The Portland Trail Blazers arrived in Indiana hoping to exorcise some demons against the Pacers tonight. Instead, those demons procreated. Portland led by as many as 20, but struggled to execute down the stretch. For the second time in as many games, the Blazers gave up a fourth quarter lead and lost a heart breaker, 111-118.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shined brightly, exchanging 19-point quarters en route to a combined 67 points. But neither could hold a candle to Paul George tonight. He tossed in 37 points and personally outscored the Blazers 15-13 in the final period.
The game started out as quintessential “Trail Blazers Basketball”. If you asked general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts to describe their vision, they’d show you tonight’s first six minutes. Mason Plumlee pushed pinpoint passes while Ed Davis hustled on the boards. Maurice Harkless fit in around the edges and exploited mismatches. CJ McCollum stroked jumpers and Damian Lillard WENT OFF. With 5:57 left in the first, the Pacers called timeout after back-to-back pull-up threes from the Blazers’ superstar. Portland was already ahead 26-11 and showed no signs of slowing down.
Sometimes timeouts disrupt a player’s rhythm, but nothing could interrupt Lillard’s flow. His three-pointer immediately after the timeout completed three three-pointers on three straight possessions. His hot shooting was contrasted with Paul George’s struggles. You’d think that combination would extend Portland’s already-substantial lead, but Portland’s defense relaxed. Indiana’s wide-open shooters collectively matched Lillard shot-for-shot. At the end of one, Lillard had 19 points, George had five, and Portland led 44-31.
Just like the starting unit, the Blazers’ bench open the quarter working exactly how Stotts and Olshey envisioned. Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe hit open shots. Evan Turner distributed. Even Noah Vonleh made some nice plays. They pushed Portland’s lead to 20 with 8:07 left in the quarter. But confidence became carelessness, right as Paul George finally shifted into high gear. Portland’s turnovers led to George jumpers, and the Pacers turned all their attention towards stopping Lillard. The fates of the two stars reversed. Lillard scored two points in the second quarter, George had 13, and Portland ended the half up 71-64.
This game had a certain symmetry to it. In the third quarter, both teams passed the scoring duties to their second fiddle. McCollum dazzled with both pull-up and spot-up threes, along with change-of-pace drives to the cup. Pacers’ forward Thaddeus Young countered all that variety with specialization, going a perfect three of three on catch-and-shoot threes. Just like Dame, CJ tallied 19 in the quarter. Just like George, Young got 13. Turnovers continued to plague Portland but they started infecting the Pacers as well. It all ended in a wash and Portland led 98-90 after three.
Here’s where that symmetry ended. Portland’s bench dominated in the second but laid an egg to start the fourth. The coughed the ball up. They struggled to get in the lane. They missed open shots. With 8:33 left, Al Jefferson sank an and-one layup to put the Pacers ahead for the first time, 99-98.
Yup, you read that right, the Blazers were still stuck on 98 points. They hadn’t scored a single point for almost four minutes.
With the game slipping away, Lillard and McCollum tried to shoot Portland to victory. CJ had one last brilliant stretch of seven straight points, but overall it was tough sledding. As the quarter went on, the Pacers were more and more determined to make someone else on the Blazers beat them. They sent double teams and hounded Portland’s guards 30 feet from the hoop.
At the other end, George continued to torture the defense. He got wherever he wanted and sank jumper after jumper over undersized defenders. With their star rolling and a 112-109 lead, Indiana called a timeout with 40 seconds to play. Pacers’ head coach Nate McMillan drew up a play but it didn’t take a basketball genius to figure out where the ball was headed.
They ran an isolation for Paul George who forced a tough jumper over Harkless’ outstretched arms. It clanged off the front rim but George crashed the glass, ripped the ball out of Mason Plumlee’s hands, and dunked between three red jerseys.
It was now Portland’s turn to call a timeout and set something up. The game wasn’t over yet. Could Lillard and company make one last heroic comeback?
Nope. Portland couldn’t even enter the ball, turning it over on a five seconds call.
Those last two plays summarized the game’s fourth quarter perfectly. Paul George went out and grabbed the win. Portland gave it away.
Let’s start with the positives. We know Lillard and McCollum are good but after watching the duo so many times, their brilliance can still take your breath away. There’s maybe half a dozen guys in the world that can do what Dame and CJ did tonight. The final result was deflating, but man were we treated to some fireworks along the way.
The supporting cast had their moments, but really abandoned the stars down the stretch. Indiana threw everything they had at Dame and CJ in the fourth. With all that attention, they managed 13 points on 5/11 shooting. The rest of the team went 0/7 with three turnovers. Ouch. The Pacers forced someone else to beat them and no one else could.
Every advantage the Blazers had early in the game got whittled away by the end. At halftime, they had almost twice as many rebounds as the Pacers and were about even on free throws (a win for this Portland team). By the final horn, Portland’s rebounding advantage stood at a measly two boards, and they had given up 28 free throw attempts compared to their own 16.
However, the real problem was the three point line. Portland was extra aggressive leaving shooters tonight, an understandable impulse given the porous defense lately. They managed to defend the paint really well, giving up only 28 points. Considering Indiana scored 17 points in transition, that means their interior defense in the halfcourt was really solid.
However, Portland allowed the Pacers to shoot over 50% from behind the arc for 45 points. Some of that was hot shooting from the Pacers, but many of their attempts were wide open. Portland had two incredible shooting performances, but only managed to make one more three-pointer than Indiana. Usually, the Blazers use their shooting superiority to cover up for their other weaknesses. Tonight, they gave up that advantage too.
So far this season, the Blazers have been able to defend either the paint or the three point line but not both at the same time. That’s a problem, because defending both is a prerequisite to be a good team in this league. Portland certainly missed Al-Farouq Aminu (he would have been especially helpful against George tonight) but it’s hard to imagine that he’d make that much of a difference.
Play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro opined that the Blazers ran out of gas physically and mentally at the end of the game. That seems like a fair assessment. Too bad the road trip’s not over yet.
It’s hard to know whether to start with Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum tonight, so let’s just tackle them together. Combined they scored 67 points on 22/46 shooting and 12/25 from beyond the arc. “Hot” doesn’t begin to describe it. No one else scored in double figures tonight. These two carried the team but they couldn’t make it to the mountain top.
The rest of the team showed off their limitations more than anything else tonight.
Ed Davis had a fairly typical game, logging six points and 10 rebounds. But outside the first quarter, he really struggled to make the Pacers pay for doubling Lillard or McCollum.
Mason Plumlee is usually better in those situations, but Indiana played the pass. They limited him to two assists and dared him to drive to the basket. With all the opportunity in the world, Plumlee only managed eight points and turned the ball over four times. You gotta wonder how much more dangerous Portland could be with an elite big.
Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe, and Evan Turner had a brilliant stretch in the first half but couldn’t find the net in the second. Leonard especially struggled, going 2/7 and 0/4 from behind the three-point line.
Moe Harkless didn’t have his usual activity tonight. That’s understandable considering his recent ankle injury, but man they could have used more from him tonight. He scored 7 points on 7 shots without contributing much else.
Noah Vonleh played well in his seven minutes, scoring six points and pulling down two rebounds. He keeps showing flashes.
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The schedule doesn’t get any easier. Portland’s road trip continues in Los Angeles against the Clippers on Monday at 7:30 pm PST.