In a game that featured some of the prettiest and ugliest stretches basketball we’ve seen in a long time, Damian Lillard helped the Portland Trail Blazers fight off a pesky Phoenix Suns team for a tough 124-121 victory. CJ McCollum was the star of the pretty portion of tonight’s show, pouring in 33 points for the game, many of them in a beautiful first half. Lillard steadied the ship when the game got ugly later on, out-dueling Eric Bledsoe 38-31, flipping the script from their previous contest and securing the Blazers win.
In the opening play of the game, a recently vocal Moe Harkless backed up his big talk with a steal thirty feet from the hoop. Portland’s energy was high. They pressured, forced turnovers, and started running more than we’ve seen in recent games.
After Harkless broke open a crack in the dam, CJ McCollum became the river behind it bursting through and flooding the valley. He scored every way imaginable and couldn’t miss (shooting 7 for 8 in the period). Threes, floaters, fade-aways, and drives all added up to an impressive 18 for McCollum in the quarter.
This energy carried into the second unit which, for the first time it what feels like ages, maintained the lead when the starters sat. Noah Vonleh came in the game like a bat out of hell flying through the air for every rebound. Unfortunately, that energy was a double edged sword as the Blazers lacked the requisite precision and control. Good activity on defense was undermined by blown assignments and offensive rebounds. Hard cuts on offense were wasted by forced shots and bad turnovers.
At that point the Suns increased their pressure with impunity knowing the Blazers wouldn’t make the simple play quickly or cleanly enough to burn them for their aggressiveness. They increased their effort to match the Blazers and turned the game into sloppy running match.
This got worse the more Portland’s bench players got involved. Al-Farouq Aminu went down forcing Coach Terry Stotts to dig deeper in his reserves. Bledsoe hit a tough step back fadeaway to end the half bringing the Suns within 10, giving deja vu to Blazers fans everywhere.
All these trends continued into the second half. Portland clearly had the talent advantage but turnovers and offensive rebounds kept Phoenix in the game. Every time Lillard sat the game shifted from “Portland playing sloppy and staying even” to “Portland playing really sloppy and losing their lead”. By the 8:00 mark in the fourth, the game was tied at 93 and the Moda Center crowd started to squirm.
Lillard quickly hit two three pointers, helping everyone breathe a sigh of relief. It felt like the Blazers were going to coast but more turnovers and shaky defense prevented any comfortable cushion.
Phoenix went super small, spread the Blazers out, and let Bledsoe do his thing challenging anyone to stop him in the pick-and-roll. The Blazers tried everything. They dropped Plumlee back. They dropped Harkless back. None of it made any difference. After Bledsoe hit a pull-up three with 1:31 remaining and the Suns down only 112-113 you could feel the game slipping away.
Lillard missed a three on the other end but Moe Harkless, who got the game started with a steal, snagged an offensive rebound to keep the Blazers ahead. In keeping with the theme, that positive effort turned undisciplined during the next play when he fouled Bledsoe on a three-point attempt. Lillard and Bledsoe would trade buckets until Phoenix had to foul to stop the clock setting up a wild exchange of prayers and free throws.
Phoenix coach Earl Watson used his final time out to set up an out of bounds play with 13 seconds to play and Portland up 119-116. Stotts countered by intentionally fouling before Bledsoe could get a head of steam. He bet Portland could out-shoot the Suns from the charity stripe without having to rely on shaky defense.
Bledsoe drained both his foul shots. CJ calmly made his first but then missed the second. But Damian Lillard flew in for the offensive rebound, rescuing Portland for the umpteenth time and getting his revenge for last week’s loss.
Lillard has been legendary. McCollum shined when the offense was moving and everything was going great but Dame came through when the going got tough and Portland was searching for answers. As it turned out, the Blazers needed everything they could get from both of them.
Portland’s bench is still finding its way. Every single one of Portland’s starters had a positive plus/minus in this game. Every single bench player was negative in that same category.
The energy the team brought tonight gave a glimpse at how good they can be. Portland has often struggled with the Suns because they couldn’t match their intensity and physicality along the perimeter. This time, Portland met force with force. They out scored the Suns in the paint (a huge turn around from their last match) and scored 18 points off Phoenix turnovers.
The problem was that energy wasn’t controlled or directed save for the first quarter. Portland committed 18 turnovers themselves, gave up 15 offensive rebounds, and allowed 33 free throw attempts. On a night when the Blazers shot 55% from the field, those mistakes kept the game close.
The defense had a few good signs but mostly bad. In the first quarter Portland managed to pressure the ball while maintaining their integrity. They caused deflections and forced tough shots. But one quarter does not make a game and the rest of the night was rough...a neon flashing border to the “Work in Progress” sign hanging around the neck of the Blazers’ defense.
Tonight also showed how much they depend on Al-Farouq Aminu. The last few minutes of the game might have been very different if Aminu had been switched onto Bledsoe rather than Harkless.
Anyone who thought Lillard couldn’t reach a new level should clean their glasses. The man was clearly the best player on the court tonight and he found an answer every time the Blazers found themselves in trouble. 38 points on 23 shots is MVP level production.
His right hand man had the quarter of his life and continued to play well throughout. He also showed off some fancy Lebron-esque cross court passes. Anyone who’s watched CJ’s progression as a point guard and a passer should be pleased but what he did tonight. Those seven assists were not typical and they show the growth in his game. 33 points wasn’t too bad either.
The only other guy with a great all-around game was Harkless. Those last few minutes aside, he was one of the teams most active defender and the only reliable release valve on offense. He’s attacking closeouts, hitting his threes, and quickly pulling ahead of Crabbe and Turner for minutes along the wing.
Speaking of Crabbe and Turner, they were both pretty quiet tonight and I don’t mean that in a good way. It’s still early but the offense seems to stall a lot more when they’re out there. Turner’s lack of shooting and Crabbe’s lack of dribbling allows the defense to overplay and interrupt the offense. Even hand-offs along the perimeter were a struggle with them tonight. All of that was exacerbated by Phoenix’s aggressive style along the perimeter but they look no closer to turning the corner.
Ed Davis and Noah Vonleh get a shout out because that pairing is just so much fun to watch. Davis seems to have found an energy buddy and it seemed like they were feeding off of one another, charging into the fray in the paint with no concern for their personal well being. Their mobility allows the team to switch everything adding a nice wrinkle to the team’s defense. Vonleh was especially active securing eight rebounds in 15 minutes. If he can start hitting his shot more consistently he’ll be quite the asset off the bench.
Shabazz Napier did what you might expect. He shot the ball well, made some good plays, and also made some bad ones. He’s out of control a little bit too much but it wasn’t the easiest game to step into and all things considered he played well. His playmaking was a big asset when the offense was struggling in the first half. Thanks Orlando. He notched six points on three shots in 11 minutes.
Al-farouq Aminu only played four minutes tonight but his absence was noticeable. Let’s hope he gets healthy soon. Plumlee had a solid but typical game. He scored a little, passed well, but could have done better on the boards.
Considering Phoenix started the youngest lineup in the history of the franchise, I bet Bright Side of the Sun is focusing on the promise of the future rather than the disappointment from tonight.
The 5-3 Blazers are back at it on Wednesday at 7:30pm against the Los Angeles Clippers.