Tonight's matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Boston Celtics featured two teams who have risen farther above their pre-season expectations than any in the league. Portland carried an impressive 3-game road winning streak, having posted W's in 14 out of their last 16. The Celtics had won 4 of their last 5 and 14 of 18. Something had to give.
Unfortunately for Portland fans, the Blazers did all the giving as the Celtics romped their way to a 116-93 victory. Momentum and good feelings couldn't overcome Portland's 4th game in 5 nights, the reality that other good teams exist, and Boston's suffocating defense, all of which played into the loss.
The zest with which both teams pursued the first quarter indicated not only their talent, but that they knew this matchup would go beyond the ordinary. Every drive, three-pointer, screen, and juke came decorated with 37 pieces of flair. CJ McCollum got the Blazers rolling early. After the first couple shots went down, Portland looked unstoppable. They found every crease and passing lane, leaving the Celtics miserably far from defending open jump shooters, a half step slow catching up to penetration. The Blazers barely missed a shot in the first 12 minutes, pasting 33 points on the opponent. But Boston wasn't far behind. Isaiah Thomas carved apart Portland's defense, scoring repeatedly at the rim. He led the Celtics to 30 points, leaving the Blazers up only 3 despite their offensive explosion.
Portland's bench couldn't stop Boston's momentum but they did a great job of stopping their own team's. They just couldn't convert scoring attempts of any variety. McCollum hurt the Celtics but nobody else hit more than a single field goal in the period...not even the first unit after they returned. Boston outscored Portland 31-22 in the frame but CJ's heroism kept the score a respectable 61-55 for the Celts at halftime.
That respectability lasted approximately 2.5 nanoseconds after the second half commenced, as Boston proceeded to nuke the Blazers back into the Stone Age. They demonstrated an element that Portland hasn't mastered yet: suffocating defense. Their guards pressured the Blazer backcourt hard, occasionally employing help from bigs but mostly just getting in Portland's jocks and Portland's head. Driving and passing lanes that opened easily in the first half now required 6 dribbles and 3 changes of direction to find. McCollum and Damian Lillard were capable of those moves, but Portland's offense depends on reading, timing, and correct anticipation. With the defense so tight and the guards taking so long to come free, none of the off-ball players could tell when and where the next opening would appear. They didn't know which seams to hit or how to time their cuts. When they weren't guessing incorrectly they ended up standing still, trying to figure it out. This allowed other Celtics defenders to stay close, taking away all Portland's open looks. It was the kiss of death. The Blazers scored 12 points in the period. Buoyed by turnovers leading to fast break points, the Celtics scored 30 for the third straight quarter. At that point the game was over. Portland limped through the fourth on their way to a 23-point defeat.
The Blazers were tired tonight and had no legs in the second half. That certainly contributed to the loss. But the Blazers wouldn't have been as tired had the game remained an offensive free-for-all. The Celtics deserve absolute, full credit for their defensive prowess. This was a big-time showing from Boston. They put Portland's guards in a box and only let them out for bi-weekly visitation. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum never take stationary dribbles but the second half was full of them. It was like watching a hamster cross an 8-lane highway. You don't know when something really bad is going to happen, but you're pretty sure it will. And it did.
One look at Portland's assist column shows how out of sorts they were. Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu led the team in assists with 3 each. The starting guards only managed 2 apiece. The Blazers managed 15 dimes as a team, but 3 of those came in garbage time.
Both teams ended up shooting 40% for the game and the Blazers beat Boston handily in three-point percentage, 38%-27%. But the Celtics attempted a sickening 107 field goals to Portland's 84. The Blazers never want that to happen. And they never, ever, EVER want to give up 30 points on the break. There aren't enough "nevers" in the world to cover them allowing 19 offensive rebounds. Playing out of character is one thing; this was as if the Pope started making Girls Gone Wild videos.
Here's the obligatory speech about "just one game" and "scheduling loss" and fatigue. That doesn't explain everything. The Celtics certainly demonstrated the difference between a team that can lock down in the backcourt and a team that can't. The Blazers can't ignore that. But those mitigating factors are more than enough to excuse a loss after 3 road games won. No matter what the scoreboards say, the Blazers are playing with house money the whole rest of this trip. They've already earned the 3 wins they needed. Were they to drop games in Toronto and Detroit, nobody could complain. The Blazers will be better rested in those games and won't be likely to lose them by 20+. But either way, all's still well in Blazers Land.
Blowouts don't merit them. We'll just point out--by way of explanation, not blame--that Lillard and McCollum scored 20 and 17 respectively, combining for only 4 assists against 4 turnovers. When that happens, it doesn't matter what anybody else does. This team is going down. Plus-minus is a horrible, non-indicative stat when used for a single game except in very particular circumstances. This is one of those rare times because Lillard and McCollum are the team's main stars and the flow will follow them more than anyone else. (They'll affect their teammates' plus-minus far more than their teammates will affect theirs.) In any case, each of them posted a -22 in roughly 35 minutes of play tonight and that pretty much describes the circular, swirling motion of this outing.
Links and Such
Mercifully there's no Video Play of the Day for this game. It'd feature the Blazers getting lit up, shut down, or it'd be pretty but inconsequential.
Check out Tara and Jo debating Damian Lillard's true worth in the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast.
I figured CelticsBlog might have something to celebrate tonight but this was a bit much.
The Blazers will face the Toronto Raptors on Friday at 4:30 p.m. Pacific