It's been a while since a good team stepped into the Moda Center to face the Portland Trail Blazers. Ring rust showed through tonight as Portland matched up against the powerful and blistering hot Toronto Raptors. The Blazers weren't awkward or particularly turnover-prone; their shots fell just fine. They just spent the game asking more questions than they answered:
How come you guys are getting so hot from the three-point arc?
Why didn't we get that call?
When's our big run coming?
You guys are going to step back and give us the game now, right?
The Raptors answered, in turn, "Because we can, that's your problem, probably soon but it'll be brief, and no...now get out of the way because we're winning." And win they did, with an authority the Blazers lacked, ultimately putting away the home team 110-103.
The game started in odd fashion for all parties. Noah Vonleh was scratched from Portland's starting lineup due to an ankle injury, replaced by seldom-seen Moe Harkless, Jumping from 11th man to the starting five without batting an eye, Harkless came out with energy and did a credible job.
Before the game was 4 minutes old centers Jonas Valanciunas and Mason Plumlee had collected 2 fouls each and had to sit. Valanciunas' was retroactively transferred to another player but he still spent most of the first period in the penalty box. Odd lineups ensued for both sides.
With weird circumstances out of the way, both teams got down to business.
The Blazers spent most of the quarter trying to keep Toronto guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan out of the lane. Since Portland's guards can't stay in front of their men and the Blazers lack intimidating bigs, that required the entire team to defend with one eye toward the rim. The Raptors stuck their fingers in the air, sensed the way the wind was blowing, and proceeded to hit 6 of 8 three-pointers in the period.
Plus Lowry and DeRozan scored in the lane anyway. Yeah.
Meanwhile the Blazers spent the period missing shots and watching Meyers Leonard defend like a bowl of peanuts on a bar counter. They gave up offensive rebounds throughout as well. Toronto led 37-25 after one.
Portland stiffened the defense and toughened their rebounding in the second quarter. The Raptors got too comfortable from the perimeter and started attempting deep shots early and easily. They missed. The Blazers closed to within 6 with a little under 3:00 remaining but couldn't pull closer as Toronto wings waltzed into the lane 3 straight times to close the quarter. The Raptors led 59-51 at the half. At that point holding them to "only" 59 points seemed like a relief.
Portland forced Toronto into a cavalcade of turnovers in the third period, perhaps their best stretch of the evening. The Blazers pulled out all their usual tricks: three-point shots, fast breaks off of miscues, a Damian Lillard scoring streak, surprisingly strong contributions from reserve guards Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson. It was the classic Portland comeback technique. Except the margin didn't get any smaller. It was like watching inexperienced woodsmen try to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together: lots of energy, few sustained results. The Blazers couldn't defend screens or any opposing guards coming off them. 21 of Toronto's 23 points in the period came from backcourt players. (Valanciunas hit a courtesy bucket with 3:14 remaining.) The Raptors took an 82-75 lead into the fourth.
To their credit, the Blazers hustled hard in the final period. Lillard tried to take over the game, scoring 15. Leonard found his long-lost shooting touch, which helped. But every time the Blazers should have zigged, they zagged. Open shots became difficult passes. Easy passes got overlooked in favor of hero shots. Lillard was about the only Blazer in tune with the game but he spent half the period casting dirty looks at the refs. It was enough to make you wish Phil Jackson would send a library full of Zen books to Portland's locker room. Meanwhile the Raptors repeated their third-quarter performance, this time scoring more effectively and allowing their frontcourt players a total of 7 points instead of 2. Gotta feed the big men....like, two crumbs.
When the final horn sounded Toronto walked away with the same 7-point margin they'd shepherded through the final three periods. Portland's energy turned out fine but they never focused it tight enough or long enough to give the opponent trouble.
If you just read the Game Flow section you'll know that Toronto's guards scored 42 of the 51 points their team put up in the second half. If that's not enough for you, 98 of Toronto's 110 points tonight came in the lane, beyond the three-point arc, or at the foul line. Considering those are the three places the Blazers least like to give up points, I'd say that this was either a fairly poor defensive job by the Blazers, a fairly surgical dismantling of Portland by the Raptors, or both.
(Hint: It was both.)
You could tell how far the Raptors were into the Blazers' heads during end-of-quarter possessions. Portland's pet play is shooting the ball with 30-33 seconds remaining on the clock, giving themselves an easy 2-for-1 situation. They've done it all year to great effect. Tonight the 35-second mark of each quarter might as well have been the oven dinging when the muffins are done. The Raptors knew where the ball was and they ran to get it, confident that whoever held the rock was going to shoot within 2-3 seconds. The Blazers didn't get a meaningful final shot in any quarter this evening.
Lowry and DeRozan scored 59 points on 21-44 shooting tonight, 8-11 from the arc. Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 48 on 16-38 shooting, 6-13 from the arc. Toronto's margin came less through offensive superiority than defensive. All four guards can score. Two of them can defend as well...or at least defend enough to gain an edge. With that advantage in place, all the rest of the Raptors needed to do was equal Portland's non-Lillard-McCollum lineup. That's not too difficult most nights. Crabbe and Henderson made it tough, scoring 27 off the bench combined, but the Blazers couldn't get any stops (Toronto shot 47% from the field and 63% from the arc). Nor could they generate enough turnovers or offensive rebounds to build a base for a long-term comeback. They did well enough in both categories but gave up as much as they took.
Folks are going to mention the refs in this game, as the sickly-sweet stench of questionable calls (and non-calls) wafted more in Portland's direction than Toronto's. A couple things to remember:
1. Consider how few times we've had to talk about officiating issues this year.
2. Right now the Blazers are in a virtual deadlock with the Utah Jazz for the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoff bracket. A couple days ago Portland owned that spot outright and people were quick to call them a "playoff team".
There's a wonderful scene in Goodfellas where the big boss Paulie takes over a restaurant to save its owner from the depredations of a fellow gangster, Tommy. A voice-over narration explains the arrangement simply (though in language not safe for a family site). Paulie keeps all the other bad guys away and takes care of any problems the owner might have. In return, the owner gives Paulie a payment every week. As the narrator explains, the fee is inviolable. "Business bad? [Bleep] you, pay me. Oh, you had a fire? [Bleep] you, pay me. Place got hit by lightning, huh? [Bleep] you, pay me."
That's as close as I can come to describing what a real playoff team plays like. DeRozan's going ham on you? [Bleep] you, win it. Refs aren't giving you the calls in the lane? [Bleep] you, win it. Bismack Biyombo's temple left an unsightly smudge of blood on Meyer Leonard's pretty elbow? [Bleep] you, win it.
Not that a team can win every game, of course, let alone every one in which they experience adversity, just or unjust. But if you take that attitude and still get beat, at least you know you got beat fairly and it was tough for the other team. Maybe you left a doubt in the mind of the crowd, the refs, and the opponent that you were the better team, that outside circumstances determined the outcome.
The Blazers didn't do that tonight. Their focus was scattered all across the floor from the get-go and they never really got it together. They looked ready to complain before they took a single step on the dribble drive. They were waving their hands in the air after whistles like they were front row at the Pharrell-Beyonce world tour. As a result they opened a gap for the other team to wriggle through and lost their own edge. Toronto was good enough to take advantage of that. They weren't about to help the Blazers out of their predicament. That's one of the reasons the veteran, talented Raptors are a playoff team and the inexperienced, talented Blazers have a ways to go before that designation truly applies.
Damian Lillard scored 27 tonight but he looked out of sorts. He was shaking his hand around, not moving with his usual explosiveness and purpose, and was jawing with the refs all night. His 11 assists were brilliant. How can you argue with 27 and 11? Portland fans will know what I mean when I say this just wasn't Dame, though.
CJ McCollum appeared to get edged out a little as Lillard took over the show. It wasn't dramatic; the two just weren't clicking with each other or teammates as much as usual. McCollum's shots came from odd spots, looking more forced. He also had 5 turnovers to go with his 21 points.
If Portland's starting backcourt wasn't quite in the flow, you know the frontcourt was spinning in circles. Mason Plumlee picked up 4 fouls in 20 minutes, scoring 6 points with 4 rebounds. Al-Farouq Aminu got stuck having to contain DeRozan, which occupied all his attention and left him with 7 points and 4 rebounds in 32 minutes. Moe Harkless was the most successful of the starting trio, collecting 2 blocks and a steal plus 2 points, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls in 16 minutes. His defense was pretty decent though.
Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson were the only two Blazers looking like they were having fun in this game. Crabbe scored 17 on 5-9 shooting, Henderson 10 on 4-6 shooting. Their defense was so-so and they collected fouls like hotcakes, but they had a job to do and they did it.
Ed Davis was Ed Davis, with 7 rebounds in 21 minutes. He didn't have anyone to defend tonight though. The Raptors field guards, forwards with shooting range, the fairly big Valanciunas in the post, and Bismack Biyombo. Davis isn't suited to defend any of the first three and defending Biyombo doesn't matter.
With 17 seconds to go in the game and the Blazers down 109-103, DeMar DeRozan stepped to the foul line for the second of two free throws. He missed it but Raptors forward Patrick Patterson corralled the offensive rebound on the side of the court, effectively ending the game. As he did so Trail Blazers color commentator Mike Rice exclaimed, "I wonder how that happened?" He couldn't answer the question without being impolitic, so we'll answer it his behalf.
Meyers Leonard. It was Meyers Leonard. He tried to one-hand tip the rebound instead of grabbing it after he had his man boxed out.
Both the play and Rice's question were semi-inconsequential at that point, but I suspect the Wild One asked it for a reason. That moment typified Leonard's evening; this was definitely a Bad Meyers appearance. By now you know the symptoms: middling defense, slow close-outs, poor recognition, hesitating on his shot. We'll not rehearse them.
I hate to venture into any player's head, but some nights you can see Leonard progressively disintegrate as the game winds on and the mistakes mount. The following is oversimplified, but hear me out.
Some people greet anticipated failure by laying it all out on the line...never giving up until the moment is done, going down in a blaze of glory. Other people anticipate failure and then demonstrate overtly that they see it coming. They react to failure by communicating that they know it's their fault and you don't have to yell at them because they already understand how they messed up. That dramatic demonstration of self-blame usually involves giving up early and playing to the surrounding audience (via body language and action, if not word) instead of finishing out the task at hand. Anticipatory abandonment and self-flagellating as the event is happening moves what they perceive as inevitable failure (and its consequences) into their control.
Example: A cornerback gets beat on a pass route. Could be in the NFL, could be in your backyard, doesn't matter. Some guys will run it out anyway, giving chase until the receiver crosses the goal line. Other guys will throw their hands in the air in an, "AUUUGGGHHHH!" expression, hang their head, and show everybody that they already know they screwed up before the other guy hits the end zone.
Professional athletes who cope in the give-it-your-all way tend to succeed better than the guys who anticipate failure and beat themselves up for it. When you perceive failure coming but go all out to prevent it anyway, you turn a certain number of failures into successes. (e.g. Closing out on a three-point shooter so hard that you distract them even though you never would have gotten there in time to impede their shot.) When you perceive failure coming and immediately start trying to cope with the consequences, you tend to turn a certain number of potential successes into failures as you anticipate them incorrectly or prematurely. Investing time and energy into coping with failures you haven't committed yet, you start seeing potential failures everywhere. You lose focus and your actual failure rate cascades into a spiral.
Judging only by his performance on the court, not claiming to know him a bit personally, Meyers Leonard appears to cope with his own perceived failure in the less-productive manner and it sometimes turns bad plays into bad games for him. Maybe he needs a little Goodfellas thrown his way too. Missed a defensive assignment? [Bleep] you, get two hands on that rebound. Missed a three? [Bleep] you, take that open jumper. If somebody else whacks you, fine. Don't whack yourself.
That said, for not his best night Leonard still registered 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in 24 minutes.
Links and Such
Raptors HQ will probably like this businesslike win. They might even feel that Lowry and DeRozan just established themselves as the second-best guard duo in the NBA. (Then again, they might have felt that way already.)
The Blazers will try to establish a new winning streak, this time on the road, as they take on the Houston Rockets on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. Pacific.
In case you missed it, check out this important announcement about Blazers' Edge Night, 2016 and help us send 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers-Kings game on March 28th! 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.