The Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls walk in different NBA circles. The Bulls sit within a couple games of the lead position in the Eastern Conference. They're expected to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for the conference crown and an NBA Finals bid. The Trail Blazers stand within a couple games of the Western Conference cellar. They're expected to challenge the entire league for the right to draft LSU forward Ben Simmons, carrying a bucket of ping-pong balls into the 2016 NBA Lottery.
You wouldn't have known the difference when the two matched up tonight.
Though the Bulls won this contest 93-88, the Blazers put in one of their most focused and complete efforts of the season, making life tough for Chicago's powerful backcourt and keeping the Bulls within range down to the final seconds of regulation. Portland's lack of height and a few missed shots sent the game Chicago's way, but the Blazers have nothing to hang their heads about.
Noah Vonleh started at power forward once again tonight. Portland made a concerted effort to get him going early, running the first two plays of the game for him. Vonleh responded by hitting 1 of 3 shots and collecting 3 personal fouls in the first 4 minutes of action.
Meanwhile the Bulls torched the Blazers with 4 three pointers on their way to a 10-0 start to the game which would eventually morph into a 16-11 lead at the 6:00 mark. The scoreboard said the Blazers were down 5 but the impression was more "down a million".
Portland guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are never quiet for long. They willed their team to a 22-point quarter, hardly flashy but still respectable considering the Blazers didn't score at all until the 8:00 mark. But Vonleh's absence left the Blazers undersized in the frontcourt. Chicago pressed an advantage they would retain all game long, punishing the shorter Portland with mid-range jumpers and post play to take a 29-22 lead after one.
After the loopy first period, both teams settled into what became a hard-fought defensive battle. The Blazers used excellent point-of-attack defense by CJ McCollum and generous help from his frontcourt mates to keep Chicago star Jimmy Butler down to a low roar. Lillard and ex-MVP Derrick Rose both got open looks but neither ran hot for more than a couple minutes at a time. With both backcourts missing enough shots to fill Santa's sleigh, the game came down to rebounding and big-man play. Portland won the rebounding battle handily but Chicago's trio of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Taj Gibson scored a little more easily than Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, and Ed Davis. It was close. Gasol and Mirotic were able to drain jumpers while Gibson feasted in the post. This provided slightly more predictable offense than Davis on the offensive glass or Plumlee on the run. Had a few more opportunities come Portland's way, the story would have been different, but chances to score in the halfcourt come every trip down the floor while the Blazers' bigs had to wait for select openings to show their tricks.
With McCollum and company continuing to bottle up the Bulls offense, Portland had several opportunities to take control down the stretch, . Unfortunately Lillard suffered through a 4-22 shooting night, broken only by frequent trips to the foul line. But on the critical last-minute possessions he committed a turnover and hit only 1 of 2 free throws. Since Lillard has carried the team on his back multiple times this year, faulting him for tonight's performance would be churlish. Everyone has off nights; this was Dame's. Unfortunately his inability to convert left his team 5 points short, transforming a very nice effort into a relatively anonymous loss instead of one of the better wins of the season.
The Blazers stayed even with, or ahead of, the Bulls in almost every way tonight...a huge accomplishment. They committed a few more turnovers and shot slightly worse from the field: 38% for Chicago to 35% for Portland. But holding the Bulls to 38% says everything about how well the defense clicked tonight...a development worthy of a standing ovation.
The Blazers destroyed the Bulls on the offensive glass, netting 16 rebounds and allowing 6. Portland finished the night +10 in points in the paint. They stayed even in free throws made, fast break points, and assists. They even blocked 9 shots, a rare bonanza.
Portland lost this game because of 6-22 three-point shooting and because Chicago's bench was more cohesive and experienced, particularly with Moe Harkless shanghaied into power forward duty. Whenever the Bulls sniffed a mismatch they took advantage. They found plenty of natural advantages and created others via screen switches. With the Blazers misfiring so badly, that's all the edge they needed.
The question of the night is, do you prefer to see the Blazers play legitimate basketball against a well-performing team and lose narrowly or do you prefer to see an opponent slouch through the game as the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers did recently, allowing Portland to win even though their effort wasn't as impressive? W's are wonderful, but if all losses came like this, the hopes of the Portland faithful for their favorite team would be closer to being fulfilled.
Despite his horrid shooting night, Damian Lillard almost notched a triple-double. He scored 19 with 10 rebounds and 8 assists. Lillard hit 11 of 13 foul shots and committed only 2 turnovers. Unfortunately one turnover and one free throw miss came in the critical closing seconds, costing his team a chance to make good on their effort. Lillard's counterpart, Derrick Rose, shot 7-20. Everything was working for Damian tonight except the shot.
CJ McCollum played his best defense of the season in the second half of this game. That's not faint praise either...he worked hard tonight. His dribbling made the Bulls' defense look silly a couple of times. McCollum finished with 18 points off 7-17 shooting with no turnovers.
Al-Farouq Aminu looked better as the game wore on, helping protect his backcourt defensively. He shot 1-9 for the night, leaving the Blazers no outs when the guards were missing.
Mason Plumlee grabbed 17 rebounds, 5 offensive, blocked 2 shots, and got into it with Jimmy Butler in the second half, earning a flagrant foul in the process. It was a good take. This team functions well when Plumlee gets feisty. His fire gives them backbone. Once again he looked good on defense, at least half of that due to his guards taking responsibility for their own men instead of screaming for help and dumping them off of him. The Blazers would not have earned their double-digit advantage in the paint tonight without Plumlee's defensive contributions.
Noah Vonleh didn't draw another foul after his initial three and redeemed himself slightly in the third quarter with a nice three-pointer/layup sequence. He scored 7 with 3 rebounds in 12 minutes of play.
The Two Sides of Ed Davis were on full display tonight. Early in the game the Blazers went to him in the post. Holding the ball or (eeek!) trying to dribble it resulted in turnovers or unmentionable shot attempts. He doesn't make a good hub for the offense. But give Davis the tiniest opportunity on a rebound or quick dish from a penetrating guard and he'll make you pay. He scored 12 with 13 rebounds, 5 offensive tonight. His defense followed suit (poor in isolation, good when helping out). Quick hands and feet gave him 3 steals and 2 blocks.
Allen Crabbe played 31 minutes, hitting 3-5 shots for 9 points. Moe Harkless played only 12 minutes because he isn't really a power forward. Gerald Henderson played 17 minutes because he isn't ready to play more.
Links and Notes
Blog a Bull...like Blazer's Edge, with swearing!
The Blazers take a Thanksgiving break for the next 3 days before celebrating the holidays with the best gift of all, another chance to play the mostly-pathetic Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. Pacific.
If you love this team, why not share the opportunity to see them with kids who might not get to otherwise? You can help 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.