Before we discuss today's Charlotte Hornets-Portland Trail Blazers game, Blazer's Edge would like to extend condolences to Nicolas Batum and French citizens everywhere after this week's horrific events in Paris. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their countrymen. Divisions between sports clubs and nations take a back seat to compassion at times like this. Our best to Mr. Batum and all of France.
There's an old saw in the NBA that afternoon games on the East Coast are difficult for Western Conference teams. The local time may read 5:00 p.m. but body clocks still chime 2:00 p.m. Pacific...just about time for a late breakfast for your average pro basketball player. The Portland Trail Blazers did nothing to disprove this today, getting so much egg on their faces in the first half that they could have served a buffet brunch. After watching the Charlotte Hornets amass 71 points in the first two quarters, the Blazers tightened up their defense considerably. By that time it was far too late. Charlotte cruised to a 106-94 victory as the Blazers endured their 5th consecutive loss.
Noah Vonleh started this game for Meyers Leonard, down with a shoulder injury suffered against the San Antonio Spurs last week. Though Vonleh showed distinct athleticism, his presence on the court was but a sidebar to the real stories of the first half:
1. Al-Farouq Aminu picked up a couple of early fouls and couldn't stay on the floor for more than 2 minutes at a time.
2. In his absence, Charlotte small forward Nicolas Batum went crazy against his former team, taking charge of scoring and playmaking in what would become a 33-point, 6 assist, 5 rebound performance that the Blazers were helpless to stop.
With Batum finding teammates via zip-line passes, Charlotte hailed threes on Portland with impunity in the first quarter. They'd hit 6 in the period, en route to 35 points. Damian Lillard played the entire quarter, scoring 8 to lead his team, but that was like fighting back the ocean with a garden hose. True to this season's form, the Blazers shot 52% in the period but allowed Charlotte 64%. The Hornets led 35-22 after 12 minutes of play.
After Batum and company softened up the Blazers in the opening period, Al Jefferson stomped into the lane to finish them off in the second. He ended up scoring 20 points in the first half, oblivious to any resistance the Blazers put up...which wasn't much. Portland collapsed entirely, unable to cover anyone beyond the initial pass or dribble. Every spot on the floor became the red zone for the Hornets. Lillard scored more, to no real benefit. Charlotte followed up their 35-point first with a 36-point second and led 71-45 at the half.
If you'd like to hear pretty tales about the Blazers closing the gap in the second half, you'll need to read elsewhere. Portland showed promising signs. They forced turnovers. They grabbed offensive boards. Vonleh made a couple of nice offensive moves and Lillard continued to score. Portland cut a 29-point deficit to single digits in the fourth. But the Hornets were barely playing by that point. They spent the third quarter and half of the fourth milking the clock like it was a porcupine, which is to say barely at all, jacking up wild shots in an unspoken free-for-all. When the Blazers finally closed the gap to 6 with 3:00 remaining, Charlotte woke up, scored on three straight possessions, then ran out the clock for the easy double-digit win.
There's only one real story to this game. Any team that plays defense that badly is going to lose 11 times out of 10. Saying anything else is putting lipstick on a pig. No amount of shooting, scoring, hope, or promise will dig a team out of 70-point halves.
That said, the Blazers finally showed some of their potential in the third and fourth periods...potential not just missing from this game, but for much of the season. Take-aways and offensive rebounds were supposed to be strengths for this team. Instead the Blazers have turned out mediocre on the offensive glass and sit near the bottom of the league in turnovers forced. They punished the Hornets in both areas in the second half.
Portland also showed the ability to score in the paint this game. Jump-shot-dominant offense gave way gradually to more nuanced play as the game evolved. Backcourt players still took 63% of Portland's field goal attempts, but when they did get a chance, Portland's big men looked more secure and professional in their offensive moves than normal.
The Blazers shot well at the foul line, 19-21. They made up for it by faltering from the three-point arc, firing a paltry 5-21, 24%. Three-pointers are still good shots for this year's Blazers, but they're not bankable.
The enduring memory from this game will be the veteran Batum, jaw set and eyes afire, showing Portland's younger players what basketball really looks like. He didn't embarrass them as much as surgically carve them apart. It was a microcosm of the early season's recurring themes: The Blazers aren't what they were. Not every team takes advantage of them, but teams that really want to probably can.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum fall under the same heading tonight. Both carried the team through brilliant 2-3 minute offensive stretches. Both scored well in aggregate, Lillard netting 23 and McCollum 16. But at the end of the evening Lillard attempts 25 attempts to get his numbers, McCollum 18, neither averaging a point per shot. Whether Lillard's 1-9 performance from the arc or McCollum's 5-18 overall clip ended up hurting the team worse is up to debate. Adding insult to injury: Lillard's 5 turnovers equaled his 5 assists. When team leaders are performing like that, the team's not going anywhere. Every single reference to Lillard and McCollum as "one of the highest-scoring duos in the league" should come with a footnote to that effect.
Mason Plumlee was all over the floor in the second half, stacking up 13 total rebounds, 7 offensive, in 24 minutes. Neither he nor any of his teammates intimidated opposing scorers more than a gnat intimidates an elephant. Neither are the Blazers able to make use of Plumlee's superior quickness down the floor when the other team is scoring on more than half of their possessions.
Al-Farouq Aminu ended up playing 22 minutes after no-showing the first half with instant fouls. His presence bolstered the defense but it was a frustrating outing.
Noah Vonleh showed an impressive dribble-drive scoring attack from the perimeter but that's not going to wash unless he can hit the face-up jumper from out there as well. His post moves look more dominant at this point and the Blazers might want to make use of him down low if he continues to start for Leonard. He shot 3-6 for 9 points and 6 rebounds in 24 minutes, adding 2 turnovers and 3 personal fouls. He's still not acclimated to Portland's defensive schemes and it shows.
Ed Davis played an almost-impressive 22 minutes with 6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal, and a block, marred by his 6 personal fouls. One wonders how he feels about Vonleh getting he starting nod at power forward.
Allen Crabbe registered the only impressive offensive performance on Portland's side, shooting 8-11 for 17 points in "Good Crabbe" mode. (Bad Crabbe mode would be 3-11; that happens too.) But Crabbe is not helping a bit on defense and the Blazers really need help with defense in their backcourt.
Moe Harkless has become the Invisible Man the last couple weeks. He played 21 minutes and barely registered a memorable moment.
Gerald Henderson played a nightmare 7 minutes during which he committed 2 turnovers and Charlotte outscored the Blazers by 15. That wasn't hit fault exactly, but still...
Cliff Alexander got his first NBA playing time this evening, logging 17 minutes and hitting 2 of 4 shots with 4 rebounds. Welcome to the league!
Links and Notes
Believe me, you don't want to hear any more about this outing. Here are the basics:
At The Hive will love the way this game went.
The Blazers play the San Antonio Spurs tomorrow night at 5:30 p.m. Pacific.