The Portland Trail Blazers finished their six-game Eastern road trip in inglorious fashion today, falling 123-103 to the Detroit Pistons. The explanation for the loss is simple. The Blazers' legs weren't in it, their hearts weren't in it, they played a style of basketball foreign and inimical to their success. When they move the ball and their feet the Blazers are special...or at least significantly better than their pre-season hype. When they try to win with offensive talent and defensive indifference they don't stand a chance. This game featured plenty of the latter and little of the former.
Portland started off with sound defensive strategy. They crowded the paint against Detroit point guard Reggie Jackson, refusing to let him to the rim for easy layups or dishes. They figured enduring his 36.5% three-point percentage (31.4% career) was a better risk than 30 points off of layups and another 20 from assists.
Unfortunately the Pistons were having none of it. Tobias Harris played hero early, hitting inside and out, drawing Portland's defense his way. Then Andre Drummond took up shop down low, shrugging off defenders like an elephant swatting gnats. This established an attack that would leave Jackson single-covered for most of the night...the exact disaster the Blazers hoped to forestall. Every time Portland tried to defend one direction, the Pistons shifted the ball somewhere else. The Blazers couldn't keep up.
As if that weren't enough, Portland superstar Damian Lillard registered a first quarter so bad that he was immediately named an honorary member of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Except they beat Golden State today so they're all, "Don't pin that on us! Take your own damn loss." Verily, the NBA has become Bizarro World.) Lillard paired 1-5 shooting with 5 turnovers in the period.
Portland did find some bright spots. Al-Farouq Aminu hit 3 three-pointers in an excellent first-period showing. Meyers Leonard added a triple of his own. But the blessings were mixed. Those 4 shots from relatively inconsequential offensive players accounted for 12 of Portland's 16 points in the first. Another 2 points came from Mason Plumlee at the foul line. When you're dangling off the edge of a cliff, clinging to a vine whose strands consist of Aminu, Leonard, and Mason Plumlee's free throws, a plunge is imminent.
So it was. Detroit led 30-16 after the first. An outburst by CJ McCollum in the second plus a few buckets by Lillard late in the half gave Portland hope. They outscored the Pistons 35-28 in the second quarter. The 35 part was fantastic. The 28 showed that their defense still wasn't in gear. That remained true for the whole game. Detroit managed "only" 27 in the third quarter but rattled off 38 in the fourth to cruise home easily. Jackson ripped apart the Blazers off the dribble and Drummond came in to mop up the remains.
Portland's offense wasn't horrible but with the defense in disarray and feet moving slowly, everything after the first period amounted to padding stats. The Blazers never took a serious run at the lead...more like a slow jog that receded to a cool-down walk on every uphill slope. At least the 20-point final deficit reflected the tone of the game, leaving little room for excuses. It looked bad; it was bad; the Blazers were never in this one.
The Pistons normally shoot 34% from the three-point arc, bottom-third in the league. Tonight they fired 12-22, 54.5%. The Blazers weren't closing out on anybody. Their screen defense was also bad and, with a few exceptions, post defense in the lane was brutal. Pretty much every facet of the defense looked slow and limp...like the Blazers just gave up on that end. Jackson finished the game with 30 points and 9 assists. Drummond posted 14 points and 18 rebounds. Harris scored 16 with 5 rebounds and 5 assists. That trio shot 60% combined.
Detroit grabbed 10 offensive rebounds to 3 for the Blazers. The Pistons rank among the best defensive rebounding teams, but that stat should turn the stomach of anybody who's watched the Blazers play this year. It cannot happen. This was the 2nd time in the last 3 games they've been slaughtered on the glass and both resulted in resounding losses.
tl;dr No energy = No win.
With this loss the Blazers complete a 3-3 road trip, which is the bright side. The brilliant win in Indiana last week shines even brighter now. Without that semi-unexpected boon Portland would have brought home a losing record and slightly less confidence. In a tight playoff race, who knows which win will put them over the top? Shooting for .500 on the trip was a reasonable goal, tending towards lofty. They managed it. The order of the wins and any moral victories obtained thereby don't matter. In March, only records count.
This was the worst game Damian Lillard has played in a long time. His 26 points amounted to fluff. He shot 8-22 with 7 turnovers and appeared to be favoring his knee at various points. His defense wasn't anything to write home about, unless the note said, "Ouch!"
CJ McCollum emerged from the game unscathed...a rare distinction. He shot 9-15 for 22 points with 5 assists against a single turnover. Detroit didn't know what to do with him. But CJ was fiddling while Rome burnt around him.
Al-Farouq Aminu had one of his best offensive showings of the season, shooting 4-9 from distance for 16 points. Meyers Leonard contributed 10 points off the bench. Maurice Harkless had 7 on 3-5 shooting and tried to pilot light his way to igniting the furnace. It never took.
Everybody else crashed hard in this one. Drummond destroyed Mason Plumlee and everybody else the Blazers send at him. Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson were lackluster. Ed Davis played only 9 minutes.
Bringing a knife to a gunfight is one thing. Portland brought their revolver but the first shot jammed the barrel. They got a couple away clear then heard nothing but, "click-click-click" every time they pulled the trigger.
Links and Such
The Blazers stand at 33-31, currently 7th in the West. They return home to face the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m.
This will be the last call for anyone who works with underprivileged kids to claim tickets for Blazer's Edge Night. If you'd like to take your group to the March 28th Trail Blazers-Kings game write me at firstname.lastname@example.org ASAP.