The Portland Trail Blazers entered their game against the Los Angeles Clippers tonight with something to prove. The only topic of discussion this week was their ever-increasing losing streak. Questioning them became a cottage industry. "Does this team have enough heart? Does this team have any brains? Does this team have the courage to make it through weeks like this without falling apart?" The streak continued to grow...5, 6, 7 games, a wicked witch holding them captive, cackling and marking the minutes until doomsday.
Tonight's events turned all that around. Ed Davis turned the game by becoming a one-man whirlwind on the offensive glass. Then Damian Lillard brought the house down in the fourth quarter, sinking three-pointer after three-pointer until every Munchkin in the place knew that witch was dead...not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead. When the final horn sounded the Trail Blazers finally got the flying monkey off their back as the Portland faithful stood in appreciation of a much-needed 102-91 victory.
Tonight's first period became a feeling-out process for both teams. The Clippers clearly planned to shoot long-range, taking advantage of Portland's poor close-outs. But the Blazers pulled a fast one on them, contesting outside shots like a team that actually cared about defense. As a result the Clippers ended up running screens to set up mid-range shots, which they hit fairly regularly. On the other end of the floor the Blazers missed their own perimeter jumpers, most of them far more open than L.A.'s attempts. The Clippers took a shaky 13-9 lead past the midway point of the first..
As the period closed, L.A. got a little smarter, driving the ball to the rack or feeding their big men near the rim. This netted them easy points and freed up the three-point arc as well. But Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum answered back, thrusting talent at the opponent when execution failed. The teams left the first tied at 23.
The second period featured some of the most Ed Davis basketball we've seen from Ed Davis all season long. Finally the guy who was supposed to revolutionize Portland's inside attack showed up to play. Throughout the second quarter Davis singlehandedly brutalized the Clippers with offensive rebounds and high-quality stick-backs. The Blazers would attack the rim, draw defensive attention, and throw the ball in the air. Davis would take advantage by converting the resulting missed shot into easy points. Portland weathered a Jamal Crawford storm and 60% shooting by the Clips in the first half overall solely because Davis spun all their mistakes into gold. The Blazers led 48-47 at the half.
If the Clippers intended to send a message at the start of the third quarter, it got lost in the mail. They began the period by playing atrocious defense, allowing Portland to push the lead to 10 at the 6:00 mark. Their permissiveness had an important side-effect. Lillard had been shooting poorly from the perimeter all game long, but L.A. allowed him enough space to get rhythm on a couple shots. It only amounted to 5 points in the third, but the best was yet to come.
The Blazers being the Blazers, they weren't satisfied until they gave back every stitch of their double-digit lead. Crawford and Chris Paul led the charge as L.A. scored 20 points in the final 6:00 of the third period. Portland led 75-73 heading down the stretch.
The Clippers guards led out in the fourth, as Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Crawford all scored. But Davis was having none of that. He converted another offensive rebound, a layup, and a pair of free throws to keep the Clippers at bay. Still, Portland's lead sat at a precarious two points, 87-85, with just under four minutes to play...not exactly a confident position given the circumstances.
When the Blazers need a shot of confidence, they look to one man. With the game on the line, the clock ticking down, and the lead narrow, Damian Lillard took over, hitting a trio of three-pointers and assisting on a Mason Plumlee conventional three-point play. In 1 minute, 45 seconds of game time Portland's lead went from 2 points to 13. Portland's defense closed out the game in satisfactory fashion, forcing the L.A. into more turnovers than made shots, and the smiling Blazers embarked on a brand-new one-game winning streak.
Tonight the world finally saw the Blazers team we'd expected to show up this season...at least at some point. We've seen flashes of good play from Portland but this was the first game in which they put multiple strengths together and sustained them throughout.
Three factors defined the performance:
1. Lillard got over whatever thumb-related awkwardness he's been feeling on his jump shot and sank 4 of 10 triples.
2. Davis manhandled the Clippers for 10 offensive rebounds, leading his team to a 17-10 advantage overall.
3. Portland didn't play perfect defense, but their starters showed real effort, particularly at the opening and closing of the game. A few layups aside, no matter where they went, the Clippers found their shots contested.
Beyond that, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee, two players we talked about in the weekday edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast, looked far more effective on defense tonight because their teammates controlled the space around them better. If you give either player a reasonable assignment and reasonable territory to cover, their athleticism plays dividends.
Portland outscored the Clippers 48-40 in the lane. Not only is that a high tally by Portland standards, their defense actually let them carve out an advantage.
The Clippers will claim back-to-back games, road travel, and the season being young as excuses for their loss and some of the lethargy evidenced within. Fair enough. It was still nice to see the Blazers taking advantage of their strengths for once instead of bowing to the opponent's.
Damian Lillard scored 27 tonight and CJ McCollum 18. Each shot around 40% but it didn't matter because the Blazers also scored in the lane, keeping the defense guessing and allowing the ball and players to move freely. Lillard's and McCollum's attempts came within the flow of the offense tonight. Plus their counterparts for the Clippers shot only 7-24 combined. Shot selection played into that total but Portland's defense--including the backcourt defense--wasn't completely awful. That's progress.
Al-Farouq Aminu shot only 4-13 but made up for it with 12 rebounds, 2 monster blocks, a couple of three-pointers, and a whole lot of good defense. He shone on the defensive end tonight.
Mason Plumlee shone correspondingly on offense, showing off a couple of post moves and some nifty dives to the basket. He scored 18 off 6-9 shooting from the field and foul line both. Plumlee also grabbed 4 offensive rebounds and 10 total, roughly double his total from recent games.
Noah Vonleh started and played 18 minutes. He had 3 rebounds and a steal but a couple of turnovers as well.
Ed Davis made Vonleh and every other power forward within a thousand-mile radius an afterthought tonight. He came off the bench for 17 points off of 7-8 shooting plus 15 rebounds. Even more than Lillard, Davis was the hero of this game.
Allen Crabbe played 22 minutes and scored 3 points. He is bad at defense.
Gerald Henderson played 26 minutes and shot 1-9 from the field. At least that one hit came during the fourth period when the Blazers needed it most. But yeah, he's looking ouchy out there.
Moe Harkless dropped to the bottom slot in the playing rotation with 7 minutes registered, but Crabbe will have to shoot well to keep his place secure. Harkless will be back.
Cliff Alexander got 2 rebounds in 3 minutes, leaving his per-36 rebounding number for the evening at 24. Superstar.
Links and Notes
Clips Nation will shrug this off as meaningless. It meant something in Portland though.
The Blazers face the Mighty (Bad) Los Angeles Lakers in Staples Center on Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. Pacific.
There's no better way of celebrating an amazing victory than helping to send 2000 underprivileged young folks and their chaperons to the Blazers-Kings game on March 28th. It's easy to do. Tickets are automatically donated when you purchase them through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range through three levels: $7, $9, and $13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966 if you'd like to order that way. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.