It's widely assumed in every sport that offense pleases fans while defense warms only the hearts of purists, coaches, and championship contenders. Tonight the New York Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers gave the lie to that adage. The teams combined for 222 points and 49% shooting from the field, but still left a stain of ugliness across the Moda Center floor that spared nobody: not superstars Damian Lillard and Carmelo Anthony, not Knicks super-rookie Kristaps Porzingis and Blazers Most Improved Player CJ McCollum, not Coaches Terry Stotts and Derek Fisher, not even the refs. This game was redeemed for the Blazers only by a breathtaking final play that almost went down in franchise history. Victory was the consolation for the Knicks as they exited Portland with a 112-110 win.
For the second night in a row the Blazers countered one opposing superstar (Carmelo Anthony) with their own guard trio (Lillard, McCollum, and Allen Crabbe). For three quarters Anthony took advantage of his height, backing down the Trail Blazers for short turn-around jumpers or simply firing over their heads. He would end up 13-21 on the evening for 37 points. But Portland's guards, McCollum and Crabbe in particular, would not be stopped. McCollum's 22 and Crabbe's 17 bested Anthony, leaving Lillard's 29 points as the potential difference-maker. On a normal night, it would have been more than enough.
The poor-shooting Knicks held a surprising edge in efficiency, 52%-46%, but the Blazers made up for it with incredible rebounding. Portland bullied New York on the boards for 36 minutes and, thanks to Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh, doubled them up in offensive rebounding. The game wasn't pretty. Portland's defensive lapses were, at times, egregious, but the Blazers' team effort gave them an 86-76 lead on Anthony and friends heading into the fourth.
If you've noticed the phrase "for three quarters" cropping up, it's because the game took a turn from tolerably ugly to godawful in the final period. Everything Portland did right, they ended up reversing in the final frame. It wouldn't have been surprising to hear Lillard rise from the bench and shout, "Ye can take away our rebounding, ye can take away our guard scoring, but ye can't take away our freedom! Wait, ye dinna want our freedom? Ye just want the game? Oh...well I 'spose ye kin take that then. We're goin' ta wash off all this face paint now. It's itchy!"
How bad was the final period? The Knicks sat Anthony for most of the fourth. Even when he returned, he played with all the authority of the Grinch's dog Max. The door was wide open for the Blazers to finish this one out. But they lost rebounds to Robin Lopez. They allowed the trio of Galloway, Thomas and O'Quinn (dial 800-888-8787 if you've been hit by a car or died from asbestos) to bulldoze right through them.
As the defense turned pathetic, Portland's formerly-flowing guard offense morphed into a symphony of delirious dribbles and randomly-spewed shots. The guards could not hit a layup to save their lives. The Blazers attempted 7 shots within 2 feet of the bucket in the fourth but they hit only 2. Most were forced, all were guarded, and the 19000+ in attendance groaned as they watched their team's chances of winning this game roll off the rim repeatedly.
Even with all that, the Blazers remained within 2 points after Lillard hit a layup (Hallelujah!) with 24 seconds remaining. At that point a single forced turnover, missed free throw by the Knicks, or some nifty Portland offense could have turned the game.
The Blazers settled for poor clock management instead. They let 5 seconds run off the clock, fouling Anthony with 19 ticks remaining. After he hit 2 free throws they called their final timeout. But instead of going for a three-pointer, they pushed a pair of layup attempts, both misses. (Drat!) Al-Farouq Aminu mercifully scooped up the second blown bunny and converted, but the layup follies had drained all but 8 seconds off the clock.
Going for the quick two is a valid option in close, late-game situations, but that strategy depends on generating as many possessions as possible, giving the opponent multiple chances to blow free throws when fouled for possession. Taking 5 seconds off the clock before committing the first foul, then taking 11 more seconds just to get a two-point shot through the hoop, invalidate the strategy. Once the clock starts draining seriously the three-pointer becomes the only option. The Blazers didn't recognize that and didn't take it.
Despite the lack of cohesion and awareness, the Blazers still ended up with a chance to win it. This wasn't due to their brilliance as much as New York's stupidity. (Did I mention this was a semi-awful game?)
Anthony hit another pair of free throws with 7 seconds remaining, pushing his team up 4 once again. Portland had no timeouts. They were going to take 3 seconds getting the ball down the floor, another 2 seconds getting a shot to go in (hopefully), another second for the intentional foul. They'd be left with only a single tick no matter what happened on New York's ensuing free throws. Or at least that's the way a normal game between sane teams would have gone. Instead Knicks forward Lance Thomas guarded Lillard up close on a three-point shot that didn't matter and ended up fouling him. Thomas can thank his lucky stars Lillard's trey didn't fall. Instead Dame stepped to the line and hit the first 2 of his 3 free throw attempts, leaving his team down 2 with 2 seconds remaining, one free throw left to take. Then this happened:
You can see the play in slow-motion here. Had the ball found net, that shot that would have gone down in franchise history. I've never seen anything like it. But like everything else about this contest, it ended up disappointing...an "almost" moment for Portland in a game that ended up in a loss.
We can talk about back-to-backs and fourth-quarter fatigue all we want, but the Blazers had this game. They had the Knicks on their heels with a passing, cutting, open-man offense but they abandoned it in favor of guards pounding the hardwood half a dozen times then going one-on-everybody.They expended energy getting to the rim in the fourth quarter, then wasted the effort by missing the layup once they got there. Davis and Vonleh exiting the game cost them the rebounding advantage...at least that part was honest. But could nobody else step up and grab a rebound? Everybody in the building would have understood had Anthony won the game for his team by scoring 50, backing down hopelessly smaller defenders all night long. He wasn't even a decoy for most of that fatal fourth quarter. With the game on the line Portland didn't close out, didn't box out, they got edged out and that was it.
The sense of frustration doesn't stem from the loss alone. The Blazers have suffered plenty of those. This one burns because the Knicks played poorly. Carmelo Ball is problematic. Their rebounding was non-existent much of the night; their defense as attractive as a freshly-barfed hairball. The Blazers set some of the flimsiest, laziest screens known to humankind and got free on them repeatedly. New York wasn't putting up a real fight and the Blazers knew it. They controlled the action until the final period, Instead of finishing off their compliant opponent, they matched and exceeded the awfulness.
The Knicks did not take over this game, the Blazers stopped playing it. This went deeper than execution and energy. The Blazers lost their focus and abandoned their philosophy when it had worked all night. Almost any kind of loss is understandable from a team with Portland's profile. That kind isn't.
Noah Vonleh had his best game of the season, not by statistical production (7 points, 4 offensive rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals in 17 minutes) but cohesion. He played opportunistically but within himself and didn't look out of place on either end of the court. Progress.
(This on a night when heralded rookie power forward Kristaps Porzingis went 0-6, producing no points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes of play.)
Damian Lillard shot 11-28 for 29 points. He added 8 rebounds but only 4 assists. As the game got tight all the guards tried to take over the offense (as opposed to, say, bearing down on defense). If any Blazer has a claim to that style, Lillard does. He kept his team afloat, but barely and ultimately fruitlessly.
CJ McCollum continued to dazzle with his dribble and marksmanship, shooting 8-17 for 22 points.
Allen Crabbe went 6-11 from the field and drew 6 foul shots, hitting 5, for 17 points in 27 minutes off the bench. His feel for the offense is off the charts. Last time I saw a guy score that much in space it was Han Solo. One wonders if he'll ever come off this roll.
As usual, Ed Davis saved possessions with his rebounding. It was amazing how slight he, Mason Plumlee, and every Portland big guy looked alongside Robin Lopez. "Mobility, not size" was on full display tonight.
Speaking of bigs, Meyers Leonard continues his lackluster streak, giving with the right hand (7 rebounds and 3 assists in 19 minutes) but taking away with the left (confidence lacking from the three-point arc, performance lacking on the defensive end). For a couple weeks this season Leonard found his happy place and looked like a legit weapon. He should program that destination into his GPS again.
Links and Such
Looks like I owe my podcast buddy Phil Naessens a couple Blazer's Edge Night ticket donations because the Knicks won. If you'd like to help send 2000 kids to a Blazers game in March, check the end of this post to find out how.
Posting and Toasting is a great site, but the name is making me wince after 2.5 hours of listening to Walt "Clyde" Frazier rhyme things unnecessarily. I know it's his shtick, but the guy sounds like he barely cares anymore...as if he's waiting for his next chance to rhyme instead of to analyze or inform. Then again, with the current state of the Knicks there's probably not much there to analyze. But I swear, listening to his linguistic self-pleasuring is wearing. Maybe next time these two teams play I'll do a recap entirely with rhyming pairs to show how easy it is to do what he does and how tiring it becomes when overplayed. Every once in a while is OK, Clyde, but you're skipping right past the flour and sugar and giving us a baking soda cake now. Maybe mix up that batter a little more.
The Blazers play the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night at 7:00 p.m. Pacific. Anthony Davis is worth the price of admission alone. And he has to be, because that team has fallen on hard times.
We invite you to help send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. Your ticket donations make this possible. You can donate through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.