When the Portland Trail Blazers met the Philadelphia 76'ers at the Moda Center on Saturday night, the game was supposed to be one-sided. The Blazers owned 37 wins, the Sixers only 9, a paltry 3 of those coming on the road. Philly was injured, the Blazers one Meyers Leonard short of full strength. Portland even had the experience advantage over the Sixers, an occurrence as rare as compassion in a ref's heart.
We'd like to keep the suspense alive, uncovering mystical knowledge that proved there was more to this game than met the eye. There wasn't...at least not much. For three solid periods the Blazers were too big, too talented, and too well-prepared for the Sixers to cope with. Despite an all-too-typical late-game run by Philly, Portland hung on to earn their 38th win, keeping their hold on the 6th position in the West and starting a critical late-season home stand the right way.
With their entire frontcourt injured, Philadelphia started a small lineup tonight. Of their top 8 rotation players, 7 normally play small forward or guard. (Carl Landry, all of 6'9", was the sole exception.) They played zero centers, mostly because they have none healthy.
Fielding an array of smalls, Philly's only chance to win came via running and quick offense. They willingly shot threes. They wanted to fast break. They ended up firing 10-38, 26%, from distance. They tallied 7 points off the break. With that kind of performance in their circled stats, a victory was all but impossible.
Not only did Portland do a good job stopping what the Sixers wanted to do, they spent three quarters targeting Philly's weaknesses themselves. They scored inside, rebounded well, and took care of the ball. They didn't stab at the opponent, they pushed down on them inexorably, starving them of oxygen and waiting for them to go out.
Then the fourth period came and the Blazers said, "Just kidding, guys. Get up, catch your breath, and have some cake. When you're ready we can play again, just for fun! No, really...whoever wins, it's OK!"
Having led the whole game, carrying a 86-74 edge entering the final quarter, Portland proceeded to forget every single thing that put them in the driver's seat. How much damage can a 9-63 NBA opponent down by double-digits in the fourth really do, anyway? The Blazers started hoisting jumpers, rebounding casually, closing out a step slower. As it turned out, the only definition from the prior sentence that interested the Sixers was, "NBA opponent". They proved they were one, storming back like Patton on his way to Bastogne. Portland attempting 14 shots outside of the paint in the quarter and hitting but 2 (one of them a late-game Lillard save) all but paved the road for them. The Blazers faithful shook their head in wonder once again, beseeching the heavens for an answer to the eternal question, "What do we have to do to close out an easy win???"
Was that fourth quarter ridiculous? Yes. Did it cost the Blazers the game? No. Damian Lillard hit a hero three-pointer with 2:36 remaining and then CJ McCollum split a double team in precarious fashion to help seal the deal with 7 seconds remaining. (See video of that entertaining play here.)
The latest near-disastrous collapse didn't tell us much about the Blazers that we didn't already know. They are better than we think they are when nobody gives them a chance and they play with focus and determination. They're not nearly as good as they think they are when they have the upper hand. The minute they relax, deviating from smart and energetic play, they stink just as badly as pre-season pundits predicted.
That's not going to worry the team right now, though. (It may worry the coaching staff a little, but then again their job is to worry.) Portland got the win. That's all that mattered.
Curiosity Note: Up by 3 with the clock winding down, the Blazers opted for the intentional foul strategy. It worked. Philadelphia's Jerami Grant, a 68% free-throw shooter, blew his first attempt and intentionally missed the second. The latter miss never touched rim, a violation which gave Portland the ball.
Even-More-Curious-Note: Down 3 with 0:07 remaining and Portland in possession, the Sixers gave up the game by opting not to foul. The Blazers dribbled out the clock in the backcourt, a quizzical look on their faces. I'm not sure this approach will show up in the "How to Coach" Manual but it sure was interesting. #Sixers
Damian Lillard struggled again tonight, shooting 6-20 for 16 points. CJ McCollum made up for it with 25 points (though it took him 22 shots to get there) and an incredible 5 steals.
Not to be outdone, Mason Plumlee grabbed 5 offensive rebounds. "No center? That's my kind of matchup!"
Al-Farouq Aminu had a very nice 20-point, 8-rebound performance, shooting 6-12. Moe Harkless brought the energy and 16 points and 8 rebounds on 5-9 shooting. This was the best game so far for that forward duo playing together.
Ed Davis played 26 minutes, including crunch time, and slaughtered the Sixers with 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal. Just call him "Butter" because he's on a roll.
Allen Crabbe shot 2-8. (Just call him "Artichoke" because he's not.)
Gerald Henderson registered another nice offensive game with 4-7 shooting and 11 points in 21 minutes. 4 turnovers cast some shade on those numbers though. That small Sixers lineup wasn't exactly Gerald-proof, but they made life hard.
Links and Such
Liberty Ballers cannot be a fun place right now. Then again...moral victory?
With the victory the Blazers go to 38-36, retaining their hold on the 6th position in the Western Conference playoff bracket. They open up a 1.5 game lead on the 7th-place Houston Rockets and 8th-place Utah Jazz, 2 games on the 9th-place Dallas Mavericks.
The Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on Monday night when 2000 screaming kids and their chaperons will descend upon Moda Center for Blazer's Edge Night, 2016. Get ready, everybody!