The Portland Trail Blazers traveled to Brooklyn tonight to take on the Nets without the services of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Chris Kaman, Wesley Matthews, or Dorell Wright. Suiting up every player remaining on their 15-man roster left them with 10 active. Under those conditions, Portland's 106-96 loss was hardly surprising. Blazer fans were looking for good effort overall, perhaps coupled with a revelation or two about their reserve players. They got a little bit of both in a game that turned out more interesting than good..
With Meyers Leonard and Robin Lopez starting in the frontcourt, the Blazers were forced to run a guard-heavy offense from the outset of this game. They fielded 3 guards in the starting lineup: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Arron Afflalo. This set up an interesting showdown. Portland's smaller players burned the Nets with quickness, squirting free down the lane for layups, dodging for open shots off of screens. Brooklyn couldn't keep up. On the other end Deron Williams used size and strength to break down defenders, getting nearly any shot or pass he wanted. (Joe Johnson would try the same but his shot was off, else this would have been a blowout early.) The Nets got burned repeatedly on switches. The Blazers got hammered when they played straight up, passed around when they sent big men to help. This part of the contest was pretty much even.
Unfortunately tonight's game was played 5-on-5, not 3-on-3. After the guard cards fell on the table, the Nets reached into their pockets and pulled out a giant trump card in the person of Brook Lopez. He started the evening hitting foul-line jumpers that his brother Robin couldn't cover, lest he leave the rim wide open. That in itself broke the guard-vs.-guard impasse. But once Brook got warm he started scoring all over the place, all but ignoring whatever hurt his twinnie tried to put on him. Robin did a credible job defending Brook early, but once Joel Freeland took the court Lopez had his way and never stopped. He ended up scoring 32 on 15-25 shooting, a riddle the Blazers never solved.
Normally Portland would counter that kind of outburst with heaping piles of LaMarcus Aldridge iso plays, but Aldridge remained in Portland tonight to avoid the strain of a cross-continent trip. Without him centering the offense, the Blazers were left with Lillard and McCollum trying to dash and dine their way to victory. Lillard scored 36 on 14-26 from the field, an amazing 6-11 from distance. McCollum shot 6-12 for 15 points. Their good games weren't near enough. Williams would score 24 himself with Thaddeus Young adding 20 against inexperienced frontcourt defenders.
Also hamstringing the Blazers: an utter lack of bench production. As you'll recall, Portland's reserves saved the game for them against the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday. Of the weekend's 4 bench heroes, 1 didn't play tonight (Chris Kaman) and 2 shifted to the starting lineup (McCollum and Leonard). That left Steve Blake by his lonesome, playing his customary role without the customary support around him. To the shock of approximately no one, that didn't pan out. Portland's bench shot 3-14, scoring only 10 as a group. Even when the starters kept pace--which they did only intermittently--second-unit droughts killed the Blazers' chances to win.
But hey...what do you expect? Brooklyn is still scrambling for a playoff spot in the East, they've performed well at home lately, and Brook Lopez is playing out of his mind. Odd are the Nets were going to win this game no matter what Portland's depleted lineup achieved. That they managed to come back from 20+ to make the game respectable speaks well of the Blazers. They'll move on to seek revenge against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night, pray that this loss doesn't cost them homecourt in the first round of the playoffs, and call it good.
Damian Lillard is fantastic when he knows it's all up to him. He took shots with little remorse and hit them with even less. His litany of three-pointers would take AutoCad to diagram properly. Eventually the Brooklyn crowd started cheering for Lillard along with their own players. 36 points on 26 shots is already impressive, but when you consider that only 2 of those points came from the foul line...whoosh! Plus Lillard had only 2 turnovers despite all his fancy ball work. It was a wonderful night on offense...pure Dame with a shot of sriracha.
CJ McCollum looked terribly comfortable in his shooting guard role...more comfortable than Arron Afflalo has since he joined the Blazers. (More comfortable than Afflalo looked tonight at small forward for that matter.) CJ shot 6-12 for 15, Afflalo 4-11 for 10. The problem comes on the other end. Lillard and Afflalo aren't the greatest defensive combination. Lillard and McCollum are just as vulnerable PLUS they look awfully short when teamed together. Nothing an opposing guard does looks bad against them. Bull though, shoot over, rub off screens...it's all good.
Meyers Leonard had a decent first half. Then he went bananas enough in the second half that Gwen Stefani is filing a copyright suit as we speak. His defense went up and down. As usual he played the role of Captain Obvious Rebound to a "T". But in between the typical Meyers Moments he made some solid stands, created open looks for himself near the rim, and shot pretty decisively. Leonard ended up with 17 points on 8-13 shooting with 15 boards and 2 steals. He also had 4 assists but at times he overpassed, almost as if he was emulating Nicolas Batum. (Don't do that, Meyers.) 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls complete the picture.
Leonard appeared to injure his left arm during the first period, grabbing the forearm and holding it all the way down the court for multiple possessions. He wasn't exactly looking at the bench to call a timeout, but he was emoting pretty hard. Both Coach Stotts and his teammates ignored him completely. They might have figured there was nobody left on the bench to replace him. Or they might be teaching him a lesson that if it's not bad enough for you to call the timeout yourself, we aren't going to call it for you. In any case, the side drama was half-curious, half-amusing.
After a good defensive first quarter Robin Lopez had another ouchy outing, shooting 4-11 from the field on contested shots. Attempts that used to go in with regularity now look pained for Lopez. Plus his teammates forced him to help them so much on defense that his own rebounding suffered.
I'm not going to talk about the bench because this was an odd and non-indicative situation. I'll just say that at the point you're giving the ball to Alonzo Gee for an iso set, you need to reflect on your life choices.
I think I've said this before, but the Barclay Center court is just perfect. The pattern, the reserved hues...with the Blazers wearing black against Brooklyn's white tonight the palette was sparse, but you can see how the motif would highlight any color on the opponent's uniform and make the game look vibrant. Well done, Brooklyn.
Nets fans who just applauded probably shouldn't read this. If Brook Lopez doesn't opt out of the final year of his contract, he's going to be an unrestricted free agent in 2016...just when all that TV money will be flooding the cap. I wonder if any teams can offer him extra incentives with all that cash, like playing with a twin brother, for instance? Or the perfect environment for expressing geekdom? Hmmm...I wonder...
Tonight's loss gives the Blazers 27, putting them 1 behind the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs (5th and 6th place in the Western playoff bracket respectively) and 2 behind the 3rd-place Memphis Grizzlies.