Just when you think the Portland Trail Blazers' season can't get any better, it does.
Coming off a physical win against the Chicago Bulls yesterday, the Blazers could have been forgiven for cruising through today's matchup against the Indiana Pacers. Instead they racked 'em, stacked 'em, and downright shellacked 'em, using a strong inside-outside offensive game to wear down their opponents, pulling away for the easy 111-102 win and a 2-0 start to their longest remaining road trip of the season.
The Blazers started the game in slightly atypical fashion, showing no respect at all for Indiana's interior defenders. Taking the ball right down the heart of the lane, Portland played the Pacers even through the first 8 minutes or so. But all that was just warm-up for the big blow. With Indiana keeping one eye on the lane, Damian Lillard exploded in a torrent of three-pointers (with one from Meyers Leonard for good measure) that took the score from 18-21, Indiana with 4:00 remaining in the first to 39-27 for Portland as the quarter horn sounded. If you thought Lillard's 15-point first period against Chicago was impressive, how about a career-best 20 points tonight?
With that kind of lead in hand, the Blazers simply played even with the Pacers the rest of the way and walked off with a comfortable win...again...the same story as last night. The style of play was quite different. Neither team stopped the other with regularity in the first half. The Pacers shot near 50% before halftime but the Blazers shot 60%. Scoring calmed down slightly in the second half as the teams adjusted to each other. Neither could carve out an advantage...which was just fine with Portland.
Indiana made a courtesy run late but never seriously threatened. Unable to stop the Blazers from putting the ball in the bucket as the game wore down, the Pacers ended up resorting to quicker, desperation jump shots. That isn't their game and their shooting percentage plummeted. That put the period on the inevitable sentence which read, "Blazers win again."
It'll be interesting to see if "Lillard scores huge early, Blazers stalemate the rest of the game" becomes a pattern for this road trip. It's certainly a departure from what we're used to seeing, but the Blazers needed to shake up their approach on the road and this certainly qualifies. Featuring Lillard early instead of having him pick his spots and come on in the fourth gives Portland an early lead instead of making them play catch-up. If opponents down the road cop wise and start pressuring Lillard early, it's going to open up Portland's normal offense. Hopefully that'll render a similar result. Stay tuned.
Lillard's 31 points notwithstanding, nobody is more valuable against the Pacers than Al-Farouq Aminu. For the second straight time this season, Aminu frustrated and basically shut down Paul George. Indiana's superstar was relegated to contested perimeter shots throughout the contest. He finished the game 4-15 with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 3 turnovers. Compare that to season averages of 24 points and 7 rebounds. Without their main man, the Pacers had no chance at a comeback.
If you want to know how well Portland's offense was clicking tonight, don't just look at their 50% rate from the field, but 58% (14-24) from the three-point arc. The Pacers tried to play a game from 2004, protecting the lane first in response to Portland's early jabs. As they dropped their arms to guard against body blows. the Blazers racked them up with blistering shots to the head which left them dazed and ultimately knocked them out of the contest. Indiana's announcers mentioned "West Coast Basketball" a couple of times, but it's less geographical than chronological. This is 2016. You don't give up the three once the opponent starts hitting it. Not that the Pacers ended up having much of a choice. By the second half their physically large big men were tired of chasing Portland forwards around the perimeter...but still.
It's impossible to overestimate how big this weekend has been for the Blazers. Winning in Chicago was a bold statement. Winning in Indiana as well leaves Portland in a good position to come away from this 6-game road trip with a 4-2 record, minimum. If they can deal with success and not lose their cool in New York, they should carry a 3-0 streak into the second half of the trip. 3-3 would have put them in great position for a run at a playoff seed. 4-2 or better would cement them as a strong playoff possibility, less because of the distance between them and 9th place and more because they'd be demonstrating that tougher games away from home aren't going to faze them. They don't have to prove that to the league as much as themselves. They've made a fantastic start so far.
Damian Lillard should be illegal. Or at least Portland's charter plane should display one of those hazmat warning stickers when he's on board. 20 points in a quarter is one thing. Shifting from a really good, 10-point period to a record-breaking, opponent-destroying scoring pace in just three shots is devastating. That's what Lillard did in a three-minute span to close the first with a three-pointer, a four-point play, and another three-pointer. It didn't take 5 layups. Heck, it didn't take more than 3 dribbles total. It was just, "Lillard's having a pretty nice run, maybe we should...BOOM! We're dead." Dame finished the day with 33 points, 5-8 three-pointers made.
CJ McCollum recovered from his problematic performance yesterday, scoring 19 points on 7-20 shooting. That percentage isn't great and McCollum only managed 3 assists against 3 turnovers, but that was a heck of a lot better than 1-12 and 6 points. This road trip may be answering the season-long question of whether the team does better with Lillard picking his spots and McCollum dominating or the inverse. Lillard does better as the secondary guy than McCollum does bu the team appears to be doing better with Lillard in the more obvious position. We'll see.
Al-Farouq Aminu had 10 points, 8 rebounds, and a million accolades for his defense on George. Lillard put the Blazers ahead but Aminu kept them there.
Mason Plumlee followed one of his best performances of the season with a 1-point, 8-rebound outing. The Pacers didn't send him to the line 13 times like the Bulls did. But it wasn't a game for big men to shine. Plumlee and company existed to keep Indiana's defense honest while the perimeter shooters killed them. Indiana did manage 19 offensive rebounds so it's a good thing those shooters were so hot.
Noah Vonleh got a small sign of respect: the Blazers ran the first play of the game for him. He shot 2-5 with 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 18 minutes.
The bench had a few shaky moments tonight but got buoyed by Lillard plus unstoppable shooting from Meyers Leonard and Gerald Henderson. Meyers scored 17 on 6-8 shooting, 4-5 from the arc, completely flabbergasting Indiana's defenders. Henderson didn't even flabbergast them; he just bowled them over with 8-9 from the field and 19 points. For those counting, that makes 36 points from those two worthies in a combined 44 minutes. I suspect the Blazers will take that.
Ed Davis is on a shot-blocking tear, adding 3 to his belt tonight with 9 rebounds and 2 steals in 27 minutes. He could be playing more and shooting more but instead of wilting and waiting, he's taking every moment in hand. The team is much better off because of it.
Allen Crabbe had an off night, shooting 1-5. He did have 4 assists.
Moe Harkless did not play, sure to be a disappointment after his recent run.
Links and Such
Indy Cornrows is bound to be impressed by how the Blazers handled their team.
The Blazers will face the New York Knicks on Tuesday night.
We have a limited number of tickets available for Blazer's Edge Night. If you work with underprivileged children and would like to take them to see the Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on Monday, March 28th, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org