Facing the young and talented Phoenix Suns on the second night of a back to back, the Portland Trail Blazers attempt to coax a victory by getting back to basics. They emphasized rebounding, ball movement, and a healthy dose of three point shooting. The game remained close throughout but Portland ultimately fell short in overtime as Eric Bledsoe knocked down a buzzer beating, step back-fadeaway three to snatch a 118-115 for the Suns. The loss dropped the Blazers to a 2-3 record on the season.
How It Went Down
Whatever Damian Lillard has been eating for breakfast these first few games, he shared it with CJ McCollum tonight. McCollum came out red hot as he knocked down threes, hit from midrange, and finished in traffic at the rim. Problem was, after a fantastic start that saw Portland take an early 11-point lead, the defense stopped working. The Suns pushed back to tie it at the end of the quarter, 28-28.
After cries from fans for the real Evan Turner to please stand up, Turner finally obliged. Instead of pounding the air out of the ball, Turner was decisive, more intent on scoring and less on creating for others. We saw a much more effective and efficient version of Turner as he got to his spots on the low block and mid post and knocked down shot after shot to the tune of 6 points on 3-for-3 shooting. It looked again like Portland would build a cushion and carry momentum through the half. Instead the Suns pushed back once more, mounting a 14-3 run to close the quarter and taking a 57-53 lead at the half.
As has been the trend this year, Portland came out of locker room as if they held a “3-1 series lead” and fell flat. The Suns opened up a 5-point margin early and held it throughout most of the quarter as both teams struggled to get anything going consistently. Portland ended up winning the quarter 20-19, and went into the fourth down three, 76-73.
Lillard found his groove in the fourth quarter alongside surprise sidekick Meyers Leonard. The two combined for 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting in the period, buoyed by McCollum and Allen Crabbe dropping an additional 13. When the smoke cleared the game came down to an out of bounds play with 1.1 seconds on the clock and the Blazers trailing by two. Watch:
This was essentially the same play the Blazers ran against the Denver Nuggets two games ago to force overtime, except this time the ball went to Leonard. The end result was the same. A wide open roll to the hoop yielded a layup as time expired with the score tied at 103-103. Free basketball.
The first two minutes of the extra period saw Leonard get extended run while the Blazers and Suns traded buckets to raise the score to 107 apiece. The Suns pushed the lead out to as much as five, but a driving Maurice Harkless and-one with 36 seconds remaining allowed the Blazers to close the gap to 112-115. After a Bledsoe miss, Lillard was able to replicate the driving and-one and ultimately tied the game at 115 with 6.6 seconds remaining.
For the final play the Suns went to a Bledsoe isolation on the right wing that was defended brilliantly by Lillard. Still, Bledsoe got off a clean (but tough) look with 0.8 seconds to go and knocked down the deciding three as the clock expired.
The story tonight looked similar to every other game so far this season. The Blazers looked good coming out of the gate. Then the defense faltered, allowing the opponent to not only get back in the game but seize control leading into the half. Then a slow, ugly third quarter forced the Blazers to dig out of a hole. A fourth quarter filled with fireworks would have been otherwise unnecessary if they had kept control of the game from the jump.
A couple key trends have been contributing factors in not only every loss, but nearly every game so far this season. Portland is getting outrebounded on both ends, allowing a metric-ton of points inside (outscored 62-38 tonight), and not taking care of the ball in crucial moments.
Tonight Portland’s bigs rebounded better; Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis combined for 4 offensive boards, 18 total. As a team the Blazers brought down 10 offensive rebounds tonight. The Suns secured 14. These are the battles Portland needs to win.
Ultimately, Portland’s lack of defense and sloppy execution became their undoing. The Suns tallied 17 second chance points, 25 fastbreak points, and 62 points in the paint. Any team giving up those kind of numbers while turning the ball over 15 times is going to struggle, no matter how deep or talented they may be.
On the bright side of things, Portland’s offense looked more fluid tonight. When you have 25 assists on 42 makes, the ball is moving around pretty well. As a team the Blazers knocked down 12 threes. They got to the line 21 times and made 19. They scored an impressive 115 total points. The defense is most certainly a work in progress but the offense, while disjointed at times, is still clicking.
Though moral victories don’t count, there were a few to be had tonight.
Meyers Leonard had himself a ball game. After picking up 3 fouls in his first 6 minutes, Leonard settled in and helped Portland’s defense stymie the Suns’ relentless rim attack. He also provided much-needed floor spacing. He set solid screens that got McCollum, Crabbe, and Lillard the wide open looks and that led to the Blazers’ comeback in the fourth. Leonard finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2-for-5 shooting from distance.
Evan Turner built upon his early success in this game and finished the with a double-double: 11 points and 10 rebounds. This was easily Turner’s best game as a Blazer. While his 4 turnovers were a bit of an eyesore, they were more “trying to make the play” than “forcing a play that wasn’t there.” This was a marked improvement, something for him and Portland to build on.
The backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum finished with 51 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists on 17-for-40 shooting from the field, but 4-for-14 from distance. Lillard turned in his first merely-human-level performance of the year, dropping only 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, shooting an un-Lillard-like 1-for-8 from deep.
Al-Farouq Aminu continues to struggle from the field, finishing 2-for-8 on the evening, but 2-for-4 from beyond the arc. He’s still contributing in other ways, but tonight some of his minutes went to Turner and Leonard seemingly because of his inability to hit a shot consistently.
Mason Plumlee stepped up tonight on the backboard, bringing down 12 rebounds. He finished 2-for-11 from the field and struggled mightily to keep the Suns from scoring inside. Just when his rebounding returned to form his defense seemed to regress.
Despite the burning desire from the Twitter-sphere after his 17-point debut in the closing minutes against the Golden State Warriors, Jake Layman received a DNP-Coach’s Decision on the evening. There’s always hope for tomorrow.
View from the Bright Side of the Sun is a bit brighter after their first win of the season.
Next up, the Trail Blazers take on the Dallas Mavericks Friday night in Dallas at 5:30 PM PST.