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Portland’s Defense Improves Without Lillard, Record Doesn’t

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The Blazers knew where the Toronto Raptors would try to score. They just couldn’t stop them quite enough.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

As the Portland Trail Blazers faced the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, both they and the Moda Center faithful were desperate for a win to keep a five-game losing streak from turning into six. Portland had bad news entering the game, as Damian Lillard took a rare day off due to injury. Even without their best player, the Blazers gave a decent accounting of themselves. Their defense was solid and CJ McCollum stepped up for 29 big points. It wasn’t enough. Despite their best efforts, the Blazers went down 95-91 and will have to wait until Wednesday night for another crack at stopping the streak.

Game Flow

First Quarter

The Blazers came out with energy in this one. They moved the ball around sharply and quickly, working to get good looks. Filling as as starting point guard, McCollum dropped 10 points in the first period. On the defensive end, Portland chased, blitzed, and hounded every Raptor on the floor. An early 8-2 lead proved the Blazers weren’t going to roll over. Realizing they were in for a fight, Toronto reacted in kind. They clamped down with their own defense and pounded the ball inside. An 0-7 performance from the three-point arc kept the Raptors’ scoring total muted. After one, Portland led 24-21.

Second Quarter

As the second quarter commenced Toronto started to knock down a couple shots from outside, loosening Portland’s defense. It didn’t end up paying off much, as neither team could establish any kind of rhythm or get an extended run. Evan Turner and Patrick Patterson carried torches for their respective teams, but that isn’t saying much. Toronto led 43-42 at the break.

Third Quarter

Scoring finally broke open as Kyle Lowry put on a show in the third quarter. With Portland defenders blanketing him like snow, Lowry hit ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Contested, step back three with the shot clock winding down? Splash. Off balance fadeaway in the corner? Ding. McCollum and Maurice Harkless did their best to match Lowry’s output, combining for 7-8 shooting from the field and 14 points. It didn’t matter as Portland gave up a 30-point quarter and the Raptors pushed their lead to 73-68.

Fourth Quarter

Ugliness returned as the final frame got underway. The Raptors hit just 4 of their first 21 shots from the field in the fourth quarter yet still maintained a 5-point lead on the Blazers. Yeesh. A McCollum three-pointer with 49 seconds left cut the margin to two, 91-89. With 24.9 seconds remaining, DeRozan would take a contested three that clanged off the back rim and fell out past the paint. It was a 50/50 ball but the Blazers couldn’t corral it. The Raptors secured the offensive rebound and Portland was left fouling for possession. Toronto hit enough free throws to foil the strategy. Final score: 95-91, Raptors.

Analysis

If you’ve seen Jurassic Park you’ll know that Raptors test for vulnerabilities and they never attack the same place twice. These Raptors threw biology out the window and just kept attacking with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Blazers tried to force their hand by blitzing and trapping nearly every pick and roll that either DeRozan or Lowry were involved in. It was easily the most aggressive defense the Blazers have employed all season long. There were times where Blazer defenders were denying Lowry the ball 35+ feet from the hoop, rendering him a bystander for multiple possessions. The results were mostly positive. Portland held Toronto to a season low 33.7 percent from the field, mostly keeping the Raptors off the foul line too.

Even without Damian Lillard the Blazers offense started out well enough, moving off ball and swinging it around to compensate for the absence of their floor general. As the game progressed it became apparent that passing alone wouldn’t be enough to keep the Raptors’ defense off balance. With only one reliable Portland three-point threat on the floor, Toronto was free to double on nearly every drive and pack the paint. The Blazers could pass all they wanted; their scoring attempts still met plenty of resistance.

On the flip side, more than a few commentators remarked that Portland’s defense looked better tonight. While far from perfect, Portland defenders switched more comfortably than usual, worked their way through screens, and communicated on help defense.

Tonight the Blazers brought the effort, hustle, communication, and desire that seemed to be missing over the last couple of weeks. Shorthanded against one of the premier teams in the league, it just wasn’t enough. This game shows the Blazers are capable of impacting a game on the defensive end, at least if the opposing offense is predictable. Making that a nightly occurrence while maintaining the offense remains a difficult challenge.

Individual Notes

CJ McCollum ran the team effectively, incredibly at times, finding cutters for dunks frequently. His 29 points and 7 assists certainly shine bright tonight. Four turnovers, mostly unforced, shadowed his evening.

Mason Plumlee started out slow, allowing Jonas Valuncinas to get whatever he wanted in the first period. Plumlee held him in check thereafter while controlling the boards. He was key to Portland’s trap and blitz attack on the perimeter. His mobility allowed him to show and recover fast enough to keep the Blazers in favorable situations. 13 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists on top of his defense helped keep this game close tonight.

Allen Crabbe started at shooting guard. His performance was muted. In 35 minutes, Crabbe produced 7 points, 5 rebounds, and a steal. Tonight was a chance for Crabbe to break through and shake whatever has ailed him this season. Instead he regressed into hesitation after missing a couple early, open looks. If Crabbe wants to make a splash he has to find his form and let it fly.

The Blazers get another chance at DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.

Links and Such

RaptorsHQ

Boxscore

Video Recap

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