You never know what to expect in the NBA. Just two days ago, the Portland Trail Blazers delivered their most impressive performance of the season, pounding the defending champs by 32 behind flawless execution and a career-best effort from Damian Lillard. With the Blazers facing another hot opponent in a game with playoff implications, Sunday's 115-111 win against the Utah Jazz couldn't have been more opposite in terms of style, pace and just plain competitiveness. Friday was clean, easy and jubilant while Sunday was messy, tough and anxious, as the game went down to the wire until the closing seconds. The one commonality: this was another of the most hard-fought and entertaining games of the season. Utah battled hard and even led by double-digits at times as the lead traded like Pokemon cards.
With the victory tonight the Blazers secured a tiebreaker which may become pivotal for playoff positioning come April. They improved to 29-27, remaining in the seventh seed in the crowded Western Conference, just 1/2 game behind the Dallas Mavericks.
The opening minutes looked to have all the makings for Blazer stomping grounds; CJ McCollum and Noah Vonleh canned back-to-back threes, Utah couldn't get anything to find the net, and a slow start turned into a 11-3 lead almost halfway through the first. As Utah called time, Coach Quin Snyder must have given the best motivation speech since Hoosiers, as the Jazz responded with a 17-0 run to power themselves ahead.
As the first half progressed, the seemingly elastic Rudy Gobert erased just about any attempt within 12 feet of the basket and Utah's wings hounded Lillard and McCollum anywhere outside the three-point line. On Friday, Portland's offense went off just about without a hitch; on Sunday, the Jazz defense were able to stifle that attack for a decent chunk of time, forcing long possessions and a variety of tough looks as their lead grew as large as 13.
An 8-0 personal run by Ed Davis, along with some clutch buckets from McCollum, managed to keep the score respectable, but Utah still held a double-digit lead partway through the third. It wasn't time to press the panic button, but you could tell fans in the arena were getting a bit restless.
That's when Lillard decided he'd had enough of all that, looked at his watch (which apparently has no batteries) and just went nuclear. Starting at 8:50 in the third, Dame hit four consecutive threes - most in typical "in-your-face fashion" - to suddenly jolt Portland within two at 63-61. Another three from McCollum the next trip grabbed the first Blazer lead since early in the first, and from there, both sides traded blows in what became a gut-wrenching see-saw which lasted into the final seconds. In the end, the Blazers emerged victorious, but it wasn't easy.
While Portland made mincemeat of of the vaunted Golden State defense, cracking the egg that was Utah and Gobert's monster 7'9" wingspan turned into a completely different story. Gobert disrupted everything inside the paint and stood as an imposing shadow to any Blazer who dared enter his threshold. With strength behind them, Utah wings overplayed the three-point line and forced Portland to drive into the lane where they were promptly met by the 23-year-old Frenchman. The strategy proved to be effective, as the Blazers were held scoreless for nearly six minutes during the first while Utah built its early lead.
At the other end, Snyder continued to push the size advantage of Gobert and Derrick Favors, who bullied Portland's smaller defenders to the tune of 64 points in the paint. Out-shooting the Blazers 49%-40%, The Jazz seemed to be in control but failed to deliver the knockout blow - instead, Lillard beat them to the punch and dragged the Blazers back into a game they might have not deserved to be in. From there, it was all about who wanted it more.
Despite being out-shot by nearly 10%, Portland managed to stay close with hustle, and maybe a nice stroke of luck. Coach Terry Stotts rode the strong play of Maurice Harkless for much of the second half, and the 22-year-old forward delivered with a brilliant stretch where he corralled a number of offensive rebounds - one on an improbable tip-in in traffic - and played good defense down the stretch against Gordon Hayward and the sizable Favors.
The Blazers also capitalized on one of their new recent strengths, fast-break points - controlling the advantage 10-2, despite not winning the turnover battle (12-11). McCollum in particular was very deliberate in pushing the pace after Utah misses to inject at least a taste of full-court into a half-court dominated contest. The Blazers also set a season-high for offensive rebounds with 23, besting Utah's 12 - even when Stotts went with a smaller lineup, Portland managed to control the boards. It's becoming clear that Small Ball is here to stay in the NBA, so it is encouraging to have such success against a front line like Utah's.
Damian Lillard shouldn't be surprising us anymore. He was sensational again, scoring 30 points to go along with 5 assists and 4 rebounds. It was his 12-point explosion during the third which put the Blazers in a position to take back control of the game. If he can keep this up for the remainder of the season he might cross into Goran Dragic territory of being named to an All-NBA team despite not being selected to the All-Star team.
CJ McCollum was Robin to Lillard's Batman tonight - he poured on 31 points along with three assists, scoring on some pretty drives and knocking down five threes. Portland is going to be very hard to beat when both its guards are locked in like this.
Maurice Harkless continued his best stretch of play this season - bringing his double-digit scoring streak up to five games. He was credited with 17 points - although the scorekeepers appeared to miss two points for his acrobatic tip-in during the third which should have given him 19. He also added 7 boards, 1 assist and 1 steal. That Neil Olshey got this guy for what basically amounts as a friendly phone call is absolutely bananas.
Mason Plumlee had himself a game, going toe-to-toe with Rudy Gobert for most of the night and coming out the better of the two. 9 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block and pretty solid defense on Gobert. He'll be the unsung hero here.
Ed Davis was surprisingly active on the offensive end, scoring 11 points and grabbing 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. Mr. Dependable.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a quiet but effectve night and was mostly upstaged by Harkless' big night - only 2 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.
Noah Vonleh only played 16 minutes but scored 5 points and grabbed 8 boards, although missed 5 of his 7 shots.
Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson both had off-night off the bench, each going 1-6 and scoring only 3 and 4 points, respectively.
Meyers Leonard was re-inserted back to the rotation but was yanked after only seven minutes. He was ineffective at best on defense and looked trigger-shy on offense.
Links and Such
The Trail Blazers get another day off and then host the Brooklyn Nets Tuesday at 7 pm at the Moda Center - tip is set for 7 pm.
-- Ryan Rosback | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter
Blazer's Edge Night
We've already donated over 1500 tickets so underprivileged children and youth can see the Portland Trail Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. We're trying to get that number to 2000. We give them directly to schools, coaches, counselors, and others who work with kids in need. It makes a huge difference! Can you help out with a ticket or two?
Donating is easy. Just click here and use the promo code:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.