The Portland Trail Blazers have lost plenty of games in pretty-but-ineffective fashion this season. In tonight's game versus the Milwaukee Bucks they decided to invert the process by winning ugly. They managed the ugly part just fine, but forgot to win. In typical Blazers fashion, a dismal first half performance gave way to an inspired second-half run. But brain-dead execution in the final minute doomed Portland to a disheartening loss.
As former Blazers broadcaster Bill Schonely used to say, tonight was a Tale of Two Halves.
The Bucks were able to press their natural big man advantage in the first half. They played strong, punishing Portland in the lane. The Blazers' most consistent play in the first period was the turnover. When Portland did get off shots, most came mid-range and contested.
Meyers Leonard helped save Portland's bacon in the second quarter, but it was a stubby, fat-filled end piece, not much good for anything but a little sizzle. When the halftime horn sounded, the Blazers had scored 33 points.
Putting up Chris Kaman's age in a quarter is great. In a half...not so much. Offensive blues ended up wasting a better-than-normal defensive effort for Portland. Milwaukee led 42-33 at the break.
Portland's defense turned from "better than normal" to "downright good" in the third period. To that point the Bucks hadn't hit a single three-pointer. (They'd end up 4-13 for the evening.) The Blazers took that as permission to crowd the lane, shutting down those devastating big-man post moves and securing rebounds zealously. Thanks to Noah "GIVE ME THAT BALL, CHEESEHEAD" Vonleh, Portland also dominated the offensive glass. Vonleh grabbed a half-dozen offensive boards in the quarter. Coupled with forced turnovers that left the Bucks spinning, Portland pretty much doubled Milwaukee's field goal attempts in the third. In that atmosphere, Damian Lillard coming alive and a few three-pointers falling was enough to erase Portland's deficit. The Blazers led 62-60 as the fourth period commenced.
Portland showed off some big-man mojo of their own in the fourth in the form of Ed Davis. He struck with layups in the early minutes of the quarter, assisted by adroit guards. This set the table for CJ McCollum to twist the Bucks' defense into a pretzel as the game closed. McCollum didn't hit field goals but he was fouled on multiple attempts that Milwaukee just couldn't handle, resulting in 5 points in the final 2:30 of the game. CJ's prestidigitation appeared to push Portland over the top. The Blazers led 86-82 with 30 seconds remaining.
The game wasn't over yet. Giannis "Broke My Spell-Checker" Antetokounmpo converted a layup on Milwaukee's next play, but Damian Lillard made both free throws on the intentional foul following. Portland still led by 4 with 22 seconds left.
After their final timeout of the game, the Bucks ran a screen-back screen combo for inbounder O.J. Mayo, freeing him from a flailing Lillard. The Blazers paid the price for their half-long habit of guarding the lane, as Davis was nowhere near the three-point arc as Mayo slipped from Lillard's orbit...a huge no-no considering the 4-point gap. O.J.'s three-point swish put the Bucks down 1 with 16 seconds remaining.
Another intentional foul was next on the docket, but as it turned out the Bucks didn't need it. Portland called timeout to inbounds the ball in the frontcourt. With every target covered and a 5-second violation fast approaching the Blazers got caught doing the dreaded "run towards the sideline" catch. McCollum took possession of the entry pass only inches from the out-of-bounds line. Milwaukee trapped him instantly. As he tried to spin away, he turned right into the clutches of Michael Carter-Williams, ball first. The two tied up and a jump ball resulted. Milwaukee parlayed their won tip into a Greg Monroe layup, taking an 89-88 lead with 5 seconds remaining.
Here's what it looked like:
And then came this:
Meyers Leonard getting blocked by John Henson straight up with 5 seconds remaining, absent any pump fakes or credible moves to the bucket is one thing. It could happen to anyone. But standing stock still as the clock dwindled towards zero in a single-point game was something else entirely. The inexperience Leonard--and the whole team, really--showed clearly. On the floor: five Bucks and five deer in the headlights.
After consulting replay, the refs determined that half a tick remained on the clock when the Blazers finally managed to foul. Carter-Williams made the first free throw and missed the second, leaving a full-court heave as Leonard's only option off of the rebound. That fell well short and Milwaukee escaped with the 90-88 win.
As they have all season, Portland played Good Blazers-Bad Blazers tonight. Their defense was effective, mostly thanks to Milwaukee's lack of shooting. They rebounded well, scored in the paint, and forced turnovers.
At the same time they shot 38% from the field, 24% from the arc, and allowed the Bucks to shoot 33 foul shots. Portland turned over the ball 17 times and failed to close out the game with composure even when their execution led them to decent opportunities.
That kind of inconsistency is maddening, but it's part of the growth process. World champions and world beaters can afford to pick up games in the second half. It'll kill a squad with Portland's profile. No team can survive fumbling away the last 2 minutes of games...a Portland hallmark this season. If they'd fix the first issue the second would become less important. Until then nail biting will be followed by heads banging against tables.
Ed Davis (10 points, 13 rebounds in 28 minutes), Noah Vonleh (6 points and 6 offensive rebounds in 14 minutes), Allen Crabbe (12 points on 4-9 shooting, 2-5 from range), and Damian Lillard (23 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds) had good nights.
Meyers Leonard (3-10, 0-6 from the arc) and CJ McCollum (5-21, 2-11 from distance) did not. Playing key roles in the plays that blew the game for Portland was icing on the cake.
Links and Notes
We had all kinds of coverage during and after this game. Make sure to check it out.
Brew Hoop will love how this game ended up even if the process was ugly.
Joy of joys, the Blazers play the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. Pacific. No rest for the weary.
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