Boston is home to numerous sporting greats; Thursday night's opponent, the Boston Celtics, are certainly among them. But tonight, they looked more like another of Beantown's sporting exports: prizefighters. Like any great boxer, the Celtics came out with a game plan and did not deviate one bit. For much of the game the plan worked perfectly.
They trapped, blitzed, forced and pushed Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off their spots and met them inside with help defenders. The Blazers' dynamic duo responded by flailing wildly, like rookie fighters stepping into the ring for the very first time. They turned the ball over, dribbled into traps, forced errant passes, took off balance and contested shots, and looked nothing like the dynamic 50 point-per-game duo they've been for much of the season.
Thankfully, Al-Farouq Aminu stepped onto the hardwood tonight like a seasoned fighter. He picked his spots to counter Boston's constant pressure defense with a barrage of three-pointers, defense, timely rebounding, and more three-pointers. His timely and consistent play paired with large contributions off the bench helped Portland pull a comeback that would make Rocky Marciano blush.
The game started off with Boston fully engaged from the tip, as they jumped on Portland early with five quick points, thanks to two quick turnovers. Avery Bradley had the privilege to cover Lillard tonight, and he locked him down. Lillard should've just worn cargo shorts tonight, because he was carrying Bradley around in his pocket all night long.
Every time a Portland guard named Dame or CJ put the ball on the floor, two or three defenders were there to deter them. If they drove, bigs slid over and wing defenders dug down. If they tried to come off screens, the hedge was hard and pushed them away from the hoop. If they went dribble hand-off they were forced high and wide, negating any possible advantage. Boston went with a full-blown nuclear strategy: if they were going to lose, it wouldn't be due to McCollum and Lillard.
The Blazers eventually figured this out about halfway through the first quarter, shifted gears after going down eight. Lillard and McCollum became quasi-facilitators, driving and committing defenders then moving the ball early. They were masters of the hockey assist tonight, making the first pass that lead to the pass that generated the points. The prime beneficiaries were Al-Farouq Aminu, Gerald Henderson, and Allen Crabbe, each of whom knocked down a three-pointer in the quarter. The Blazers trailed 31-30 after the first.
The second quarter started with the Celtics on fire early, sparking a quick 7-0 run. Meanwhile, with Lillard on the bench, McCollum now had Boston's full defensive focus and it showed. He was hounded from 40 feet out. And when he put the ball on the floor, they swarmed him -- poking, banging, pushing, anything the could to get him off balance. The officials allowed this play during the second quarter and the Celtics took full advantage.
Boston continued their trend of balanced scoring and over-the-top defense to force Portland into tough spots. Turnovers, bad passes, and broken plays were commonplace through much of the quarter for the Blazers.Evan Turner came in for the Celtics and operated as their Swiss Army knife, scoring 8 points in the quarter and contributing on the defensive end with a block and a steal.
Portland weathered the early storm from Boston and managed to punch their way out of the corner by scoring inside and out. Noah Vonleh came off the bench to register 7 points in 7 minutes, thanks to three highlight-reel plays. The Celtics couldn't stop Vonleh's two powerful dunks off back-cuts and ball movement, nor the three-pointer from the left corner after the defense had collapsed on penetrating guard play. His short run helped the Blazers stay close, trailing 58-54 at halftime.
The third quarter started like the previous two quarters, early Boston points and Portland turnovers. It was at this point Aminu started to really stake his claim to this game. As Boston feasted from all over the floor, Aminu did everything he could to keep Portland from falling completely out of this game, scoring the Blazers' first 10 points of the quarter. Mason Plumlee finally scored at the 6:11 mark to give Aminu some company. Despite Aminu's heroic effort, the Blazers found themselves down 13.
A turn of form from the officials tonight slowed down Boston's defensive barrage late in the period. Boston was no longer able to be as physical as they were in the first half, picking up fouls and putting Portland in the bonus early. The Blazers were able to make some hay by generating points with the clock not moving. With 3:52 left in the quarter, Allen Crabbe stepped up to the line down 12 and knocked down 2 free throws.
Then it happened.
The Blazers suddenly figured out Boston's game plan. They started to dictate the tempo offensively, and instead of being forced off their spots offensively, they forced the Celtics to move defensively. The ball began swinging from side to side, inside and out to open up shooters. Lanes got wider. Rotations were off. The crowd roared as the Blazers stormed back. An Aminu dunk. A Lillard three. Henderson drives to the hoop and scores.
Boston would score once more before the end of the third, but the message had been sent. Portland would no longer be forced around the ring, they would stand and fight. Boston's 83-81 lead looked suddenly-precarious.
The final round didn't disappoint. Aminu came out swinging with both hands, dropping back to back 3-pointers to start the period and set the crowd ablaze. Boston seemingly didn't know what to do. They had taken McCollum and Lillard out of the game, but now Aminu was burying them with shot after shot. Now they scrambled out cover him, but the Blazers reacted well under pressure swinging the ball to Gerald Henderson, who hit three straight jumpers to keep Portland running.
Boston struggled, wilting under the pressure they fouled. Suddenly it was their turn to make silly and careless turnovers. The roles from the first quarter had been reversed. Portland would jump out to a 13-point lead and it looked as if Portland had rope-a-doped the Celtics all night, taking their best punches only to pop out in the end fresh as a puppy and looking like they planned it all along.
If you've watched a Boston game this season, that's not how Brad Stevens teams play. They don't give up. Boston responded with runs of their own, triggered by Isiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Amir Johnson. Thomas and Bradley hounded players full court, forcing turnovers and bad shots. Johnson went to work inside, grabbing offensive rebounds, drawing fouls, and blocking shots. Portland's 13 point lead fell, 11, 7, 5...panic set in the crowd as the Celtics came roaring back.
Portland would trail by one after a clutch Jae Crowder three-pointer, but rallied back yet again to the delight of the home crowd. If this was scripted theatre, this was Rocky vs. Apollo Creed. Both of them were standing in the middle of the ring swinging wildly at each other, taking the best their opponent had to offer. Tonight, the Blazers played the role of Rocky, landing the final big blow. A turnover forced by Allen Crabbe led to a 2-on-1 for CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu that culminated in a driving dunk from Aminu that would seal the deal for the Blazers. See video of the game-deciding sequence here.
Portland got a taste for how any playoff opponent will game-plan them. They will do everything in their power to take McCollum and Lillard out of the game. The Trail Blazers as a team showed great resolve in pulling a win out on their home court against a top flight team from the east.
However, if Damian Lillard is truly going to ascend to superstar "OMG" status- he has to find a way to win these match ups. As things sit right now the potential match-ups for Lillard are Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Tony Parker. Lillard is favored in one of those match-ups. If this team is going to go any further than a "Gentleman's Sweep" he has to battle through and deliver more than he did tonight.
The "other guys" showed up big time tonight. Having a breakthrough night like this for Aminu could mean quite a bit for his confidence down the stretch run, or it could just be a blip on the radar. Let's look at the bright side for now.
Al-Farouq Aminu carried the torch for the Blazers tonight. The Chief finished with a career high and game high 28 points, 11/19 shooting, 6/11 from 3-point range, 9 rebounds, game high 3 blocks and a +15 +/- rating. Everywhere you looked, Aminu was making big time plays tonight. His lone assist was a kick out to a wide open Crabbe that ignited that 3rd quarter run for Portland.
Bradley forced Lillard into arguably his worst game of the season- 14 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers on 3/16 shooting in 36 minutes. Hat tip to that man because he wore Lillard like a cheap suit on EVERY. SINGLE. POSSESSION. That's not something you see in today's NBA.
Portland's bench mob, Crabbe, Henderson, Vonleh and Davis, all contributed tonight. Combined they brought in 37 points, 19 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 steals, and 4 blocks. That kind of contribution was required for the Blazers to have any chance tonight. They all shined at some point individually this evening, but it was the sum of the parts that made tonight's win possible.
Next up, another Eastern Conference contender fighting for playoff seeding, the Miami Heat come into town on Saturday. If the Blazers pull another win, they'll secure a .500 season with their 41st win of the season, 13.5 games ahead of the Vegas line.
With this win, the Blazers are inching closer to clinching a playoff berth. As per Eric Griffith, the Blazers' Magic Number is now four combined Portland wins and Houston Rockets losses.