After spending 19 games stuck in neutral, the 2016-17 Portland Trail Blazers may finally have shifted into high gear. For the first time in weeks, the Blazers put together a solid effort on both ends of the court and raced past the Indiana Pacers by a score of 131-109.
Damian Lillard led Portland with 28 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals. Moe Harkless finished with 23 points - Harkless has scored 18 or more points in three consecutive game for the first time in his career. Jeff Teague topped the Pacers with 25 points and 8 assists, while Myles Turner added a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
From nearly the opening tip, tonight’s game was a mirrored reflection of the Blazers season thus far - Portland came out with energy and hustle on defense, and exploited lackadaisical play on the part of their opponent on offense.
The Blazers attacked the rim on nearly every possession in the first quarter, and the Pacers defense did little to slow them. Portland’s first 12 points all came in the paint. Meanwhile, the Blazers held Indiana to “only” 11 points in the first half of the quarter and even forced an ultra-rare 24-second clock violation at the 6:03 mark.
Soon after, Evan Turner entered the game and had revenge on his mind against his former team. Turner’s entire offensive repertoire clicked as he hit driving shots off spin moves and whipped nifty passes to open players.
Allen Crabbe, perhaps motivated by Turner’s inspired play, followed suit by scoring 10 points and hitting four of his first five shots.
When the dust had cleared, Turner and Crabbe had led a charge that saw the Blazers make 16 of 18 shots and outscore the Pacers 31-16 to span across the first and second quarters. Turner’s triple at the 8:49 mark of the second gave the Blazers a 46-29 lead as Pacers Head Coach Nate McMillan called timeout.
The Blazers defense took a step back for the second half of the second quarter - the key moment coming when Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard were replaced by Ed Davis and Harkless, which allowed the Pacers to attack inside with Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young.
But the Pacers couldn’t gain any traction as the Blazers continued to score with impunity. At the half, the Blazers led 73-58. More importantly, Portland had held Indiana to only 42 percent shooting, outscored the Pacers 30-20 in the paint, and held a rebounding advantage.
CJ McCollum took over the start the second half, scoring 15 points in the first six minutes of the quarter. On the other end, the Blazers defense had re-energized; the Pacers were getting no clean looks and the Blazers got their hands on the ball for three consecutive defensive possessions to start the half.
Appropriately, Harkless iced the game by stealing a characteristically lazy pass and going coast to coast for a lay-up over Myles Turner to put the Blazers up 94-69.
Aaron Brooks led a Pacers charge in the fourth quarter, but the lead never dipped below a dozen and the Blazers cruised to a 131-109 victory.
What a difference two days of practice can make! The murmurs coming out of the Blazers training facility for the last 48 hours that the team had re-committed to the fundamentals on defense rang true tonight.
For long stretches of the game, Portland fixed several of their most glaring defensive deficiencies. Myles Turner was regularly picked up immediately when he entered the halfcourt, rather than being allowed to spot up for open perimeter jumpers a la Kevin Love. ICE defense on pick and rolls forced the Pacers’ guards into off-balance, mid-range jumpers, rather than being allowed a free trip to the rim. Harkless, Turner, and other perimeter players jumped into passing lanes, rather than allowing free rotations for easy backdoor layups.
The defense may have hit an apex early in the third quarter when Ed Davis paired up with McCollum and Lillard on consecutive plays to snuff out the Pacers’ two-man game:
The offense also came free and easy tonight for the Blazers tonight. Open jumper and free drives to the hoop abounded. The low pressure environment led to breakout performances from several players. The Evan-Turner-revenge-tour, especially, looked promising as he asserted himself offensively in paint and mid-range to draw in the defense and open the door for nifty passes to cutting teammates.
In addition to Turner, the collective confidence of the Blazers’ other role players hit a season high. The return of Crabbe’s long range accuracy played a major role in the pivotal run that spanned the end of the first and beginning of the second quarters. After missing his first two threes, Harkless nailed three of his next four and shot without hesitation. Even Leonard got into the act, bombing triples every time he got a sliver of daylight.
The results from Crabbe, Harkless, and Leonard weren’t always pretty, Leonard finished 2-7 from beyond the arc, but it’s notable that they were all making decisions without any hesitations or second guessing. For the first time all year (ever?) Leonard was attempting post moves without a second thought and Harkless was hoisting jumpers even as a defender closed out. The confidence from the role players will pay dividends for Portland as the season progresses.
Throw in the usual sterling performances from McCollum and Lillard, and the now-typical 16 points and 6 assists for Plumlee, and it’s easy to see how the Blazers shot 54.3 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from three, and reached 100 points with 15 minutes remaining in the game.
With the praise out of the way, there are a few caveats. Despite some improvements, the Blazers were far from perfect tonight. The Pacers shot 35 fouls shots; annoyingly, many of those opportunities came by virtue of poor decisions to foul jump shooters, or on bailout fouls after letting Turner, Jefferson, or another big man establish deep post position. The Blazers also tuned out defensively for several stretches, notably in the second half of the second quarter when the Pacers were repeatedly able to pound the ball into the low post. Lillard had trouble tracking the speedy Teague at times, especially in the mid-range.
Additionally, the Pacers were missing key players, including Paul George, and did not bring their A game. It was clear they were resting on laurels after blowing out the Clippers on Sunday. Their defensive effort looked, ...well, Blazers-esque:
But, ultimately, this game was still a major step in the right direction, even if the effort waned at times and the Pacers were not up to snuff. Signs of life on the defensive end, and major signs of confidence from Turner, Leonard, Crabbe are trends to build on in a season that has been woefully short of positive reinforcement.
The Blazers have two more days of practice before facing the Miami Heat on Saturday. If those 48 hours translate to as much on-court success as the last two days of practice did, there’s hope that tonight’s pleasant surprises can turn into positive trends.
Damian Lillard played the role of facilitator early on, finishing with 10 assists. It’s nice to see Lillard taking a back seat when the defense is giving easy looks to everyone else.
CJ McCollum tore it up in the third quarter. His 15-point outburst was enough to extinguish any hopes of a second half comeback for the Pacers.
Mason Plumlee looked decent on defense down low for parts of the game tonight. He even bodied up to Jefferson on a few plays. He’s no stalwart, but his deficiencies can be somewhat hidden when the perimeter defenders are playing well.
Meyers Leonard looked confident tonight. Strangely, Stotts opted to have him follow Myles Turner around for long stretches, rather than bang with Jefferson on the low block. Either way, the Pacers size made this a good matchup for Leonard, and he played a key role in the defensive competence of the second quarter.
Evan Turner finished with 13 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals on 7 field goal attempts and even hit a three-pointer. A near perfect game. Also, his passing was sublime:
If Moe Harkless keeps hitting threes he’s going to be really dangerous on this team. Head Coach Terry Stotts also deserves credit for recognizing that Harkless is most effective when fully engaged on both ends, and acting accordingly.
Allen Crabbe hit his spots AND his shots tonight. It would still be nice to see more, but 4-8 shooting and 15 points is a nice sign.
Ed Davis had 2 points and 9 rebounds. He’s not playing at the level of last season.
Noah Vonleh is completely out of the rotation and only saw garbage time minutes.
Check IndyCornrows for crop circles. They’re probably wishing they were abducted by aliens tonight.
Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com
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