A while back I was talking to one of our writers about how I organize recaps. I told him that if the game came down to a few plays like a last-second three, I tend to emphasize the Game Flow section. On a normal night I go heavier into analysis to highlight trends that led to the outcome. But if a game was the province of a single player, the story lies in the Individual Notes section.
Through the first three quarters of tonight's contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards, that balance could have tipped any direction. But Portland's 116-109 overtime victory ultimately came from two players standing head and shoulders above everybody else on the court in a brilliant display of "won't lose" basketball. Seldom do you see demonstrations so striking, where willpower emanates from players who refuse to surrender under any circumstances. Tonight was one of those occasions. Blazers fans were lucky to witness it.
This game started in standard fashion for the Blazers. CJ McCollum broke the ice with 5 points early, then Damian Lillard blasted his way through, over, and around Washington's defense en route to 13 first-quarter points. It seemed like an echo of Portland's approach early in their recent road trip, with Lillard staking them to a lead that they'd never relinquish. The Blazers led 29-22 after one, 6 turnovers in the quarter the only thing standing between them and a full-fledged blowout.
Also of interest in the first: Gerald Henderson and Alan Anderson got in a shoving match, resulting in double technicals with Anderson getting ejected for a shove to Henderson's face. This left the already short-handed Wizards even shorter.
Portland ran into serious speed bumps in the second period. The first came with 8:10 remaining when McCollum picked up his third foul and had to sit. Whistles were already messing with the regular rotation and McCollum's departure could have been a disaster. Except it wasn't, because Lillard replaced him. With their Main Man in charge the Blazers fared well in the short term. As the quarter waned so did their energy. Washington ripped off a 17-6 run to close the half, mostly by beating the Blazers down the court. Whether Portland hit or missed, the Wizards pushed the ball and the Blazers didn't respond. Having played from behind since the opening tap, Washington led 55-54 at the half.
The start of the third featured even more the Wizards momentum. If anything, they looked faster than they had in the second quarter. Seemingly every point came in the lane and most looked easy. Before 3 minutes ran off the clock Washington was up 13, 67-54.
That's when the Blazers knuckled down. Not only did they get back on defense, forcing the Wizards out of the lane and into shaky jump shots, Portland rebounded misses and picked up their own running attack. Ed Davis and Damian Lillard played masterful defense. Davis rebounded on both ends; Lillard set up the offense. Portland's aggression allowed them to pick up some of the whistles that had been running Washington's way up until that point. When the smoke cleared the Blazers had not only caught up, but gotten back some of their own. Portland led 85-81 after three.
The road to victory wouldn't be easy, though. After extending the lead to 90-83 on a Lillard triple with 8:22 remaining, the Blazers unpacked all the bugaboos that had plagued them throughout the game and let them run wild. With the normal rotation still broken because of foul trouble, Portland opted to counter Washington's power bigs with a big lineup of their own, featuring two of the Davis-Mason Plumlee-Meyers Leonard trio on the floor together at all times. Except the Wizards didn't go big; they went small. And Leonard couldn't rebound. And the big lineup couldn't keep up with Washington. And the Wizards did a nice job of forcing the ball out of Lillard's hands, leaving it in the clutches of an offensively-challenged, turnover-prone frontcourt. As Portland's difficulties dominoed, Washington took back the lead. It was nip-and-tuck through the final 3 minutes to the finish. Both teams had chances to pull away but every time one of them looked to be crawling out of the pit, the other would grab an ankle and pull them right back in.
Through most of the fourth Washington looked to have a better chance at escaping with the win, but once again Lillard and Davis stepped to the fore...mostly on the defensive end. Lillard played one of the best defensive games of his career, standing firm when mismatched in the post and bothering the Wizards on the break. Davis' rebounding was incomparable. 50-50 balls became 0 for you, everything for #17. Washington almost had this game won on at least three separate occasions. Every time the Blazers wrested it back. After Henderson blocked Marcin Gortat's final attempt at the rim, the end of regulation saw a 104-104 tie.
Lillard would score 9 of Portland's 12 points in the extra period with Davis adding 3 rebounds and Henderson playing strong. With those three defenders on point, the Blazers did a good job keeping Washington outside. After running all game long with a short-handed roster, the Wizards didn't have enough legs under them to convert long jumpers. The formerly-close game ended up Portland's by 7 and the Moda Center faithful walked home happy.
As we foreshadowed in the intro, this game can't be described by numbers alone. A few turned out significant. Portland committed 20 turnovers. This allowed Washington 10 more field goal attempts than the Blazers got, which could have been a disaster. The Blazers averted that by rebounding well, by giving back nearly as much damage as they took on the break (13-9 advantage, Washington but it could have been much worse), and by sinking 24 of 31 free throw attempts. The latter number was important, as the Wizards shot 11-23, 48%, from the charity stripe. That hurt in a game that was tied after regulation.
Looking beyond the numbers, the Blazers let the Wizards do too many things well in this contest...especially for a road team without a full roster. On a normal night Portland probably would have lost. Why didn't they? Well...
Damian Lillard scored 41 points with 11 assists, and 5 rebounds against a single turnover and 2 personal fouls. These numbers distinguished him from everyone else on the roster who couldn't score, couldn't take care of the ball, or couldn't defend without getting out of position and hacking. There's no way to describe Lillard's defense tonight to anyone who didn't see it...or to anyone who has seen him "defend" this season, for that matter. He attempted to take more charges tonight than he usually does in a month. His feet were busy and his hands precise. Everybody is used to seeing Dame win games with awesome shots, including his teammates. Seeing him keep his team afloat by giving up his body and pouring out energy on the defensive end was inspirational. How could the Blazers not win?Lillard has had higher scoring totals, but his leadership quotient exceeded maximum tonight.
(John Wall? 20 points on 8-25 shooting with 11 assists. I guess that's good if you can't shoot 12-25, 6-13 from distance like Dame did.)
The guy right by Lillard's side--the guy who could have been mentioned first in the rundown despite Damian's 41 points--was Ed Davis. 15 rebounds in 32 minutes is impressive by any standard, but 5 of those were back-breaking offensive boards and Davis contributed 4 assists, a steal, a block, and 4-6 shooting as well. But even that doesn't do his effort justice. Several times a sea of Wizards had rebounds corralled, only to see Davis' hand emerge from the throng like the Lady of the Lake holding Excalibur. Except this hand didn't give the trophy, but take it. Every one of those rebounds was air inflating a ball that threatened to go flat. And this from a guy who probably could be starting somewhere, who has endured through intermittent playing time this season, who might have legitimate cause to be frustrated if he were another type of player. Instead he comes out and lifts his team to victory in one of the most inspirational supporting-role performances we've seen since...well...since the last time Ed Davis did this.
All season long when Davis has done something remarkable, we've finished his recap section with, "We see you, Ed." It's tribute, not just to the performance but to the caliber of Davis' professionalism...a trait that often goes unnoticed. Ed Davis deserves appreciation. But tonight it's not just us noticing, Mr. Davis, but everybody around the country. We ALL see you, Ed. Don't think we miss it.
Gerald Henderson also had a fantastic game. He shot 5-13 for 12 points but like Davis, he seemed to take the challenge personally. He grabbed 7 rebounds and made the block on Marcin Gortat at the end of regulation that preserved the tie. (Note to Jared Dudley: when you're open 10 feet from the bucket with 1.5 seconds remaining in a tie game, don't lob the ball to your center in traffic...SHOOT that thing!) Henderson's high-energy, hard-nosed approach served the Blazers well tonight.
Meyers Leonard went up and down tonight but emerged on the positive side. His 4-6 shooting with 6 rebounds and 3 assists stood to the good. Some of the details slipped...particularly rebounding and playing defense. He garnered 5 personal fouls. But his teammates made up for his shortcomings and he provided key buckets in the second half.
CJ McCollum's foul troubles allowed Brian Roberts a shot at meaningful playing time and he did alright. He shot 2-3 from the field including a nice break layup and scored 4 points in 6 minutes without letting the team down on the other end.
Speaking of McCollum...7-16 and 2-5 from distance for 18 points doesn't look too bad but 6 turnovers in 36 minutes sure do. The Wizards are one of a handful of teams this year to successfully pursue Portland's guards around screens instead of ducking under them. The pressure appeared to bother McCollum.
Al-Farouq Aminu had 8 rebounds in 28 minutes but his offense was a disaster, producing 2-8 shooting and 3 turnovers.
Mason Plumlee wasn't much better with 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls in 22 minutes. Active defensive teams that can shift easily to the middle of the floor and back really inhibit Portland's frontcourt mojo.
So, too, went Noah Vonleh with 2 turnovers and 3 fouls in 11 minutes.
Allen Crabbe played quiet aside from a couple shots hit. Maurice Harkless didn't even get in the game. This season is a tough row to Moe.
Links and Such
Bullets Forever will be mad the Blazers dodged several tonight.
Would you want James Harden anywhere near your team? Neither would we. Our latest podcast explains why.
Portland faces the Golden State Warriors on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.