Have you ever seen a cat down a meal so quickly that they couldn't digest it, only to watch them vomit up the whole thing mere seconds after it went down? Replay that image in your mind and you'll understand tonight's Portland Trail Blazers versus Detroit Pistons contest. The Blazers played cool cats for the better part of three quarters, wolfing down buckets like so much kibble and amassing an 18-point lead in the third period. But their eyes proved bigger than their stomachs as hacking and retching replaced smooth execution for the remainder of the game. By the time the final horn sounded the Pistons had completed a 35-point turn-around, outscoring the Portland by 30 in the fourth quarter alone, leaving an enormous mess on the floor that the Moda Center janitorial staff will spend all night cleaning up.
The first period of tonight's game featured textbook Blazers basketball matched up against a ton of garbage from the Pistons. The ball moved so well for Portland that Damian Lillard, Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Ed Davis all scored 2 or more field goals in the quarter. The larger-framed Pistons had trouble keeping up with Portland's rapid, lithe pass-and-move attack. Backdoor cuts, sleek picks, and swift dribble drives stunned the Boys in Blue.
On the other end, Detroit tossed up the ugliest selection of isolation-bred shots you'll find this side of Los Angeles. Reggie Jackson looked lucky to hit the backboard with his tries. Were it not for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope getting on a hot streak and Detroit feasting on 9 second-chance points courtesy of Andre Drummond, the Pistons might have been buried on the spot. As it was, Portland led 32-23 after one.
The Blazers' offense continued hot through the opening of the second period with Crabbe and CJ McCollum showing strong. But the pretty ball movement of the first period melted as the quarter wore on. Shots came almost too easy and the Blazers forgot how they got there.
Meanwhile the Pistons settled down into a drive-and-dish style which would typify their offense for the rest of the evening. Detroit dribblers broke down the Blazers repeatedly but they met stiff resistance in the lane, forcing the perimeter pass. Portland didn't recover on shooters but Detroit could only connect 3 times from distance in the period...not nice but hardly fatal. The threes were good enough to propel them to 24 points overall. With Portland's offense stalling and the Pistons still doing a great job on the boards, the Blazers only managed 25. Still, Portland led 57-47 at the break.
Detroit began the second half by going inside once again. This time instead of passing to the arc, they tested Portland's interior defense and found it lacking. 20 of Detroit's 32 points in the period would come within 6 feet of the hoop. Drummond was the main culprit but Jackson got on board as well, scoring off the drive and at the foul line.
But Detroit's offense hardly mattered. The Blazers zeroed in from three-point range and did Detroit one better, Portland hit 4 triples and 8 inside shots during the period, scoring 35 in the process, shooting an amazing 78% from the field in the frame. After going up by 18 at the 6:45 mark, Portland cruised to a 92-79 advantage as the quarter closed.
Then things got ugly.
The Blazers started the fourth with a nice 5-footer from McCollum. This sent their offense into cardiac arrest. For the next 11 minutes of the 12-minute period they'd convert exactly one field goal.
Detroit didn't just defend the Blazers in the fourth, they got nasty. Ed Davis earned an ejection with 8:00 remaining in the game after arguing that he was fouled on a physically-defended dunk attempt. Mason Plumlee replaced him and immediately got whacked across the face trying an offensive rebound put-back. (See the video here.) The resulting Flagrant 1 foul called on Marcus Morris did nothing to sooth Portland's bruises, especially since Plumlee missed both free throws. After that Detroit roughed up the Blazers. Portland's offense managed only turnovers and rushed shots against the clock, both the result of poor spacing against the crushing Pistons defense.
As the Blazers were shrinking into obscurity, Reggie Jackson drank from the lane like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka's chocolate river. If he'd have scored any more points he'd have drown in them. Most of his strikes came off of simple drives and conversions in the paint. A couple threes salted the top. At one point Jackson scored 16 points in a row. He'd end up with 26 in the period and 40 for the game on 15-26 shooting.
If that wasn't enough, Jackson ended up tag teaming with Andre the Giant in the fourth as Drummond tossed every Trail Blazer who came his way out of the ring with ease. Rebounds, blocked shots, dunks...Andre body-slammed the Blazers into submission. He didn't even have to put on a hold. They just looked at him and quit. Drummond would finish the game with 29 points and 27 rebounds, his 9 offensive boards eclipsing the 7 netted by the entire Portland squad.
As the fourth quarter progressed the Pistons sucked the air out of the Moda Center crowd. Chants of, "This is awesome" morphed into, "This isn't fair!" And it wasn't. The final horn was not the expected cause for raucous celebration, rather the coup de grâce on Detroit's amazing comeback. Ryan Field of FOX Sports in L.A. said it best:
The Pistons 30 point advantage in the 4th quarter is the most in a game since 1980 and tied for 3rd largest since the 1951-52 season. WOW.— Ryan Field (@RyanFieldFS1) November 9, 2015
Yup. Wow. Detroit 120, Portland 103.
As has been true many times in the short season for the Blazers, their speed and tenacity gave them an advantage against bigger opponents tonight. Watching Portland run the floor on Detroit, then run easy cuts and pick plays in the halfcourt, was flat-out beautiful. Every player shot aggressively and confidently in that first period. Nothing the Pistons did seemed to matter except for Drummond's huge rebounds and simple scores.
In the end, though, Drummond's rebounds and scores outlasted Portland's ability to play their style of ball. The Blazers can tally up another type of player (in addition to penetrating, scoring guards) they're not able to handle: the massive center. Portland kicked Detroit's collective tails most of the game but they never got to Andre. He ended up being the god-unit in a Real Time Strategy game. He took a while to build, but once complete the Pistons wiped the map clean with him as the Blazers countered with pea shooters. Jackson playing the penetrating, scoring guard role alongside made the game a blowout, but Drummond was the foundation of the loss. He hammered at Portland's weak spots all night until they cracked.
Detroit's physical play was also a big deal. The Blazers got smacked in the chops and didn't know how to respond as a team. They got frustrated and folded. This is part of the learning curve, but it's not a pretty one. Then again, the league isn't interested in pretty. Portland just found out that wins count more than grace and style.
These factors conspired to ruin a night when the Blazers shot incredibly well from the field. Their 78% clip in the third period translated into a 54% shooting night overall, a respectable 9-25, 36%, from the arc. But they got destroyed on the glass (7 offensive rebounds to 18 from the Pistons) and in the paint (42-54). Can't have that.
The Blazers' turnover problems are now frequent enough to be called chronic, if not terminal to their hopes of success. Portland committed 22 tonight, forcing only 9. Lillard had 5, McCollum and Plumlee 4 each, Moe Harkless 3.
The only thing uglier than turnovers in the fourth was seeing the Blazers hoist rushed, defended shots while racing the 24-second clock. The beautiful first-half offense got reduced to rubble, just hoping and praying. At that point Portland was lofting jumpers into Drummond's waiting hands, padding his rebounding stats. Seeing the Blazers fight the clock is a sure sign things are going wrong for them.
Having experienced these travails, the Blazers now get to face another hurdle unique to young teams: not turning one loss into two as they travel to Denver to face the Nuggets tomorrow night. None of tonight's starters played huge minutes so the physical part of their game should be fine...or as good as possible when playing a mile in the air on the second night of a back-to-back. Their mental and emotional game will be tested. Losing a game like this isn't easy, but winning the next game won't be either if they can't forget it.
Ironically, on this depressing night most of the observations about individual Blazers will be good. They played well for most of the game and their numbers reflect that. As a group they lost control and let Detroit do anything they wanted during an abysmal fourth period. That's a collective fault more than a reflection of any individual. Guard defense became an issue again, but no more so than big-man defense and rebounding. When it fell apart, it fell apart hard. All of Stotts' horses and all of Stotts' men weren't going to put this Humpty together again, but they rode pretty decently tonight despite that.
Damian Lillard shot 1-6 in that fateful fourth quarter. This dropped his shooting to 8-15 for the night...meaning he was 7-9 before that point if you're counting. He shot 4-9 from the arc and scored 26 with 11 assists. Those are brilliant numbers even if his 5 TO's marred them somewhat. They didn't produce a win because the other guy scored 40. That's the end of the story.
CJ McCollum scored 18 on 8-17 shooting but he committed 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls and missed all 4 of his threes. For comparison's sake his counterpart, Caldwell-Pope shot worse (6-15 overall, 2-7 from distance) but still scored 16 without the turnovers and fouls plus he added 4 steals. 18-point games like this will look good on CJ's record when blended into season stats but they're cheap 18-point games when you look at the whole picture.
Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu both looked great for a quarter, dazzling with their speed and footwork, but then faded into obscurity as The Giant pulverized everything in his path. Andre shot 14-19, Mason 3-8. Aminu led the team with 9 rebounds but missed 4 three-pointers. Aminu and Plumlee scored 9 points between them in the first 6 minutes of the game. They'd finish with just 16 combined.
Meyers Leonard shot tentatively early on but rounded into a groove after stepping inside the three-point arc and draining a couple jumpers. He ended up with his best game of the season, scoring 17 on 7-13 shooting, 3-5 from distance. Because of Detroit's dominance, the effect was like a bantamweight connecting with solid punches against a heavyweight, but at least there's hope that Leonard's slump is nearing an end.
Ed Davis had 6 rebounds in 20 minutes but the ejection was a mistake too far for him. One technical in that kind of situation is understandable, but the Blazers needed his board work too much for him to get sent off. He climbed over the ropes himself before Andre could toss him.
Allen Crabbe played aggressive offense from his first moments on the floor tonight and finished with an impressive 7-7, 15-point evening. He was everything his scoring pedigree promised. He looks far more like an NBA player now than he did coming out of college, selecting his spots and scoring with authority. His defense wasn't much help, but forward progress is forward progress.
3 turnovers and 4 personal fouls for Moe Harkless in 22 minutes is wince-worthy. It wasn't his night.
Noah Vonleh got 10 minutes and had a nice missed-shot/offensive-rebound sequence.
Links and Notes
Detroit Bad Boys will talk about this game forever.
The Blazers play the Denver Nuggets tomorrow night at 6:00 p.m. Pacific