4, 8, 19, 27, 34, and 10. Those are Powerball numbers, not the leading scorers for the Blazers tonight. (34 and 27 would be no problem but there's no way Portland's third-highest scorer gets 19 points.) With that out of the way--and now that you know you're not $1.5 billion richer--on with the show.
Matchups between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz are seldom classics nowadays. Anticipating a mid-January matchup between these two teams is like going to a "fireworks show" where a guy comes out in long underwear holding a can of chili and a match. It might be kind of fun, but...yeah.
The first half of tonight's game lived up to that billing, complete with public displays of flatulence from all parties involved. Then Blazers superhero Damian Lillard led his team to an impressive, splash-filled second half to redeem the evening. As the clock ran down Portland raced away to an easy 99-85 blowout, leaving their fans the happiest people in the universe outside of the country's newest billionaires. Congratulations, whoever you are. Please sponsor our podcast.
The first quarter of this game was so messed up that it's been booked on Dr. Phil next Tuesday. Portland's offense looked as intimidating as a toothless gerbil. The Blazers fought the clock. Their plays yielded two results:
1. Wrong shots
2. Correct shots taken by the wrong people.
Portland tested the lane maybe three times total, with Rudy Gobert sending them away like a yardstick-wielding schoolmarm each time. Unable to score within 20 feet of the bucket, the Blazers vomited up an assortment of joke-store jumpers. They hit two shots in the first 6:00 of play, one of them a desperation heave by Lillard that had no business getting anywhere near the net. Fortunately the injured and semi-uninspired Jazz fared no better. Rodney Hood had his way with Portland's defense now and again but Utah couldn't sustain a run. At the end of the first the score read 19-18, Utah. Cue Chili Sparkler Man.
The second period would have been as bad as the first except for Gerald Henderson. Portland's veteran guard put bailing wire and duct tape on his shot and actually got it to drop, hitting a trio of triples and scoring 10 in the period. This accounted for a full 40% of Portland's offense. Because of injuries Utah's first unit was made up of second-unit players tonight, leaving their second unit mostly unmentionable. The Jazz scored 18 in the quarter while Portland managed 25 to take a 43-37 halftime lead.
Intermission allowed us all a chance to imagine what tonight's lottery winners were doing at the moment (besides peeing their pants). I envisioned about 2 minutes of, "OH MY...WHAAAAA HOOOOOOO!!!" followed by the realization that they're now holding a small slip of paper worth 1500 million dollars. I imagine every shade in the house got drawn, every door and window locked, and they answered the phone with, "HA HA HA! NO WE DID NOT JUST WIN POWERBALL! THANKS FOR ASKING! WE MUST ARM OURSELVES AND GO TO THE BASEMENT NOW! AS PER USUAL!"
Apparently the Blazers checked the winning numbers in the locker room, figured out they weren't instant billionaires, and decided they'd better start playing for real so they could keep their jobs. Lillard came out torching the nets, matching Henderson's feat with 3 three-pointers in the first 6 minutes of the third. Al-Farouq Aminu played masterful defense, stopping plays and forcing turnovers. Offensive rebounds held Portland in good stead, a night-long trend. Before you could say, "Bob's Your Uncle" Portland had put 34 points on the board. They exited he period with a 77-62 lead and never looked back. The Blazers spent the fourth quarter running and gunning while the Jazz nodded and plodded. A late three-point barrage by Utah made no difference; Portland won by 15.
How well do you know the Blazers? When Portland struggles offensively, what saves them?
If you said, "Offensive Rebounding", you are correct. Portland demolished Utah on the boards tonight, rendering some surprisingly-fine Jazz defense essentially meaningless. The Blazers missed 49 shots, Utah 45, but Portland held a 17-10 offensive rebounding advantage and a 54-38 advantage overall. That's strong.
If you said, "Damian Lillard", you are also correct. His surge came at exactly the right time to announce to the opponent that they weren't going to win. Utah came out of the halftime locker room thinking, "This game is ragged. Maybe we have a chance..." Lillard's three-pointers said, "Nope. Nope. And...Nope." You could see the Jazz deflate after that.
If you said, "Go on a hot streak from distance!" give yourself a bonus cookie. After the team got off to a miserable start, Henderson and Lillard started the landslide that ended up in a 11-26, 42% long-range performance.
The Blazers also did a nice job forcing turnovers, running the break, and crowding the lane against Utah's bigs. Portland didn't cover the three-point arc at all but it hardly mattered as the Jazz were stone cold outside most of the night.
The game ended up playing out like a fairly routine session of Magic: The Gathering. Portland used offensive rebounding and lane defense to block the opponent's attack, stalemating them until the unstoppable Lillard card came out, bolstered by Terry Stotts' exclusive "Fountain of Three Pointers" buff. It wasn't the most exciting match ever, but the deck was solid and the right side won.
Damian Lillard would have notched his first career triple-double had he played in the fourth quarter. The game was in Portland's pocket by then, so he didn't. He still ended up with 21 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds, and 2 steals. Utah's semi-emergency point guard Raul Neto didn't know what to do with him...except maybe ask for an autograph.
CJ McCollum shot only 6-20 on one of his roughest offensive nights in a while. Rudy Gobert shutting off the interior really bothered him. His escape dribbles ended up in contested or blocked shots. He rushed his outside jumpers and didn't look comfortable until the game was well in hand. CJ did dish 8 assists, contributing to the fun second half.
Al-Farouq Aminu owned the third quarter. His defense was superlative. If Lillard's offense knocked the Jazz to the floor, Aminu made sure they stayed down. 4 blocked shots highlighted his evening along with 10 points and 7 rebounds.
Mason Plumlee had his hands full with Gobert, who is quick for his size. Plumlee still managed 2 blocks. This isn't a matchup the Blazers would like to see every night.
Noah Vonleh shot 2-7 and probably should have done better than that. With Derrick Favors out he wasn't under a ton of pressure.
Meyers Leonard showed snappy offense tonight, shooting quickly and confidently, hitting 5 of 8 shots. But he collected 6 fouls in 26 minutes...ouch. Even more ouchy: he flat-out quit on two live plays that he was right in the middle of. It didn't seem intentional, more like he assumed the play was decided once the shot went up so he put his hands down to his side and began walking away when other players were still making bids for the ball. Not only is this a huge no-no for a professional player, it reveals something about Leonard's instinct. You want a guy to burn for the ball, to fight every last millisecond until it's proven that he can't win. That's not Leonard's mindset. Losing out on a couple buckets in a relatively meaningless game is no big deal, but Meyers needs to learn to fight for everything he can get in this league.
Ed Davis and Moe Harkless led the energy brigade off the bench, Davis grabbing 12 rebounds and Harkless hustling on both ends.
Allen Crabbe came alive late, demonstrating devastating outside-in offense and scoring 11 on 4-9 shooting. He also notched 3 steals and 2 blocks in one of his best defensive efforts of the year.
Gerald Henderson made all 3 three-pointers he attempted and scored 12 points in 16 minutes. This would be a nice time for his offense to return, what, with February around the corner and all.
Chris Kaman played 2 minutes and got a massive ovation when he hit a shot. I'm kinda-sorta wondering how he feels about that. The cheers are well-meant but the vibe is "charity/crowd favorite" and he's still a viable player. I'm thinking in the back of his mind he might be going, "Yeah, shut up. I should be playing 25 minutes per game and my shots should be getting golf claps."
Links and Such
SLC Dunk will want to forget this game as soon as possible.
Thanks to Ryan, Brandon, Eric, and Timmay for covering these recaps while I was traveling around the country.
We are getting close to the one-month-away deadline for ticket donations for Blazer's Edge Night. We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help to get those tickets aligned by mid-February! You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.