If you're waiting for good news about the Portland Trail Blazers, your patience will have to stretch a little longer.
After a crushing Game 1 loss in their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Blazers made several adjustments . They switched defensive schemes, moved more decisively on offense, and got different players involved. Their shooting did not improve. In fact it got worse. The net result was a different kind of 20-point loss, but a 20-point loss nevertheless.
Having taken two mighty swings, clocking themselves in the back of the head each time, the Blazers exit Los Angeles on the wrong end of a 102-81 Game 2 nightmare...proud owners of a 0-2 record heading into Game 3 at the Moda Center Saturday night.
Credit the Blazers; they came out prepared to turn the tide. Gone were the hesitant dribbles against halfcourt presses so prevalent in Game 1. Instead they freed Damian Lillard with screens from Mason Plumlee. They scored off of secondary options: quick cuts by forwards or fast ball swings to CJ McCollum. All of Portland's non-Lillard players started the game strong. McCollum prospered particularly, opening up the game with a layup and scored 7 of Portland's first 13 points.
The bad news: The Blazers didn't reach 13 until the 5:00 mark and their total would remained locked there until a little over 3 minutes remained in the quarter.
The worse news: By then L.A. had long since hit 20.
The worst news of all: Lillard's name remained conspicuously absent from the scoring column. The void would dominate the entire evening.
Despite this, the Blazers rebounded well, switched Al-Farouq Aminu onto Chris Paul, and watched L.A.'s second unit get off to a slow start. Portland exited the first down only 5, 22-17. Optimists noted that the result wasn't bad considering the team's #1 option was in a slump. Pessimists did basic math and figured that 5 points times 4 still equaled a 20-point loss.
The optimists got a shot in the arm in the second period, courtesy of Plumlee. L.A. began the quarter scoring repeatedly in the lane. Might Mason fixed that with snappy defense and a little bit of rebounding. Then he returned the favor in spades, diving into the paint to earn dunks and shooting fouls. He'd score 10 in the period. Feeding off his energy, the Blazers began to force turnovers and run the floor. The Clippers couldn't keep up. Portland shaved L.A.'s 15-point lead down to 9 at the 3:00 mark. The Clippers would have made their patented strong run to end the half but Chris Paul drew his 3rd foul and had to sit, stunting their offensive production. McCollum surged back as the second period closed and Portland went into the break down only 4, 47-43. It had been their best quarter of the series. Hope bloomed.
The Blazers would find another breath of life in the third as Maurice Harkless and McCollum combined for 3 triples in 2 minutes of play. Lillard sandwiched a massive dunk between them, staring down DeAndre Jordan in the heart of the lane. The rush brought Portland within 3...their moment had arrived.
A couple of flaws marred Portland's attempt to pull ahead:
--Outside of that scoring jag, most of their shots looked rushed and awkward.
--Lillard continued to misfire.
--At no time did the Blazers even come close to drawing Paul into his 4th foul. Half the time he was isolated on Lillard the Blazers sent Plumlee to screen, bringing other defenders into the play. The other half, Lillard simply passed out of the opportunity.
Forcing Paul to sit again could have been a turning point in the game. Instead the Blazers slipped into the fourth quarter trailing by a relatively modest 67-61 margin.
As the Blazers contemplated taking the game down to the final few possessions, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and the Clippers bench set the table for a fourth-quarter massacre...nailing jump shots off of screens that Portland defenders could not seem to solve. Meanwhile the Blazers missed shots that they normally make in their sleep. By the time Paul and Blake Griffin re-entered the game with 7:30 remaining, L.A. was up 15 again. Griffin promptly slammed home a filthy, "Take THAT!" dunk. On the next possession Portland defenders dove to stop Griffin in the lane only to watch Paul hit a three off of the ensuing pass. This sequence served as an announcement that the Clippers could do whatever they wished. The game was over. The Blazers limped through the dregs of the clock and L.A. walked off the court with their second 20-point win in as many tries.
This loss came down to the Clippers thinking a step ahead of Portland. The glaring shortcoming for the Blazers in Game 1 was the dreaded trap, forcing Damian Lillard out of the offense and into standstill dribble purgatory near halfcourt. The Blazers were ready to counter in Game 2 but the Clippers didn't throw the same defense. Instead they hung tight as the Blazers used big men to screen Lillard free, only to jump straight into Lillard's space whenever he attempted a shot. Damian got free for a few layup attempts, most of which he missed. McCollum benefited, juking and jumping against single coverage. The Blazers gathered offensive rebounds as well. The Clippers seemed content as long as Lillard got zero uncontested jumpers. Under pressure Lillard's shots looked rushed and his form swung all over the map. He ended the evening 6-22 from the field, 0-6 from distance, with only 17 points on the board.
This was a brilliant move on the part of the Clippers. Moving the pressure back 8 feet changed their challenge from, "You're not going to be able to dribble," to, "Oh...you can dribble now, but don't even think about shooting."
Lillard misfiring appeared to have a trickle-down effect on his young teammates. Gerald Henderson, Chris Kaman, and Ed Davis didn't set the world on fire but at least they looked secure in their moves and releases. Everybody else shot as if the entire series was riding on each attempt and DeAndre Jordan was breathing down their neck. (Sometimes he was...sometimes just the threat of a Clipper big on the horizon was enough to cause herky-jerky quick releases.) Al-Farouq Aminu shot 4-13 tonight, 1-7 from the arc. Moe Harkless hit 2-4 from distance but shot 5-13 overall. After his hot start McCollum cooled down to 6-17 overall, 2-7 on threes. Allen Crabbe missed all three of his shots and he was wide open. Plumlee's 5-7 from the field was the only decent percentage the Blazers posted. His 17 points came from free throws and close shots, much less susceptible to the vagary of nerves.
Portland's inability to hit shots made their other efforts moot. They rebounded quite well, securing 15 offensive boards. They committed but 10 turnovers. They kept even with L.A. in the paint and outstripped them on the break (though both numbers were boosted by charity layups as the game closed). Free throws were dead even as well; both teams scoring 14 at the line. The Blazers even defended better than they did in Game 1, holding L.A. to a reasonable 46% from the field and only slightly unreasonable 38% from the arc. Once again Portland had trouble covering screens for shooting guards (J.J. Redick, Crawford, and Rivers scored 37 between them) but they might have overcome had they not fired 34% from the field and a cheese-grater-to-the-eyes 19% from the arc. Nothing was going to fix that.
Credit L.A.'s great defensive plan, 9 blocked shots, and Portland's 5-20 shooting by mostly-open off-ball players from the arc. Also credit Portland's lack of experience and paucity of options, both of which are showing through clearly right now.
Mason Plumlee was the shining star tonight, carrying his team with verve. He finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and a block. He was the only Blazer fully able to take advantage of L.A.'s obsession with Lillard.
Reiterating the fruits of that obsession: Damian Lillard shot 6-22, 0-6 from the arc, and scored 17 points with only 3 assists compared to 4 turnovers.
Other than that, there's not much need to dwell on the collective awfulness. Lillard needed all kinds of help; nobody besides Plumlee stepped up for long. Tomorrow we'll give you a rundown of what each player needs to fix before Game 3 if the Blazers want to have a chance.
Links and Such
You always want to check out Clips Nation. They do fine work describing the Clippers and they're not totally cruel to the opponent, even when the opponent might deserve it.
Game 3 will tip at 7:30 P.M. Pacific on Saturday. The Blazers will be home. Pray it makes a difference.