January 21st, 2016. Outside of a drubbing at the hands of the Toronto Raptors, that date marks the last time the Portland Trail Blazers lost a game as they entered tonight's contest with the Brooklyn Nets.
A month of straight up winning would be enough to puff up any team, let alone one as young and inexperienced as the Trail Blazers. Fresh off stunning and inspirational victories over the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, basking in positive headline and glowing write-ups across the nation, Portland might have been forgiven for overlooking the lowly Nets. Could the Brook Lopez and company put an end to the victory march, pulling off the upset?
C'mon. It's Brooklyn. Fuddegaboudit.
The game turned out closer than expected but massive scoring by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum overcame an indomitable effort from Lopez, sealing a 112-104 win for Portland. After a few beads of nervous sweat, the winning train will roll on for at least a couple more days, as will the party in Blazers-land.
The first half of this game was defined by the Nets defending with all the authority and integrity of a paper cup. Not those fancy plastic Solo cups, mind you...the miniature Dixie ones that used to get stocked in restrooms. You know, the kind that say, "If you really want to drink out of the bathroom sink, go right ahead. Just deposit your self-respect in the can over there, cuz a teaspoon and a half of lukewarm tap water is totally worth it." Then you realize what you're doing and your hand convulses and the cup gets crushed, sending teeny-tiny droplets of water everywhere. But there's not enough in it to actually get anything wet so you quick-toss it in the garbage and walk out like nothing ever happened while the bathroom attendant smirks at you and thinks, "They sell lemonade at the bar, dude. In big boy cups too."
Yeah, Brooklyn defended like that.
As a result the Blazers built a more-than-comfortable 63-49 halftime lead despite plenty of heroics from Lopez. Everyone in the Moda Center felt the win was in the bag.
But somewhere along the way the Blazers started believing their own press clippings. With the game going as so many other had--straight towards the win column against an inferior opponent--Portland forgot the basics. They let the Nets inside the lane repeatedly, settled for unseemly shots, and committed ludicrous turnovers. Having led by 19, the Blazers watched the margin dwindle to 10, then 5, then...1? "Hey guys, that's a little close. Whew! McCollum made a layup at the end of the third to keep the margin at 3! Surely the Blazers will streak away again in the fourth."
Brooklyn actually came back and took a couple leads early in the final period. Their highest margin was 3 points, but that was like saying the giraffe only made it up to the 46th floor of the Empire State Building. He wasn't supposed to be there in the first place! Turnovers and stunted offense continued to plague Portland as the clock wound down. But the Blazers had the benefit of knowing where Brooklyn's offense would come from. Lopez and Joe Johnson made good use of the post, but Portland defenders interfered enough to keep the shots difficult. Eventually the Nets had to go away from their Isolation Stars and their scoring came to a screeching halt. Meanwhile Portland benefited from back-to-back threes from McCollum and Lillard just as the clock dipped below 2:00, a veritable tidal wave of points (and relief) in a low-scoring quarter hanging on a toenail's margin. The Nets never had time to recover as the Blazers sank their possession-based free throws and walked away with the resulting 8-point win.
Lopez was a double-handful tonight, scoring 36 points on 16-24 shooting with 10 rebounds and 4 steals. Portland's pain wasn't for lack of trying. Centers with post moves are like non-sparkly vampires or non-ironic music reviews. You just don't see them anymore and nobody knows how to handle them, including the Blazers' centers.
Fortunately nobody knew how to handle CJ McCollum either. He poured syrup all over that pancake to the tune of 34 points on 13-20 shooting. The Nets had no answer for him in any quarter. Lillard matched him with 34 points of his own on 9-18 shooting, coming on strong late. Between them the duo hit 7-14 threes and 17-17 free throws. Don't dismiss the importance of those single-point gains (the extra point on the triple or from each foul shot) in a game like this. As well as the Nets played in the halfcourt, their capacity to push the score with anything beyond a basic bucket was limited. As much as anything else, those one-point edges secured the victory for Portland.
Despite the success of bigger Nets in the post and 60 points in the paint for Brooklyn overall, the Blazers played pretty stiff interior defense tonight, especially as the game closed. Their rebounding followed a similar arc, slipping in the second half then returning strong when it counted. Board-work is another underrated and under-referenced part of Portland's repertoire this year. Those rebounds don't give the Blazers wins, but they provide a platform upon which the wins are built. When Portland isn't working the boards hard, they slip fast.
Portland's bench played a bit limper tonight than we've seen of late. They had moments--Gerald Henderson and Moe Harkless standing out at different times--but their defense was poor and their offense inconsistent.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum trumped Brook Lopez tonight. In some ways the game was as simple as that. Lopez was an unstoppable machine with 36 on 66% shooting, but McCollum and Lillard were equally daunting with 34 apiece. Sometimes the "guards are the center of this franchise" meme gets overplayed but tonight it was more than merited.
Al-Farouq Aminu popped the scoring early in the game and Gerald Henderson did the same later on, each scoring 10 on 4-8 shooting. Aminu did a nice job frustrating Joe Johnson too.
Mason Plumlee provided 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks...everything but the direct offense. 36 points to 4 looks like a massive crush for Lopez against Plumlee and 5 fouls on Mason confirm the impression, but it was like Lopez had Plumlee in a crushing bear hug while Plumlee was stabbing him in the back with a paring knife. That isn't going to kill him, but eventually it'll tell.
Moe Harkless had a Man-Sized block (one of two in the game) but he, Meyers Leonard (1-3, 3 points and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes), and Noah Vonleh (2-4, 4 points, 3 rebounds in 13 minutes) were mostly subdued. Outside of a couple offensive rebounds that went for Ed Davis too.
Allen Crabbe scored only 5 points in 25 minutes but he had a couple steals, some nice defense, and 3 assists.
Links and Such
Please check out our announcement about Blazer's Edge Night. We have one week left to get to 2000 tickets donated to send underprivileged kids to see the Portland Trail Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th. Details about how you can help are in that post and just below! Blazer's Edge is, and will always remain, a free-to-view site...no "Insiders" section or paywall. We don't ask for a dime for ourselves, but if you have a few bucks to send a kid to see a Blazers game, that's just as good as a million bucks to us.
Sending kids in need to a Trail Blazers game 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.
Our latest podcast, in which we discuss how bad these Nets are and how good the Blazers might be.
The Blazers will try to make it 12 out of 13 when they face whatever passes for the Houston Rockets nowadays on Thursday night.