Let me tell you a story. You see, one day Princess Leia sent her separated-but-not-divorced husband Han Solo to a super-sized Death Star to stop a villain who was trying to be Darth Vader, Part 2. But when the bad guy took off his mask it turned out that it was Severus Snape, who was searching madly for horcruxes that had to be destroyed in the fires of the volcano in which they were forged by a guy who was so in love with Ramona that he was forced to defeat her evil exes, which, of course, was the side of tic-tac-toe the super-computer took as it was rehearsing its game simulation to destroy the world according to Garp.
If you followed that, you'll have no trouble understanding the Portland Trail Blazers' 104-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks tonight. It was seven different games mashed into one, an experience not unlike arguing with your wife. Every time somebody got far enough ahead to sense victory, the terms of engagement changed and the fight started anew on weaker ground. In the end Atlanta won with surer shots from more experienced players but the experiment wouldn't be repeatable. It wasn't a showcase night for either team. Unfortunately it still counts as a loss in the standings for Portland.
Game flow? There wasn't any.
No, seriously. There wasn't.
The Trail Blazers tipped off like they were happy to be home after a long road trip. They ran the floor, pressed quick offense, and pasted an 11-4 lead on the Hawks. Then it all went away. Atlanta's defense toughened and the Blazers also (inexplicably) slowed down. They walked the ball, fought the clock, and failed to get back on defense themselves. It was like all their energy got sucked away by sparkly vampires and Peeta couldn't do a thing to save them. By the end of the quarter Portland's 11-4 lead turned into a 29-18 deficit.
Just when you thought the Blazers were in for a long night, CJ McCollum pasted a dozen points on the Hawks, as if he was gunning for the Top Gun award that he couldn't actually win because he isn't a full-blooded Sicilian. McCollum's tantrum propelled Portland to a 22-10 run and left the score at 43-42 with 2:40 remaining in the half. But the Blazers gave Paul Millsap 5 points in 30 seconds as the quarter closed and Atlanta took a 48-43 lead into intermission.
In the third quarter Atlanta laced up Portland's abandoned first-period shoes and ran their offense like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang dive-bombing Godzilla. They hit 4 three-pointers and put the Blazers on the ropes until the final 3:30 when McCollum and Meyers Leonard went crazy to bring Portland back from 9 down to within 2, 74-72.
The game normalized somewhat as both teams played to their traditional strengths in the fourth period. Damian Lillard came alive while Leonard and Allen Crabbe canned three-pointers to put Portland ahead 84-79 with 8 minutes remaining. The Hawks pushed the ball inside, trying to take advantage of their superior big-men and ability to blow past Portland's guard defense, but they couldn't convert a layup to save their lives.
Then things went loopy again. Atlanta moved their bigs outside, at which point the Blazers vowed that the first rule of defense is that they don't talk about defense...or play it. Paul Millsap and Al Horford caught fire from mid-range and long-distance. Even though Atlanta's high-percentage shots had missed throughout the quarter, their lower-percentage looks were pure gold. Go figure. The Blazers held the lane as long as they could, waiting for Atlanta to start missing again, but the moment never came. It was like watching space aliens blowing up the Von Trapp Family Singers on the Fourth of July.
McCollum made one last gasp to take the game back in hand but the Blazers could neither hit nor prevent enough shots. They fell moving at half speed on defense and firing on half their cylinders on offense. That they kept the game close anyway shows their determination, but they never paired it with enough execution to overcome.
Following their game-opening surge, Portland's offense remained spotty all evening. McCollum had magnificent moments but his teammates couldn't build on them.
The game could have been Portland's anyway but for their tendency to try and win with offense instead of defense (or instead of both) in the closing minutes. With the game tight, the Blazers settled for high-lofted 25-footers and kamikaze drives from their guards instead of well-planned plays. In a particularly egregious moment with 5:00 remaining and the margin a single point, Lillard attempted a deep three with 18 seconds on the shot clock only to watch Horford streak down the court for a dunk off the ensuing miss. Not only did the Blazers get a bad shot, they failed to get back afterwards even with their men farther down the court than Atlanta's initially.
This typifies the flaws in Portland's mindset. Those flaws aren't automatically fatal; the game was within reach late and was ultimately decided by 6 points. But on average the "offense first" tendencies that the Blazers exhibit are going to lose them more close games than they win. It's one of the lessons young teams eventually learn. Portland hasn't gotten there yet.
Underscoring the point: The Blazers came close to winning on a night when they shot 9-31 (29%) from the three-point arc. But they allowed the Hawks to shoot 10-24 (42%) from long range and couldn't defend without fouling, giving up 23 free throws and shooting only 11. This tilted the relatively equal matchup Atlanta's way. On a great night Portland would have prevailed anyway. If they want to be successful they have to figure out how to win when the offense isn't going well.
This was CJ McCollum's night. He scored 28 on 12-23 shooting. The degree of difficulty on his buckets started modest then rocketed to incredible.
Unfortunately zero other Blazers got rolling. Damian Lillard shot 8-22, 1-6 from distance for 18 points. Meyers Leonard scored 10 points in 18 minutes but he shot 4-12 in order to do it. Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh combined for 8-12 shooting (the only other Blazers besides McCollum to shoot well) but when you're depending on that duo to carry your offense, you're in trouble. The Blazers rebounded well and defended the lane reasonably well, but that was it.
Notes and Such
Portland will try to right the ship on Saturday night as the Los Angeles Lakers visit town, Kobe Bryant's last game in the Moda Center.
Peachtree Hoops will be glad the Hawks escaped with the win.
Wouldn't you feel good about sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see Damian Lillard and the Blazers play? We're doing exactly that when the Sacramento Kings come to Portland on March 28th! Your help makes a huge difference and it's easy. 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.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge