The Portland Trail Blazers finally broke free from their 2016 Playoffs curse on Saturday night, defeating the Los Angeles Clippers 96-88 at the Moda Center. The victory narrows the first round series between the teams to 2-1 in favor of the Clippers. Damian Lillard's 32 points on 10-20 shooting provided enough punch to keep the Blazers in the vicinity of victory. Solid defense, renewed rebounding, and plain old hustle from less famous members of Portland's sealed the win.
Two things became apparent from the opening tip of this contest.
1. The Blazers weren't going to wait around for any traps at the halfcourt line, three-point arc, or anywhere else. Their mission was to move feet and ball quickly enough that L.A. never had time to set up defensive pressure. This included getting up the floor fast, passing fast, and shooting fast.
2. The Clippers weren't particularly interested in throwing the trap anyway, at least not on a regular basis. In Game 1 they pinched the ball-handler on the perimeter, leaving no room for clear dribbles or passes. In Game 2 they slammed Portland's guards at the arc, leaving no room for shots. In Game 3 they played a more conventional defense, half because the Blazers moved like lightning and half because L.A. seemed content to channel dribblers into lane traffic before daring them to make a shot or decent pass.
Considering the 20-point victory margins in Games 1 and 2, the move was slightly surprising. It felt like L.A. trying to keep one step ahead of the game, creating a new set of problems for the Blazers while Portland was busy solving the last set. If so, it turned into a classic case of out-thinking yourself.
You know that stuff clogging Bruce Wayne's toilet? That's how crazy Damian Lillard went against the Clippers defense tonight. From the opening bell to the closing horn, he darted around defenders who picked him up far too late to corral him. If L.A. left him single-covered he hit quick jumpers or drove for layups. When the defense collapsed he found open teammates.
As has been typical this series, Portland's supporting cast wasn't in top form tonight. They didn't have to be. A baseline of "mostly competent" provided enough of a perch for sporadic, heroic individual efforts to carry the day.
In the first quarter heroism belonged to Lillard alone. He scored a dozen as his teammates watched in wonder and (mostly) missed their shots. Bad defense and bad rebounding plagued the Blazers early, along with a turnover or two. But the Clippers weren't faring much better. Their second unit--a source of brilliance in the first two games--fizzled out like a Dollar Store sparkler. The starters weren't much better. Chris Paul hit his shots. Everyone else in a Clippers uniform looked like they were still warming up. Portland led 22-19 after the first.
If L.A. had designs on steamrolling Portland reserves into pulp, CJ McCollum threw a wrench into it. In the second period McCollum played Lillard: Part 2, streaking past defenders on drives or shooting from the perimeter before they arrived. With their guards refusing to play bashfully, the Blazers built a 10-point lead midway through the quarter. Their rebounding improved enough that they were able to keep it until halftime. The Blazers took a 49-40 margin into intermission.
The third period of this game belonged to Mason Plumlee. The Blazers struggled on offense, tightening up as "quick" morphed into "rushed". Missed shots and turnovers became standard. But just when the Clippers looked like they had Portland in their sights, Plumlee said, "Out of my way, I'm rebounding that! NO! You can't have that one either. And by the way here's an assist. And another! I don't care if I'm not in your damn Hooper commercials. GIVE. ME. THAT. BALL." His crowning moment came mid-period, with this filthy, nasty, sick reverse jam off of an offensive rebound. As you watch the video, remember that rebounding was the tilting point for Portland, determining whether fancy scoring was going to pull them ahead or end up as so much tinsel draped over a loss. Even with their turnovers and poor shooting, the Blazers led 70-67 headed around the final turn.
The fourth period was like the third cranked up to 11. Portland's early possessions were feast or famine, with brisk tempo leading to brilliant shots or awful miscues. On the other end the Blazers managed to keep a lid on everybody except Jamal Crawford, who seemed intent on justifying his 6th Man of the Year award one mid-range jumper at a time. Crawford's consistency trumped Portland's crap-shoot offense and the Clippers pulled ahead with 4:30 remaining. Portland fans were slipping from cheers into resentful mutters.
Though the script called for a Lillard-Paul showdown as the game closed, it didn't happen...at least not in the conventional sense. Instead it was as if the two faced off across the midcourt logo, wand against wand. The wands must have been made of twin cores because all of a sudden Paul's spit out McCollum, Plumlee, even long-lost Moe Harkless...all contributors from the first three quarters, all players the Clippers once killed in this series. As Lillard and Paul threw sparks at each other, McCollum scored like hotcakes. Meanwhile Plumlee rebounded and hit free throws while Harkless put back offensive rebound jams. Throaty roars resumed from Gryffind...uhhhh...the Moda Center seats.
As Portland got the upper hand the Clippers tried to answer. Their shots were cursed. Paul couldn't find the range, DeAndre Jordan shot free throws like he was afflicted with a Jelly-Legs Jinx, and Blake Griffin must have taken polyjuice potion with Jordan's hair in it because his shot also sprayed wide. The Clippers found themselves within 5 with 46 seconds left when J.J. Redick's open three swirled around the rim twice, made as if to fall, then spun out as if Free Throw Guy hit it with Expelliarmus. When Plumlee hit two free throws on the next possession, the outcome was sealed and the magical night complete.
Portland's 15-4 run in the final 4:00 of the game wrested away control from the Clippers for the first time all series, giving the Blazers the game and another chance to fight...a storybook ending as good as could be hoped for.
As trite as it sounds, the Blazers outworked the Clippers tonight. This wasn't a typical Portland win. L.A. still stymied them in several categories. Portland shot 24% from the arc, committed 16 turnovers, dished only 15 assists, allowed Chris Paul 26 points, and put only two players over the 10 point mark. But when rebounds counted, when defense mattered, when the game hung on free throws hoisted by poor-shooting centers, the Blazers stepped up and the Clippers fell apart. This was not a tour de force; it was a matter of 3-4 plays turning the tide. All of them headed Portland's way because the Blazers would...not...let...go.
Nowhere was this more evident than offensive rebounding. Had the Blazers let the game run its course, L.A. would have won that battle. Jordan grabbed a dominating 7 offensive boards on his own. Early on the Clippers looked like they were toying with Portland in this department. The Blazers turned that around and then some. At the end of the game Portland's offensive rebounding tally read: Harkless--5, Plumlee--3, and 2 apiece for Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Ed Davis. Everybody who played more than 10 minutes secured at least 2, save the perimeter-oriented shooting guards. Despite Jordan's septet the Blazers ended up winning the battle 16-11. That's team effort.
Portland's 16 turnovers were nagging and under different circumstances could have been fatal. They were a by-product of the offensive approach. This wasn't a night for 4 calculated passes setting up an open corner jumper. Portland was all about mobility followed by the first shot possible. They kept the Clippers' defense moving. Sometimes the ball squirted out of Portland's control too. The second was the price paid for the first. It worked out.
Also: All Hail to the Blazers' pick-setters. They did a magnificent job tonight.
It'll be interesting to see what L.A. cooks up for Game 4. Smart money says they'll return to their trapping ways. As nice as this victory was, it was contested into the final minute and hardly convincing. The Blazers will need to find another way to win on Monday, this time against increased pressure.
Damian Lillard shot 10-20, 3-8 from distance, and 9-9 from the line to earn his 32 points. The Moda Center shooting background must have seemed like an oasis to him. He committed 5 turnovers but they were errors of commission, not omission. (See also: note on quick play just above.)
Lillard's scoring would not have been enough to win the game had McCollum not duplicated the performance and the passion. Quick shots and moves were CJ's friends. McCollum fired 11-22, 2-5 from the arc, and scored 27.
For those counting, Lillard and McCollum combined for 63 total points in Games 1 and 2. They scored 59 tonight.
Mason Plumlee deserves 36 extra "e's" added to his name and a couple exclamation points at the end. He finished the game with 21 rebounds and 9 assists. It's not often a guy approaches a triple-double while lacking more points than anything else. Plumlee scored 6, hitting key free throws down the stretch. This was a monster outing for him. He was the game saver, making all of that guard scoring count.
Maurice Harkless came alive tonight, shooting 5-9 and scoring 10 with 5 offensive rebounds. He also committed 5 turnovers. Both he and Al-Farouq Aminu looked uncomfortable from any range beyond point blank. They have to get over that. Aminu shot 4-12, 1-5 from distance for 9 points with 7 rebounds.
Gerald Henderson shot only 1-7 tonight but he played aggressively, not fearing to take over the ball and the court. As a result the defense had to look in his direction occasionally...a step forward for Portland.
Allen Crabbe continues to struggle mightily. He shot 0-4 and couldn't keep up with Clippers shooting guards.
Chris Kaman played 9 minutes and took the mid-range jumpers afforded to him, as he should. He scored 4.
Ed Davis had 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 personal fouls in 18 minutes. Not bad, but the Blazers could use a breakout game from him.
Links and Such
Note to Clips Nation: It's only a "Gentlemen's Sweep" if a team is down 3-0 first.
Game 4 commences Monday night at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.