Ask the Portland Trail Blazers players who their heroes are and you’re likely to hear diverse responses. Some might say Michael Jordan or another transcendent basketball star. Others might reference a famous figure from history, a family member, or an inspirational teacher. Meyers Leonard would probably cite his brother in honor of Veteran’s Day:
Whomever else they claim as inspiration, the Portland locker room must also contain a covert shrine to Keanu Reeves...likely hidden in a secret compartment behind Robin Lopez’s former locker. They might deny it, but Reeves is the only person on the planet who could have taught the Blazers to dodge bullets the way they’ve done this season. Tonight’s game against the Sacramento Kings—an overtime thriller which Blazers escaped via a 122-120 victory—provided yet another exhibit in the portfolio.
The Blazers began this game looking like they were going to win it running away...literally.
Meyers Leonard got the starting nod for the injured Al-Farouq Aminu (forecast to be out “a couple of weeks”). The move paid immediate dividends. Not only did Leonard get in the head of Kings superstar DeMarcus Cousins, his offensive range forced Sacramento’s defense to spread farther out on the court. This left room for the Blazers to dash, dart, dive, duck, and dodge their way into the lane in the halfcourt offense. Portland also outran the bigger, slower Kings on the break. Sacramento tried to strike back with interior play but quickness vanquished size as the Blazers built a 25-13 lead halfway through the first.
When Portland’s second unit took the floor the story inverted. The Kings began pressing and running while the Blazers struggled to find rhythm, holding and guessing in their halfcourt offense. Newly-famous forward Jake Layman got an early call off the bench and hit a couple shots. That was the bright spot for Portland. Sacramento pounded and confounded Portland’s bench until a Darren Collison runner at the buzzer closed the Kings to within 31-35 after one.
For most of the rest of the game, the Blazers were plagued by a couple of harsh realities:
- They had to play their bench sometime.
- Fatigue gradually ate away at Portland’s quickness advantage but the Kings stayed big the whole game long.
The second period didn’t expose the Blazers too much. Portland remained fresh while Layman, CJ McCollum, and Allen Crabbe poured in points. Potent offense carried the Blazers to a 62-57 advantage at the half.
But Portland’s relationship with third-quarter leads remained as fickle as ever tonight. The Kings thrashed the Blazers inside to start the third. They actually took a 73-71 lead with 5:41 remaining before Damian Lillard had enough and rattled off 10 straight points to push the Blazers back on top 86-81. As soon as he stopped shooting (bothered by multiple Kings defenders) Portland stopped scoring. Their lead heading into the fourth was slim, 84-83.
With the Kings resting Cousins to start the fourth, the time was ripe for the Blazers to mount a game-securing run. Instead they bobbled and borked their way into turnovers, interspersed with even more ball-holding and standing around. (Sigh...second unit.) Sacramento built up a 95-88 lead at the 6:30 mark before Lillard and Moe Harkless connected on back-to-back threes to resuscitate the offense.
As the quarter closed the Kings quadrupled down on Cousins iso post-ups as their source of offense. This failed miserably. Mason Plumlee did a heroic job keeping a body between Cousins and the rim while Portland sent guards to bother his dribbling hand. Grinding into the post also took away all of Sacramento’s tempo which to that point (somewhat ironically) had put Portland on the ropes. Moving briskly once again, the Blazers pushed their way to a 106-101 lead with 1:19 left.
That would have been the end of the game had Cousins not burst through his massive wall of bricks like the Kool-Aid Man. He hit a three-pointer with 31 seconds remaining to pull the Kings within three, then took the Blazers to Rim Attack University, flushing home the tying bucket with 9 seconds on the clock. Portland had a chance to win it in regulation (dramatic pause...) but Lillard time traveled back to his rookie year, dribbling his way into an awkward, fade-away three that missed wide. With the scored tied at 106, overtime beckoned.
The extra period boiled down both teams to their bare essences: an extended scoring contest pitting Lillard and McCollum against Cousins and Collison in which they all took turns not stopping each other. Lillard and McCollum made like Ginsu knives in the lane. Collison found ample space in the mid-range while Cousins reprised his three-pointer/flush combo from the end of regulation. Amid the chaos the teams scored 30 points combined in just five minutes. At no point did either team build a lead greater than two.
As if to provide counterpoint to the symphony of offense, Portland ended up securing the win on an incredible defensive stand. The Kings had the ball down two with 6 seconds remaining. They ran Cousins across the lane to clear the defense then inbounded to Rudy Gay, an unsung hero with 29 points on 50%+ shooting to that point. The clearing move left Gay isolated against Harkless 10 feet from the bucket. Instead of ceding the predictable score, Moe bodied up and forced Gay into a fading 16-foot turn-around which missed handily. It might have been the best defensive play of the evening...one of the better ones of the season too. The effect was certainly salubrious, as the Blazers strutted their way off the floor with the 122-120 win. It won’t improve their margin of victory average much but it certainly makes the record look better.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 36 and 31 respectively, combining for 58% shooting from the field. Add in Allen Crabbe’s 6-10, 16-point effort off the bench and this game should have been a cakewalk.
EXCEPT...Portland allowed reserve guard Darren Collison to shoot 9-16 for 20 points, Rudy Gay 9-18 for 29 points, and even gave Arron Afflalo a healthy 5-9 for 15 points. They did stop Ty Lawson (0-4 in 15 minutes) but heck, even Ty Lawson stops Ty Lawson. Every wing of any merit went crazy on them...and we haven’t even talked about DeMarcus Cousins yet.
Cousins ended up scoring 33 on 12-22 shooting from the field, 3-7 from the arc. Oddly enough this is the one place Portland’s defense can claim a moral victory. Starting bigs Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee didn’t come anywhere near Cousins’ production level but they kept at him the entire game. Leonard annoyed the jumping bejeezus out of Cousins early in the game, as is his wont. Plumlee held steady during latter half the fourth on those iso posts, saving the game for the Blazers. The combination of bumping bodies and solid will ended up taking just enough starch out of Boogie’s offense to make the difference...barely.
Other than that, the Blazers started the game with a smart game plan, attacking the weary Kings on the run. It was beautiful but short lived. The lack of bench punch killed momentum and the starters couldn’t recapture the vibe until late in the game. Portland did end up beating the Kings 19-13 in fast break points but that was muted by a 56-38 deficit in the paint and a 25-13 shortfall in points after turnovers (via several Sacramento run-outs). The Kings’ inside play also earned them a dangerous 28-19 edge in made free throws.
Unable to take advantage of their quickness, watching the Kings match their scorers blow for blow, and losing the battle at the foul line, Portland ended up winning the game the old-fashioned way: with three-point shooting. The Blazers made 13 threes on 39% shooting against only 6 on 29% shooting for the Kings. That Sacramento stayed close giving up 21 points at the arc says something about the rest of Portland’s attack. But the Blazers’ combination of ball movement and marksmanship proved just a little too much for the opponent to overcome.
Damian Lillard scored 36 on 12-19 shooting, 5-10 from the arc, with 7 assists against 5 turnovers. His key contributions came in the third period (when he singlehandedly saved the ship from sinking in the sea of woe all around him) and in overtime. Whenever his team needs him most, Lillard is there.
CJ McCollum made life easier when the second unit started floundering. We’ll talk about Allen Crabbe in a second, but you can credit much of Crabbe’s production to McCollum’s effectiveness. He had the Kings looking left while Crabbe swung in from the blind side. Plus McCollum’s 31 points on 13-24 shooting were critical to countering Sacramento’s scoring bonanza. Without offense the Blazers don’t win this game and nobody but Lillard came close to McCollum’s offensive production.
Allen Crabbe provided a much-needed lifeline off the bench, hitting shots off catches and directly, shooting 6-10 for 16 points. Just as significantly, he grabbed 7 rebounds and dished 4 assists. The Blazers look much cooler when the AC is fully engaged.
Hello, Meyers Leonard. We saw you tonight. Leonard scored 11 on 4-9 shooting and grabbed 4 rebounds in 29 minutes but his main accomplishment was bugging the ever-living crap out of DeMarcus Cousins like he always does. I don’t understand it, I just appreciate it. Way to not back down.
Mason Plumlee also deserves a view and a half for that fourth-quarter defense plus his 7 rebounds and 7 assists. For some reason the Kings decided they didn’t want him to score so he just passed instead. Bonus. And credit to the Blazers for setting up the offense to allow him to do so, plus hitting shots whenever he flung the ball around.
Moe Harkless had a modest line with 8 points and 8 rebounds in 36 minutes but 8 rebounds actually led the team and his last-second defensive stand saved the game. Nod of respect for doing it the way nobody else was.
Ed Davis only got 11 minutes tonight. His big contribution was going 3-4 from the foul line.
Evan Turner...well...let’s not talk about Evan Turner. Still acclimating.
Jake Layman sniffs at your garbage time minutes. Jake Layman wants first- and second-quarter minutes. Jake Layman will shoot with confidence in any and all minutes that Jake Layman gets. Then after Jake Layman has completed his 2-3, 5-point, 2-assist, 2-rebound, not-garbage tour—when Jake Layman is all glistening with just the right amount of manly sweat-sheen—Jake Layman will flash that twinkling toothpaste smile at you because Jake Layman knows you will not be able to resist playing him again. This is gospel truth.
Links and Notes
Video Recap (Including a can’t-miss clip of a MONSTER Meyers Leonard dunk.)
Sactown Royalty has the Kings-eye view of their near-win.
Or you could check out my guest spot on this podcast where I previewed Kings-Blazers and apparently left the host in stitches.
The Blazers will face off against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night at 6:00 p.m. Pacific.