With the 2015-16 season only five games old for the Portland Trail Blazers, designations like "Game of the Year" sound ridiculous. But if we were to append those words to any game of the campaign so far, tonight's effort against the Utah Jazz would be a strong contender. In each of their previous four games the Blazers were forced into an unwelcome choice: will CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard dominate the scoring? Tonight Portland beheld a blessed double-rainbow as their backcourt duo combined for 62 points on their way to a 108-92 manhandling of the overmatched Jazz.
This was Portland's second road victory in a row, pushing their record to 3-2 overall.
The evening got off to a raucous start for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum announced their intentions early, popping jumpers like candy and scoring 14 points in the first 6 minutes of the game. The Jazz answered by driving the lane with near-impunity, throwing body blows at Portland to set up the knockout punch.
But that punch never really came. Utah could not hit an open shot to save their lives, freeing the Blazers to shade towards the middle in ensuing quarters. The Jazz would hammer it inside, scoring points on the judges' cards, then Lillard and McCollum would come back with deadeye headshots putting Utah into a standing 8 count. Every time the Jazz crawled back into dangerous range, Lillard would bury another three. When they were reeling from that, McCollum would give them a triple-punch combination. If you didn't know better, you'd almost think the Blazers were toying with them.
And maybe they were. Lillard sure walked like it.
Utah never stopped taking it inside, but Portland's defense had flashes of effectiveness, sagging down and stopping easy scores in the second period, throwing energy into offensive rebounding in the fourth. The Blazers didn't own the lane at any point, but they rented it for a while. Utah couldn't even get an appointment to see the perimeter. A 27-26 edge for Portland after the first quarter became a 57-49 lead at halftime. After both teams stalled in the third, Portland's guards put Utah on the canvas for good in the fourth, scoring 17 in the frame. The Jazz never had a chance down the stretch; Portland walked away with the easy win.
This was, hands down, the most professional effort we've seen out of the Trail Blazers so far this year. They got the ball to the right players almost every possession and scored efficiently. Damian Lillard took 27 shots. His next closest competitor was McCollum with 13. Uneven shot distribution hardly mattered because everybody's shots came easy. A bucket from anybody besides Lillard and McCollum felt like 100 points' worth of scoring, a dagger in the back while someone was whacking them from the front. The win wasn't just about a couple of players getting hot at the same time, it was everybody else feeding off of them too.
Portland had only 11 assists tonight, but the stat is misleading. No play paid more dividends for Portland than the high screen to free jump shooters. Time and again Blazers bigs set nice picks. Time and again Jazz players went under them and gave up 2-3 points on the spot. Every one of those screens was a de facto assist, the most effective offense Portland's big players have put together all season.
Those bigs didn't look bad on defense as long as they didn't have to chase after the mistakes of their guards. Derrick Favors was an afterthought in this game and Portland prevented massive center Rudy Gobert from going crazy...no small feat considering the size disparity. Quick beat big in the frontcourt tonight.
Credit also goes to the inside guys for tightening up the defense in the lane in the second period and turning away Utah's momentum in the fourth with offensive rebounds. The combined shot attempts of every power forward and center to take the floor tonight did not equal Lillard's, but Damian owes them a hat tip for the win. Without those subtle momentum changes, this game would have been closer.
Despite Utah's lane attack, Portland ended up winning the points in the paint battle 44-40...finally. This time credit the outside shooters for helping open up space for the bigs to score straight up and off of rebounds.
Two asterisks follow the "most professional game we've seen" label. Portland turned over the ball 19 times, many of those coming in shocking fashion. The Jazz amassed 12 steals tonight, at least three of which were the Blazers simply tossing them the ball. The Blazers also missed 17 of 32 free throws, shooting 47% from the foul line for the game. By comparison they shot 44% from the arc. Those big men do have flaws, most of which show up when they try to shoot the ball.
But in the battle of Lillard and McCollum vs. Turnovers and Missed Free Throws (which was more of a battle than actually playing the Jazz tonight), Lillard and McCollum won handily. Shortcomings will plague this team on other occasions. Tonight's a chance to bask in the glory of Portland's strengths overcoming their weaknesses by a large margin.
Damian Lillard looked like he considered Energy Solutions Arena a second home. At no point in the evening did he appear anything but supremely confident. His shot, his walk...everything was Pure Dame. He shot 14-27, 5-11 from the arc, including several Damian Specials off the dribble from 27 feet. He scored 35, with 6 turnovers being the only major black mark against him.
CJ McCollum didn't get the volume of shots but he more than made up for it with accuracy. He shot 10-13 from the field (77%) and 3-5 from distance for 27 points. Every time the Jazz looked at Lillard, McCollum would side swipe them.
Let's say it again: 60% shooting and 62 points combined from Portland's starting guards. That's going to make this team look really good. Utah had plenty of opportunities. They spent the whole second half getting into the lane and then kicking out against a collapsing defense. Their guards shot 18-41, 3-14 from three-point range. There but for the grace of Lillard go the Blazers.
Al-Farouq Aminu played nearly flawlessly in a support role, hitting 5-9 for 13 points and 8 rebounds. Moe Harkless stepped in right where Aminu left off with 15 points on 5-8 shooting with 10 rebounds, 5 offensive. Aminu played 36 minutes, Harkless 29. Neither of them got in foul trouble despite Utah's constant probing of the lane.
Mason Plumlee had 5 turnovers...a condition nearing chronic at this point. But he erased those with 16 rebounds and 5-9 shooting, including a couple of the nicest iso moves we've yet seen from him. For a minute there he looked like a center scoring by using his size instead of a small forward throwing up shots towards the rim.
Ed Davis had a couple nice moments on the glass but overall a rough game with 5 personal fouls in 19 minutes. Feast or famine.
Noah Vonleh tended towards "famine" with 3 missed shots and 3 personal fouls in 13 minutes. He sure moves nice though.
Allen Crabbe took only 3 shots in 21 minutes and missed them all.
Meyers Leonard played only 11 minutes due to a sprained ankle. Video here.
Links and Notes
SLC Dunk covers the Utah Jazz perspective.
The Blazers face the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow night in the Moda Center at 7:30 p.m. Lillard played 40 minutes tonight, McCollum, Plumlee, and Aminu 35. It'll be interesting to see if young legs can persevere. Also we'll likely see our first starting lineup change of the season, assuming Leonard is out.