The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers 114-106 for its first loss Thursday, in a hard-fought, and at times testy contest that left the Moda Center crowd in a chorus of boos.
Preseason notwithstanding, the meeting marked the first meaningful matchup between the clubs since Blazers eliminated the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Now fully healthy, L.A. aimed to prove that they belong in the conversation among the Western Conference elite, while Portland wanted to prove that its postseason victory was no fluke.
The Blazers were led by Damian Lillard (29 points, 10 rebounds), Maurice Harkless (23 points, 8 rebounds) and Mason Plumlee (17 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists).
The Clippers were led by Blake Griffin (27 points, 13 rebounds) and Chris Paul (27 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists).
Both teams picked up - more or less - right where they left off in April, getting after each other on defense and setting the tone of a physical contest early. Al-Farouq Aminu picked up two quick personals overplaying Blake Griffin, and Plumlee wasted no time fulfilling his recently developed role as human wrecking ball, drawing his first whistle after stumbling into DeAndre Jordan on the opening possession. But that energy might have just been what Plumlee needed, scoring on a nifty baseline reverse and again on a fading - yes, fading - 16-footer. A couple timely blocks and two assists, including a sweet bounce pass to a cutting Maurice Harkless rounded out a nice opening shift for the big man.
Lillard continued to look dialed-in and carried most of the scoring load early, putting up 10 in the first quarter and knocking down both attempts from downtown. Portland led through most of the period, but a costly over-the-back foul on Ed Davis in the closing seconds put Maresse Speights to the line for two free throws to put L.A. ahead.
End of First: Portland 27, Los Angeles 28
The Blazers play stayed physical into the second quarter, but to diminished success, as the Clippers used a 16-0 run to jump out to a suddenly comfortable 37-27 lead, largely fueled by trips to the foul line where L.A. capitalized. Portland caught few breaks, getting into the penalty early and perhaps receiving the short end of the stick on a few 50/50 calls. Still, without Lillard on the floor the offense looked at times stymied and out of sync - Evan Turner missed his first five shots before knocking down an elbow jumper and CJ. McCollum was held to a modest 7 points.
Despite its troubles, the Blazers managed to keep the game relatively close - Harkless added a corner trey to his fine first half performance, but as a whole Portland only shot 30% from the field during the quarter. A dagger three from Chris Paul in the final seconds helped L.A. seize its momentum back heading into the locker room.
Halftime: Portland 49, Los Angeles 58
The third quarter started with some chippiness, as Plumlee and Jordan got into a brief scrum as Plumlee took offense to being pushed out of bounds. The two exchanged not so kind words and drew double-technicals, but the altercation ignited the Blazers, ripping a 10-0 run to take the lead at 59-58 on Plumlee's running dunk.
The rest of the period was back-and-forth and tense, with Harkless again leading the way for Portland with eight points and strong defense on Paul. Lillard continued his magnetism running towards the basket, scoring with a variety of impressive finishes at the rim, but struggled to earn free throws. His running layup tied the game heading into the final frame.
End of Third: Portland 82, Los Angeles 82
It was the Clippers who jumped out early to begin the fourth, getting a huge spark from Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Maresse Speights, quickly building a six-point 90-84 lead on Felton's layup.
That's when things got ugly. After pulling within just one, Plumlee appeared to shove Griffin under the basket during a rebound attempt - at first no call was made on the floor, but after video review it was reversed to a flagrant 1, much to the ire of the Moda Center crowd. Griffin converted both of the freebies, and although L.A. did not score on the ensuing possession, the Blazers never recovered.
Minutes later, trailing 98-89 McCollum earned a flagrant 1 of his own for an under the basket shove on Jordan. Jordan may not have needed to (he went just 2-10 from the stripe on the evening) but he hit one when it counted to give the Clippers a double-digit lead. A straightaway three from Paul with just over four minutes remaining looked to ice it at 102-90.
To its credit, Portland didn't give up - even crawling back within just five in the final minute after falling behind by as much as 15. The charge was led by Lillard, who with his shot now failing him finally found his way to the foul line. But two costly misses, including one with 55 seconds to go cut the comeback short. The Blazers soon had to play the foul game and L.A. held court, walking out with a gutsy win that will surely have plenty to talk about.
The Blazers hit the road for the first time of the 2016-17 campaign to take on the Denver Nuggets Saturday at 6 p.m. Stay tuned to Blazer's Edge tonight, for extended analysis of this game from Dan Marang.
-- Ryan Rosback | email@example.com | Twitter