The Portland Trail Blazers have pulled off some improbable victories over the last two years, some even more improbable than tonight's 98-93 overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers. (Hello, Houston. Does it still hurt? Good.) But for an early-March game that should have been fairly unmemorable, this one had more than its fair share of stomach-churning, heart-stopping, and logic-defying moments. Let's jump right in.
Tonight's opening period looked pretty decent for the Blazers. The Clippers announced their intentions early, spraying a fusillade of deep jumpers at the rim to mixed effect. J.J. Redick connections mingled with Spencer Hawes rim-denting. The overall result was less than threatening.
While L.A. spent its time shooting in the breeze, the Blazers ran screen plays to get mismatches for LaMarcus Aldridge. If Hawes looked bad on offense, his attempts at defending Portland's main man looked worse. Throw in a couple opportunistic Nicolas Batum triples and the Blazers' offense seemed to be outclassing the Clippers. Chris Paul proved a thorn in Portland's side, scoring 9 points as the period closed to keep his team close. But Portland won the transition battle, the paint scoring battle, and the second-chance point battle. Against that the Clippers offered only jumpers. The Blazers led 28-24 as the first quarter expired.
The good news for the Blazers in Period 2 was that their bench didn't give away the game as they have done most of the last week. The bad news: the reserves still committed turnovers. Equally bad news: both reserves and starters fell into L.A.'s game, fighting distance shots with even more distance shots. As it turned out, the Clippers were a wee bit better than the Blazers on the perimeter this night. Robin Lopez appreciated the opportunity for spread-floor offensive rebounds, upon which he feasted. But overall the Blazers' attack slowed while the Clippers kept chugging along at the same pace. In a rewind of the first period, Paul scored 8 points as the quarter ended. That outburst put the Clippers up 48-46 at the half.
The wheels started coming off the ride in the third quarter. It began with the Clippers making better use of pick plays, lifting a page from Portland's first-period book. The Blazers dealt with L.A. screens like a bird hitting a plate-glass window. "THUD! 2 points, and somebody go check if that defender is alive or dead. Take a shovel and a baggie!" Paul proved the beneficiary of most of these plays, either springing free for easy shots or penetrating for easy passes. The Blazers scored inside and at the line but couldn't hit from the perimeter. Opponent scoring prevented the Blazers from getting easy points in transition. Opponent rebounding kept the Blazers from second-chance points as well. Portland's offense dried up and the game looked to be tilting towards the enemy.
Paul's 4th foul at the 4:16 mark of the third ended up saving the day for Portland when nothing else could. L.A. was up 66-55 and cruising at that point. Without their superstar, they managed only 1 bucket the rest of the quarter. The Blazers dodged a major bullet and trailed only 66-68 at the end of three.
If the third period was precarious for the Blazers, the fourth was downright dismal. Their litany of offenses against the game of basketball is too long to recount here. The Cliff's Notes version includes horrible defense, running different offensive sets on the same play, inability to secure rebounds, missing wide-open threes, and succumbing to aggressive traps on Damian Lillard. The Blazers scored exactly 7 points in the first 9:22 of the fourth. The Clippers weren't all that hot either but they still led by 9, 85-76, with under 3 to go.
Fortunately the Clippers stalled in the last 3 minutes as the Blazers picked up. L.A. managed only 4 points in that stretch: 2 on free throws and 2 on a Redick layup against a Portland defense that, on an ultra-critical possession, put up the same resistance as tweens at a One Direction concert. That's the kind of night it was.
Fortunately Batum came to the rescue again, accounting for 5 of the Blazers' final 12 points, including a game-tying three-pointer with 26 seconds left in the game.
That's when the evening took a turn for the bizarre. After the Clippers dribbled down the clock they found themselves inbounding the ball with 2.8 seconds remaining, but just 1.7 left on the shot clock. Paul took the ball down the left baseline and floated a shot that went in and out. Since Portland's defense had collapsed on CP3, nobody was left to rebound the ball except DeAndre Jordan who snagged it just as the clock expired. The shot clock, that is. Technically a little less than a second remained on the game clock. Since the ball had touched the rim on the Paul attempt, Jordan was free to put it right back in the hoop from zero feet and win the game for his team. But in a classic, "Could have happened to anybody but I'm glad it happened to you" moment, he mistook the shot clock buzzer for the final horn. As Paul screamed at him to put the shot up, time expired with the ball still nestled in Jordan's hands like the torch atop the Statue of Liberty.
You can see video of that final sequence here.
You can see Paul's reaction in slow-motion here.
Both are worth a look.
With everybody in the arena and an audience of millions on TV shaking their heads, wondering how the Blazers came back and wondering how anything could top the spectacle of that last play, overtime seemed a toss-up. Emotion and momentum went up for grabs with the tip. At first the Blazers had trouble generating forward progress, just as they had all game. Aldridge struggled with his shot all night and missed his first shot of OT. Damian Lillard was 0-11 at that point. He missed too. Arron Afflalo capped off his 2-7 night with a miss as well. Star 1, Star 2, and the New Guy were all fizzling. Who in the world was going to step up for the Blazers?
Two saving graces presented themselves in this dire situation:
1. Once again the Clippers weren't much better, scoring only 1 field goal from Hedo Turkoglu in that same stretch.
2. Having played the hero twice before, Batum was about to go full-on Nico Suave and end this game.
In their darkest hour, Batum again rescued his teammates. He got fouled on a soaring dunk attempt and hit both free throws. He assisted on 3 lob passes. Then, with the Blazers up 95-93 and 20 seconds remaining, Batum hit the game-icing three-pointer. Between assists and buckets, Batum accounted for all 11 points Portland scored in overtime. It was easily his finest moment of the season, his finest overall game of the year as well. All Hail Batum!
Thanks to the Flying Frenchman providing an unlikely turnaround in a night with enough heroes and goats to fill a Thieves World novel, the Blazers ended their long journey through Staples Center with a 98-93 victory.
You don't really analyze a game like this as much as marvel at it. Batum's performance deserves full credit. Chris Kaman also did fairly well. The rest of it can be compiled under the heading, "How the Hell...?"
As in, "How the hell did the Blazers win a game wherein..."
--Lillard shot 1-13
--Wesley Matthews went 2-8 from deep and scored only 12
--Aldridge scored 29 but shot 12-30 in the process
--Afflalo contributed his 2-7
--The Blazers shot 40% overall and 25% (8-32) from distance
--Portland missed an uncharacteristic 7 free throws
--The Blazers lost the turnover battle handily and couldn't gain an edge on the offensive glass
--The Blazers trailed by 9 with 3:00 remaining
--The Clippers had the game resting in their hands and failed to put back an offensive board
--The Blazers allowed a team shooting jumpers almost exclusively to get free time after time and to stay with them all night.
--Portland's screen defense and point guard defense was as bad as we've ever seen it.
Seriously, except for maybe 6-8 minutes scattered over 3 periods this game was an eyesore. And yet here we are, talking about another Portland win on the road against a playoff rival. That is some major mojo...one of those things where you go, "Sweet! We'll take it," and, "Don't ever count this team out!"
The Blazers also did some things well. They took advantage of mismatches. They corralled Chris Paul with bigger defenders late in the game after he made like a wild stallion most of the night. The Blazers scored in transition, went to the paint when the jumpers weren't falling, and eventually made the Clips pay for playing low-minute veterans and make-do players because of injuries.
This win wasn't an accident. You just couldn't duplicate the game if you tried. It was otherworldly, the sublime and horrific wrapped in a crazy, unforgettable package.
We'll go light on these because it's late and the story was in the game flow more than singular players...except:
Give tonight's game ball to Nicolas Batum. Then go out, buy three more, autograph them, and give those to him too. Saying he scored 20 with 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, and only 1 turnover doesn't do it. Batum was the hero when nobody else was going to step up. This was scanning as a messy, listless loss until he showed up. He did everything the Blazers needed and more. As mercurial as Batum can be, sometimes you just know you want him to have the ball in his hands and the primary defensive assignment alongside. This was one of those evenings. Watch his overtime exploits here and enjoy. This was his night, his game.
Lillard's 1-13 performance was shocking and brutal. His shots were nowhere near falling. His defense was not much better. He committed 5 turnovers against 5 points and 4 assists. His huge contribution was 18 rebounds. Those were as decisive as anything in a game where a single bucket would have made the difference. Damian was working hard. The results just didn't follow.
LaMarcus Aldridge had 29 points but he's still not quite right, as we've been saying for days. 12-30 shooting isn't him, nor is getting bodied all over the floor on offense. He's visible shaking his thumb after jumpers. He's still the best player on the floor, but he's a different LaMarcus.
Robin Lopez's 6 offensive rebounds were big in those middle quarters when the Blazers weren't scoring any other way.
Chris Kaman had 7 rebounds and 8 points in 16 minutes, matching some of his early-season performances. He just seems slower now, either because of fatigue or nagging injuries or because the league has caught up to him a little. But this was a good night for him.
Arron Afflalo played 33 minutes and scored 7 on 2-7 shooting with 3 assists and 3 turnovers. He's still finding his way on offense, struggling a little in non-catch-and-shoot situations. I was concentrating on too many other things to notice his defense much but what I did see seemed mixed.
The Blazers regained the 3rd spot in the conference with this win, percentage points ahead of the Houston Rockets. Their Magic Number to clinch the Northwest Division over the Oklahoma City Thunder is now 15.
Our Instant Recap contains reaction from around the web to this game.
ClipsNation will probably be more in shock about this game than we are.
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--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge