot performance won’t be a rarity, at least not this season and not with this roster. Nor will his 5 boards, 9 assists and 4 steals… and, alas, neither will his 8 turnovers. Lillard has the keys to the Trail Blazers’ car, and he’s gonna drive it. Fast.
We should also keep our eyes on the Blazers’ bigs, and while no one player had a monster rebounding game, there were stretches where second possessions from offensive rebounding was the only thing keeping the Blazers from bleeding out even faster in the second half.
It’s never fun to blow a 35-point lead, but at least we can say, for the last time this year, that the loss won’t matter, at all. The regular season starts soon. Let’s hope it plays out a little more like the first half of this game than the second.
Bonus fun fact: after trailing by 35 points, the Clippers shot 61% the rest of the way, and 11-18 from deep. During that same stretch, the Blazers shot 30% and 1-13 from deep. Ouch.
Moe Harkless suffered a right-ankle sprain tonight and left the game early; his status is unknown.
This ends the preseason on a sour note for the Blazers, but they have a few days to prepare for Wednesday's season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans.