The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Utah Jazz 111-105 in their final home game of the regular season tonight. To be fair, the names of both teams should have been in quotes. With LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo, and Dorell Wright out for the Blazers plus Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors resting for the Jazz, the game resembled one of those casino-based reunion tours of your favorite oldies group. "Now playing at Wildwoods West, Fred Shiminski and the Moody Blues". Close your eyes and don't check any actual Moody Blues album covers and you might be alright.
Unsurprisingly, both teams played like they didn't exactly know what they were doing. At any given time, 2/5 of them didn't. This left the game hanging on streaks of individual brilliance, of which there were several.
The Jazz got the ball rolling with Trevor Booker making hash out of Meyers Leonard to the tune of 19 points in the first quarter alone. Leonard is a stretch four now, but the biggest stretch of all might have been calling whatever he was doing out there "defense". To be fair, Leonard is seeing the game far better than he has at any time in his career. Tonight he was thinking 2-3 moves ahead, reacting appropriately to court flow, and playing well on offense. He just didn't have the physical tools to defend the position. Booker was the Home Shopping Network and Meyers got a brand new credit card. They made him pay. The Blazers survived the period because Robin Lopez did a credible job scoring inside but Utah led 32-19 after one.
The second period found Portland quoting the old "Good for the goose, good for the gander" proverb, After Lopez began the period with a little more blue-collar work, CJ McCollum descended upon the Jazz like a ballistic missile. You could almost hear Joshua saying, "Shall We Play a Game?" Utah was all, "Yeah...how about chess?" CJ was like, "Nope! Global Thermonuclear War." BAM! Jumper! BAM! Three-pointer! BAM! Another jumper! BAM! Three-pointer again! And I nuked Salt Lake City too! 10 points in 90 seconds took Portland's deficit from 8 to 2. They gave it all back by the end of the half, but at least they had demonstrated their firepower. Utah led 56-46 at intermission.
The third period was all Blazers as McCollum returned for "Wargames 2: Electric Boogaloo". And this time he brought a friend. Say hello to Damian Lillard.
Hey CJ, is this the button you push?
Naw, man. It's the one over there.
Like this? BAM! And-one!
Pretty much. You can experiment a little. All the buttons do something.
OK. BAM! Three-pointer!
Awww yeah. That's it. BAM! Jumper! BAM! Free throws!
Hey guys, can I play?
Get outta here, Lopez. BAM! More free throws!
BAM! DUNK! BAM! Layup! I hope they have plenty of gauze handy.
Halfway through the period Utah's defense was so twisted around that everybody was scoring on them. Portland's 34-21 third quarter display left them ahead 80-77 entering the fourth.
McCollum got in a couple more licks at the start of the fourth, scoring 6 points in 6 minutes, then his mom called for dinner and he had to go home. But Damian stayed around, pushing that nuke button again and again. Three-pointer, layup, reverse layup, jumper. He tried to carry the team on his shoulders.
He'd have pulled it off too if it weren't for those meddling kids in the form of Jeremy Evans, Rodney Hood, and Bryce Cotton. If you're saying, "Who?!?" that's kind of the point.
It wasn't so much that these guys were brilliant. The Blazers just didn't support Lillard's offense by doing the little things on defense: closing off penetration, getting hands up, and especially securing rebounds. Utah's offense wasn't that complex. Mostly they drove into traffic and put up a shot. But they got deep enough that many of those shots resulted in free throws. The Jazz scored 14 in the fourth from the foul line, another 10 within 10 feet of the hoop. No amount of hero ball from Lillard was going to outpace that kind of easy production.
The Blazers didn't help their cause by finishing game like it was a New Battlestar Galactica reenactment party. Down 5 with possession and 33 seconds left, they called a timeout. Having diagrammed their inbounds play and all its permutations, the proceeded to draw a 5-second inbounding penalty, never getting the ball onto the court. Utah made the free throws, leaving the Blazers desperate. With 30 seconds left Nicolas Batum shot-faked his way to an open three-point look but instead of taking the shot he did his "Batum" thing and fired it inside to Leonard for a dunk. Leonard was wide open, but so was Nic. The Blazers needed 3, not 2. Portland got a break on the ensuing free throws as Booker missed one, but Portland couldn't secure the rebound. Off of a free throw. That they were hoping would miss. Yeah.
So Utah walked away with the morale-boosting 111-105 win. The loss didn't hurt the Blazers much but the end-game execution follies can't have made anyone happy. That ended was too jarring for a team heading into crucial post-season games in which they're likely to be pushed to the final buzzer...in which a single mistake can turn a game and a single game can turn a series. The loss didn't matter but they probably shouldn't have lost like that, especially when Lillard went so far out of his way to keep them in the game in the fourth.
CJ McCollum is feeling it, as 26 points on 9-17 shooting plus 8 rebounds and 3 steals attest. He is one with the flow, using the force...whatever description of swagger and timeliness you care to employ. Let me repeat something I said the other night: the first couple games of the playoffs are going to be critical for CJ. If he excels early in the series, the sky's the limit. He might not shut off. But if the opponent tamps him down to a flicker, this is going to seem like a hot streak gone cold beyond recall. McCollum is inches away from gaining irrevocable confidence. Cross your fingers.
Damian Lillard: 12-22, 28 points, 5 assists, 2 steals. What more can he do?
Robin Lopez topped 20 again tonight, scoring 21 on 8-14 shooting with 6 rebounds. He started strong then seemed to fade as the game went along, particularly on the glass, particularly in the fourth quarter. Something's not right here.
Nicolas Batum: 1-10 from the field. 8 assists, sure. 6 rebounds, sure. 3 steals, sure sure. But Nicolas Batum: 1-10 from the field.
Nicolas Batum: 0-6 from the arc too.
I picked on Meyers Leonard's defense above because you pretty much have to when the guy you're assigned to scores 19 in a single period. But also underline the part about Leonard playing smarter and having a bigger effect on plays than he ever has. He really is playing the best team basketball of his career and deserves credit for that. But that doesn't mean he's not Meyers Leonard.
Allen Crabbe got 29 minutes and hit 5 of his 9 shots for 11 points. The problems were two:
1. Crabbe's 11 accounted for 69% of Portland's bench scoring tonight. They totaled 16 as a whole.
2. Utah's bench put a POUNDING on the Blazers, putting 4 players in double figures for 45 points total. Keep in mind the Jazz sat 2 of their starters as well, so this was the deeper part of their bench.
This loss gave the Blazers 29 for the season. All 4 teams surrounding them in the playoff standings--San Antonio, Memphis, the L.A. Clippers, and Houston--have 26. Of those, only Houston has 3 games remaining on their schedule. That means the Blazers are guaranteed to finish behind the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Clippers in the standings and will only finish ahead of Houston (by tiebreaker) if the Blazers win out and Houston loses 3 straight. But if the Rockets did lose out, they'd finish 6th in the bracket and not 5th.
In other words, the Blazers just guaranteed themselves the 4th place spot in the playoff bracket while simultaneously guaranteeing they won't get homecourt in the first round against the 5-seed. Their position in the post-season is set. The only thing left to determine is who they'll face.