The Portland Trail Blazers began a 5-game road trip in impressive fashion today, downing the Toronto Raptors 113-97 at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors put up a good fight, scoring on the break, in the paint, and winning the rebounding battle, but a meteoric barrage of three-pointers raining down from the skies spelled their doom as the Blazers cruised to a relatively easy win.
Judging by the first period alone, the Blazers could have been in trouble in this game. Watching them play defense was like watching someone try to chop a cantaloupe with a ripe tomato. Effort was probably involved somewhere but results were lacking. Toronto's guards alternated between using picks for easy scores and taking advantage of size against the over-matched Damian Lillard. Between them Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Greivis Vasquez shot 9-11 in the first period, scoring 23 as the Raptors marched to a relatively easy 31 points.
The Blazers responded with 33 of their own, due in large part to Damian Lillard driving and setting up easy shots for himself or teammates. A trio of triples and a few foul shots helped the cause, as did Toronto's seeming disinterest in rotating or rebounding. When you opt to single-cover LaMarcus Aldridge, allow him to score 8 points in the period, and still can't manage to keep the other 4 guys covered, you've got problems.
Portland's 33-31 lead at the end of the first indicated as much about the two defenses as the two offenses. Whichever team buckled down first would get the edge in the game.
Toronto tried to do the right thing in the second quarter. They rebounded better, got up and down the court, and double-teamed Aldridge when he returned from his first-half rest. 5 three-pointers by the Blazers would ensure that their efforts went to waste. Some of those long shots came off of pressure devoted to Aldridge but some were just cold-blooded strikes by good Portland shooters. Midway through the period the Blazers turned a 50-47 lead into 59-49 in a little more than a minute, courtesy of three-pointers alone. The Raptors were tracking a nice spiral thrown their way, only to experience that horrible moment when it hits the end of your outstretched fingers and bobbles into oblivion. Portland runs can do that to you. The Blazers led 64-53 at the half.
As has been their pattern, Portland came out in the second half ready to defend. The Raptors still ran and still scored inside, but they got few open looks or offensive rebounding chances. In the first half they had enjoyed unopposed penetration; now they drove into a thicket on every possession. They got the ball around the hedge a few times, but their progress slowed.
Meanwhile Portland's three-point barrage continued, another 5 triples swishing through in the period. The Raptors never got a handle on Lillard's penetration either. The inside-out attack was too much and Portland scored 27 in the frame, giving them a 30+ average through three quarters for the second game in a row. The Blazers led 91-79 with 12:00 remaining.
Toronto turned up the intensity even further in the fourth, running and penetrating and working hard for open looks. But every time they got momentum going a turnover...or, well...20, would send them back to Square One. Portland's offense didn't exactly shine. The Blazers scored 22 off of an array of layups and dunks with only a single three and a single free throw to augment. But the Raptors never even got shots up, choking again and again until the game flew out of reach. With a little help from their hosts, the Blazers cruised to the 113-97 win and checked off the first of 5 potential victories on their last extended road swing of the season.
Portland's weaknesses were on display for a while tonight, but once again they demonstrated that a thick foundation of three-point shooting can cover up any number of blemishes. The Blazers shot 13-29 (45%) from distance and 52% overall. Whether initiation came from Aldridge or Lillard, the Raptors couldn't stop Portland from running whatever sets they wanted, You know that's going to be a rough night for the opponent. Either Blazers star can kill you, but when both move the ball and score with impunity, you're going to lose.
The Blazers also displayed their proclivity for persistent passing as a team. Nicolas Batum netted 12 assists, often providing the last pass in a multiple-pass swing around the horn. This is one of the neat things about Portland's offense. Covering the first or second pass against them isn't sufficient. Let others go with the typical McDonald's or Burger King approach to offense. With the Blazers it's Five Guys all the way. And yes, you can get unlimited fries with that.
The Raptors also showed why they're 2-8 in the last 10. Their solid offensive attack (47% shooting, 14 fast break points, 50 in the paint) got scuttled by lack of coordination and, at certain points, lack of effort. They let rebounds hit the court or fall into Portland hands when they had the ball surrounded. They didn't set each other up in good position, leading to flailing shots or awkward turnovers. After a dominant-scoring first period they never moved the ball enough, often settling for a pass or two and a halfhearted attempt. When the Blazers made it easy for them the Raptors looked good. A little bit of extra attention from Portland's defense and...pffffttt.
But hey, serious credit to Portland for not being that team anymore. Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 30-win seasons, they were. The names on the uniforms read right but the play on the court was all wrong. Toronto wasn't that bad tonight but you could see the difference between the two teams clearly. Both showed vulnerability. One team caved in to it while the other overcame. Portland's motto this season could well be, "Keep playing right, be patient, and good things will happen." They showed again tonight how powerful and effective that mantra is.
We should start with Arron Afflalo. His 5-14 shooting night looks depressing. Forget it. 4-6 from beyond the arc matters more. His catch-and-shoot game was pristine in this game. That's all the Blazers needed. It's important for the fans and Afflalo himself to realize this. If the threes fall, everything is good. If they don't, nothing else matters (except for defense when he can provide it).
Damian Lillard tore up this game something fierce. He's had better-looking statistical nights this year than his 10-20, 23-point, 5 assist outing here, but the Raptors couldn't do anything with him. Many of the slow rotations from which Batum's assist total and Afflalo's three-point tally benefited started with Lillard getting past his man and commanding help. His second-half defense was notably better than his early effort.
LaMarcus Aldridge played the role of "That's Not Fair!" guy tonight, splashing improbable jumpers in the faces of defenders then heading down low to finish the job. 9-14 shooting, 6-8 on free throws, and 24 points were the reward, but Aldridge's 5 assists speak just as much about the damage he caused. The Raptors were getting scored on when they single-covered LaMarcus, getting tripled up when they sent help. Aldridge became the classic waiter asking, "Two points, or three?" All Toronto could do was wince and call for the check. Aldridge's 10 rebounds were icing on the cake.
Robin Lopez had a, "That's So Robin!" night with 5-8 shooting, 11 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks off of some nice channeling by his teammates.
Nicolas Batum hit both of his three-pointers, dished 12 assists, and hounded the Raptors with 3 steals. His nice post-All-Star-break run continues.
After a shaky start, Chris Kaman played a surprisingly good game off the bench tonight. Like Lillard, his defense tightened as the game wore on. 6 points and 3 rebounds in 17 minutes doesn't look great, but Kaman ended up in the right place more often than not, limiting turnovers and not letting as many easy opponent buckets get by him.
Steve Blake was the unsung man in the three-point barrage, hitting 3 of 6 attempts because the Raptors thought, "Hey, it's just Steve Blake!" Yeah sure, pay attention to the Paladin and the Elf Ranger while the thief backstabs you for triple damage.
CJ McCollum had an up night with 4-7 shooting and 9 points in 16 minutes. This would be a nice week for McCollum to develop some consistency.
Dorell Wright played mini-CJ, scoring 7 in 11 minutes. Portland's small-lineup sets (which included Dorell) looked shaky tonight though, including one memorable 4th-quarter play in which Wright appeared to set up on the wrong side of the floor. It wasn't a solid unit in any case.
Meyers Leonard didn't have time for his three-point shot to unfold, as a result missing both triples he attempted, as a result going scoreless, as a result playing only 8 minutes.
The trip doesn't get much easier as the Blazers face the Washington Wizards tomorrow afternoon in a 4:00 Pacific start.
The Houston Rockets also won tonight, leaving the Blazers in 3rd place, 1 game ahead of Houston in the standings and 2 in the loss column. Portland remains a game behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the #2 spot, tied in the loss column. The Oklahoma City Thunder won as well. Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division from OKC stands at 9.