The unavoidable highs and lows of a typical NBA season are upon Trail Blazers fans, and it’s not even November. After being treated to an opening night explosion by Damian Lillard to close out the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night, Portland and Lillard struggled down the stretch against Los Angeles on Thursday and eventually folded to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers, 114-106.
The Blazers looked to start where they left off against the Jazz, with Lillard hitting early and often. Buoyed by Maurice Harkless, together the duo pushed the Blazers out to the early lead. With almost no one hitting besides those two, Portland ceded control of the quarter to the Clippers, particularly Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles reserves, who pushed the Clippers out to a 28-27 lead after one frame.
Similar trends persisted throughout the second quarter from the Clippers’ bench, with Marreese Speights (15 points, 2-3 shooting on 3-pointers) continuing to do damage and everyone not named Lillard or Harkless continuing to miss for Portland. Los Angeles pushed the lead past double digits, even though they were running pick-and-rolls and straight post-ups almost exclusively — and justifiably so.
The Blazers’ defense started to settle in a bit and managed to stave off much of the bleeding, but eventually that gave way to fouls — lots and lots of fouls. In fact, Portland committed an obscene amount of fouls. The Clippers paraded to the free throw line on what felt like every possession, and ended the night shooting 32-46 from the charity stripe. Tensions mounted heading into the locker room, as the Blazers trailed by nine.
The third quarter saw the chippy-ness between the two teams elevate from a slight simmer to a full-blown boil. As tempers flared, we were reminded that Mason Plumlee and DeAndre Jordan apparently don’t care for each other all that much. They’ve mixed it up in the past plenty, and tonight was no different as they tangled multiple times, even after the whistles were blown.
In what would normally be a run-of-the-mill loose ball foul, Jordan shoved Plumlee out of bounds under the basket, launching Plumlee into the crowd, who eventually landed on a small child. Feeling slighted, Plumlee grabbed Jordan’s shorts to keep from falling further onto the young fan and Jordan paid no mind, except to slap Plumlee’s hand away.
Plumlee wasn’t having it, so an NBA kerfuffle ensued!
Offsetting technical fouls were assessed and the physicality of the game ratcheted up another notch. The emotion seemed to energize the Blazers a bit as they closed the gap with much-improved defense and early offense. Harkless came to the forefront in the third with the Clippers switching JJ Redick on to him, and took his defender inside on numerous possessions and simply shot over the top of him. Harkless’ play keyed a Portland run that knotted the game at 82 points apiece headed into the final period.
The fourth quarter brought no respite from the discord between the two teams. Really, this was the theme of the evening — and as usual, Plumlee was involved. This time, it was a simple play where Griffin stepped in front of a mobile Plumlee, who then ran into Griffin. What happened next was, well...different. Griffin went crashing to the ground, arms splayed, and penguin-slid across the court like he was struck in the back with a two-ton wrecking ball. At worst, it looked like a loose ball foul.
Whistles blew, and the refs went to the review table.
The fracas ended with a Flagrant Foul 1 assessed to Plumlee, and the Moda Center crowd certainly let the referees hear its displeasure.
The Blazers’ struggles ensued, as they missed their next five shots while the Clippers pushed their lead out to 12 points. Jordan then got in the open court with a head of steam, the rim his destination with only the 6-foot-3 CJ McCollum standing in the way.
CJ wasn’t having any of it, and he raised up, brought his hands down on Jordan and sent the big man to the floor.
Whistles again blew, and another Flagrant Foul 1 was assessed, this time to Mcollum:
There was no mixed analysis on this one — it was a clear flagrant. It looked more like a message-sending foul than anything else, which isn’t out of the realm for McCollum (he led the Blazers in flagrant fouls last year). Much like before though, the Blazers responded by missing more shots while the Clippers continued working the Paul-Griffin two-man game for bucket after bucket. The Los Angeles lead ballooned to 15 points with under three minutes to go before Portland made its final push.
Led by Lillard, Harkless, and McCollum, the Blazers made somewhat of a charge to close the gap but it was too little, too late. They applied late-game pressure, but the Clippers executed well enough down the stretch to secure the win.
So what can we take away from this game? There was a lot going on throughout — and the Blazers interspersed the good with the bad. You know going in that the three-headed-monster of Paul, Griffin and Jordan is going to be tough. However, you can’t let them get 60 points and 30 rebounds and have the Clippers’ bench dump 44 points on you.
If the Trail Blazers are going to bank on being a team that takes and makes a bevy of threes, well, they need to take and make them. Getting up only 18 attempts from distance isn’t going to cut it on most nights, and managing to only hit four of them is going to make every other part of the game tougher. In the “Lillard Era” the Blazers have made fewer than four 3-pointers 26 times, and in those games they’re 8-18.
Despite a poor shooting effort, Portland performed admirably on the boards. While Lillard led the Blazers in rebounding for the second consecutive game with 10, the team stepped in nicely and kept the Clippers from gobbling up everything in sight. Griffin and Jordan combined for 25 rebounds, but the Blazers had four guys with eight or more each. You’ll take this on just about any night your frontline is at a serious height and weight disadvantage.
This game, however, came down to mental focus. Many times on Thursday — on both ends of the floor — the Blazers just fell apart. They missed rotations on help defense, left shooters open, committed errant passes and over-dribbled regularly. While Portland only finished with 14 turnovers, there were quite a few broken plays. On the defensive end, there were fouls galore.
That last point is worth examining simply because the Blazers are certainly playing a more aggressive style of defense this year. So far, in the way-too-early review, it’s a mixed bag. Tonight it resulted in 46 free throws, even if you take away Jordan’s 10 free throw attempts. You can’t surrender 36 free throws to guys who are even somewhat competent from the line, and the Clips sunk 30 of their 36 non-Jordan free throws.
If you look at the box score, Lillard had another great game with 29 points, 10 rebounds(!), and three assists. Then you look and see it took 24 shots to get those points, and it starts to look a lot less stellar. He started off hot and then couldn’t hit anything, only to come back on late in the fourth and find his groove again. For Dame, this was a B- type of night; It was good, but he needed to be more efficient.
Mason Plumlee was everywhere against the Clips. If there was a play to be made, a man to be fouled, or a dunk to be had, Plumdog was your man on Thursday night. Finishing with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, a technical and a flagrant foul, Plumlee notched a stat in just about every category. Recently, Plumlee has struggled with guys who possess Jordan’s size and length, but despite the extra-curriculars, he performed admirably. It’s a solid B+ for Plumlee.
The guy who really got it done for Portland tonight was Harkless. Picking up Paul for most of the evening on defense, then contributing 23 points on 10-for-15 shooting from the floor and snaring eight rebounds? That’s top of the class material for Harkless. This was a great bounce-back game for him, and he gets an A for effort and a gold star.
The “needs improvement” group includes CJ McCollum — who registered 16 points, four rebounds and two assists — and Allen Crabbe, with his 10 points and four rebounds. Neither were bad by any means, but for long stretches of the game both were nearly invisible. McCollum had his best defensive night in recent memory, holding JJ Redick to eight points, so credit needs to be given there. At the same time, these are the games where that “best backcourt in the league” stuff needs to come to the fore.
Crabbe just got paid to be a guy on whom the Blazers are counting. With that, he can’t come and go throughout games without leaving a positive mark. He did show some nice moves off the bounce, but outside of that it was a very “meh” game for AC. Both he and CJ get a C+, and that feels a little generous.
Finally, we get to the “what in the heck is going on here?!” group. Evan Turner is shooting 3-for-15 on the season and has already had a handful of the most ridiculous plays and/or decisions with the ball in recent memory. He’s unsure of what to do and where to be on both ends of the floor and his redemptive qualities — length, size, playmaking, defense -- aren’t really showing up. Here’s hoping he figures it out sooner rather than later. D+.
Al-Farouq Aminu apparently ate the same pregame meal as Turner, finishing 0-for-6 from the floor, but he saved a failing grade with a beautiful drive and dish to Noah Vonleh for the dunk. Defensively, Aminu won some battles and lost some. It’s Blake Griffin -- that’s going to happen.
All in all, it wasn’t a terrible game from the Blazers in general. There were just areas that, at times, vacillated from okay to awful, and then back again. The key to stringing together victories and starting your own runs and keeping opponents off their own is to minimize the awful. Tonight, the Blazers didn’t do that enough.
Next, it’s on to the Denver Nuggets this Saturday, Oct. 29.
Check out ClipsNation, where fans will be reveling in a hard-fought victory.
Mason Plumlee found the child he landed on, who’s doing just fine now: