The Portland Trail Blazers deserve applause for their scrappy effort in a 108-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets tonight. One night after losing in disheartening fashion to the Detroit Pistons, the Blazers could have folded mentally, emotionally, and physically. They did none of those things. Six players scored in double figures, they shot well from the foul line, and even managed to keep the ever-present turnover demon at bay. But this game wasn't about sweet shots and bon mots; the outcome was decided by defense...pure, tough defense. That characteristic hasn't favored the Blazers so far this season and it didn't tonight, leading to their downfall.
This game started with a clash of styles. In the first quarter Meyers Leonard, CJ McCollum, and Damian Lillard set up shop from mid-range and the three-point arc, knocking down open jumpers against slower Denver defenders. Kenneth Faried, JJ Hickson, and Emmanuel Mudiay took the ball to the rack past permissive Portlanders. The Blazers drove to set up outside shots while the Nuggets shot outside to set up their lane assault. Denver's lack of perimeter closing ability was matched by Portland's non-existent rim protection. The Blazers ended up winning the battle as steady shooting from Meyers Leonard led Portland to a 33-29 lead after one.
Then Portland's bench walked onto the floor for the second quarter and promptly laid an egg. The first quarter defense was no prize pig but the "D" early in the second was pure hog slop. After missing their initial shot of the period, Denver scored on 6 straight possessions to take a 44-40 lead. Sanity was restored as the starters filtered back in. 10 points in the period from Damian Lillard and 7 from Allen Crabbe erased manifold sins on the other end. Portland took a 58-57 lead into intermission.
The game ground to a halt for both teams in the third quarter. The sides seemed content to play a halfcourt game which favored neither. Denver took advantage of matchups at power forward and point guard. The Blazers scored intermittently until the final 33 seconds when Lillard put in 6 points off of a layup and this four-point play. (Donny Don't Says Don't Do What Randy Foye Did.) Each team scored 22 in the third, leaving Portland ahead 80-79 at the start of the fourth.
Perhaps jealous of all the attention the new Star Wars sequel is getting, Portland's bench stole the spotlight with one of their own as the final period commenced: Return of the Super Bad "D". The Blazers watched their opponent convert 2 layups and a three-pointer in the first 90 seconds of play, turning a single-point Denver deficit into a 6-point lead. Then another backcourt hero arrived to bail Portland out of trouble. CJ McCollum, deadly quiet since the first period, scored 7 points in 80 seconds to put the Blazers ahead by 1 once more.
The game stayed close until the 4:15 mark when JJ Hickson broke a 93-all tie with an easy dunk. Hickson would score 8 of Denver's final 15 points. That they scored 15 in the last 4:15 of the game tells you everything you need to know about Portland's defensive prowess. That averages out to a 42-point quarter...a bad rate to give up in crunch time. The longest shot of Denver's run registered at 12 feet. Everything else was at the rim or foul line. The Blazers never did figure out how to solve them.
Denver's defense down the stretch wasn't perfect either. McCollum scored 5 more, Leonard and Aminu hit. But there was this:
After watching Portland's guards treat their counterparts like honored guests on the court for most of the evening, those defensive stands looked like water in the desert. Except the other guy got to do all the drinking. Somebody mock up the Kirk "Khan" meme with "Mudiay" text. We sure need it tonight.
Portland loses 108-104, taking their record to an even 4-4 on the season.
The frustrating thing about this loss--besides Denver not being that good of a team--is the Blazers correcting enough of their chronic issues that it should have been a win. Portland committed 9 turnovers (half their usual) and shot 82% from the foul line (seemingly twice their usual). Their 35% three-point clip wasn't bad. They held Denver to 9 fast break points. Meyers Leonard couldn't find his range from the arc but shot 5-10 overall. The guards all had chances to shine and Damian Lillard scored 30.
Denver's 52% shooting and 52 points in the paint show immediately why this wasn't enough. The Blazers had NO interior defense and little perimeter containment power. Denver attempting shots in the paint wasn't the problem, relatively uncontested shots coming that close to the bucket from every direction was a huge problem.
This wasn't a rebounding/put-back issue, either. Denver only snagged 8 offensive boards. It was a matter of the Nuggets playing offense like bowling balls and the Blazers playing defense like pins.
Speaking of rebounding, though, the Blazers aren't yet generating a significant offensive rebounding advantage and it's starting to show. Half of Portland's frontcourt players make a living on the offensive glass. Living ain't easy right now. Portland ranks in the dead middle of the league in offensive rebounds per game and offensive rebounding percentage so far this year. That's not enough.
On the guard defense watch, Denver's 4 guards shot 17-33 tonight, the same 52% their team averaged. They were good for 49 points. Portland thrived off of their guard play and only managed 57 between their 3 backcourt players. That's not enough of an advantage either.
That see-saw effect of talent getting overcome by the inability to defend same showed up in a few matchups tonight. Leonard and Faried started the show, Leonard draining jumpers over empty air and Faried bulling inside over tissue defense. Lillard and Mudiay had a running battle until Mudiay stuffed Damian in the closing minutes. McCollum and Will Barton took turns scoring over and around each other. In all cases the respective coaches ended up switching off players to find better defensive matchups. But how many times can you do that during a season before you run out of options? And what options do the Blazers have? You'd have to dig deep enough into the rotation that you tunnel back 2014-15 in order to find a defender in the backcourt. Maybe Paul Allen should order Terry Stotts a Delorean for Christmas.
Damian Lillard scored 30 off of 9-22 shooting. He looked like a superstar when he took over the game but Mudiay looked like the promising young star when he took over Lillard at the close. His size caused Lillard fits all night. If tonight is any indication, Denver may have a point guard to watch.
CJ McCollum was a non-entity until his hot streak in the fourth. But even that was marred by Barton's return blows. 16 points on 6-15 shooting...not much else but trouble.
The saving grace for both starting guards: they shot over 40% from the arc.
Meyers Leonard's offense was free at last tonight. He's started to fake a long shot, then step in for the easier jumper. That's a good plan for now. He scored 11 but added 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He got bullied on the other end and paid the price for it...lots of inside scoring for Denver, 6 personal fouls for Meyers.
Mason Plumlee once again looked nice in the early going but faded as the game progressed. He did manage 5-7 shooting and 15 points but Hickson trumped him with 19 and Faried 17. Plus Denver's starting bigs combined for 21 rebounds, Portland's 16. Those aren't matchups the Blazers should have lost.
Al-Farouq Aminu kept his counterpart under control (Danilo Gallinari: 2-10 shooting, 6 points) and became the switch-off man against hot Nuggets but he echoed Plumlee by looking good early and then fading into the background for most of the game. He scored 12 points but took 16 shots to do it.
Ed Davis had another tough outing, playing 15 minutes and collecting 4 personal fouls. You'd have thought he would have thrived in this kind of matchup. He looks frustrated.
Allen Crabbe had some nice moments but ended up 4-12 for 11 points and didn't help the defense much.
Moe Harkless is also struggling: 2-5 shots for 6 points and 2 turnovers in 14 minutes.
Noah Vonleh got 13 minutes but didn't belong in this game. Steamroller, meet chipmunk.
Links and Notes
Denver Stiffs will be happy tonight.
Next up for the Blazers: a date with LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. Pacific. A win in that one would be a heck of a way to rebound from these tough losses.