Showing more grit and resilience than they have all season, the Portland Trail Blazers pulled out one of their best wins of the season over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on Saturday evening. Here’s the view from media row along with quotes from key Trail Blazers players on their stirring performance.
Breaking Down the Game via Locker Room Quotes
Evan Turner Defends Isaiah Thomas
The game was highlighted by a wild finish to regulation, followed by overtime. CJ McCollum, who led the Blazers with 31 points on 11-for-21 shooting, hit a fall-away jumper over Amir Johnson to give the Blazers a 111-108 lead with only 46 seconds to go. Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who led all scorers with 41 points, retaliated by burning Evan Turner for an easy lay-up to cut the deficit to one.
Turner was tasked with following Thomas for most of the night and did a decent job on the 5-foot-9 one-time all-star. The 41 points is a testament to the hot streak Thomas is currently on more than Turner’s defense.
“For a guy who scored 41, Evan did a hell of a job. It goes to show how good Isaiah Thomas is because I thought Evan made him work for his points,” said Head Coach Terry Stotts. “They know each other so I thought [Turner] would be the best matchup for [Thomas].”
Damian Lillard Treads the Edge
McCollum followed up Thomas’ lay-up with a miss and the Celtics had the ball trailing 111-110 with 25.5 seconds to go. The Celtics went back to their star and this time McCollum ended up on Thomas on a switch. Blazers fans can be forgiven for covering their eyes, but those that looked away missed CJ forcing Thomas into a jumper that clanked off.
In the scramble for the rebound Boston’s Marcus Smart fouled Lillard – and promptly finished the play by swiping the ball and laying it in. The Garden faithful began celebrating what appeared to be a lead grabbing basket. But the referees waved it off and gave Lillard two free throws, in a situation eerily similar to last night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“The first time at the end of regulation when I was walking to the line, I was thinking ain’t that a… It’s crazy, when it rains it pours,” said Lillard. “I know I didn’t miss the free throw [against the 76ers] out of fear or worry or anything like that. I just left it short. I think that’s what bothered me the most. I had an opportunity to put our team in a better position and I didn’t do it.”
Lillard came through in the clutch tonight for his team and drained both free throws putting the Blazers ahead 113-110.
Terry Rozier: Unlikely Hero
And then the wacky happened: Terry Rozier, who has made only 25 three-pointers this season and shoots only 32 percent from deep, calmly drilled a triple to tie it at 113. Lillard missed a jumper in isolation and the game was headed to overtime.
“I had to screen for [Thomas] because a lot of attention is on [Thomas]. Then he came back and screened back for me and I was open as soon as I caught it. And I let it fly,” said Rozier. “Coach drew up a play for me and it felt good to see the ball go in.”
Referees Come Into Play
Overtime started out as a personal duel between Thomas and Lillard. Both teams leaned heavily on their point guards and Dame scored 7 of his 28 points in the extra session, while Thomas responded with 8. But it was Mason Plumlee who would be responsible for the decisive plays of the night.
With the Blazers leading by two with 24 seconds to go, McCollum drove and found Plumlee for a layup to put the Blazers ahead 124-120. The Celtics missed on the opposite end and Plumlee grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Al Horford. Plumlee walked to the other end, drilled a free throw to put the Blazers up five and they played the foul game from there to put away a 127-123 victory.
Plumlee came oh-so-close once again to the elusive triple double. He managed 4 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in the first half despite playing only nine minutes due to foul trouble. Portland’s starting center rebounded in the second half to play every minute of overtime and finish with 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Plumlee’s foul trouble was not unique. The teams combined for 55 fouls and 60 free throws – at times it felt like every play was ending in a foul call. In the first half the Blazers, especially, looked like they might run out of players by overtime as Noah Vonleh, Plumlee, Lillard, mcCollum, and Meyers Leonard all had multiple fouls.
Despite the ragged game flow, Leonard told Blazer’s Edge that his team was more or less unaffected by the referees.
“I thought the officiating was pretty even both ways. Maybe there are some questionable ones on both ends, but that’s just the way it is. That’s the nature of the game,” said Leonard. “I thought we were locked in and focused on what we needed to continue to do, and this is a huge win for us.”
Meyers Leonard Saves the Day
Indeed, Leonard’s dismissal of the refs may have undersold the most important consequence of the quick whistles: His own playing time. Despite being out of the rotation for several games, Stotts turned to Leonard in the first half when the other Portland big men picked up fouls.
Meyers responded by playing one of his best games of the season, finishing with 17 points on four three-pointers, and four rebounds.
“[Leonard] shot the ball really well and we need him to do that and we need him to take shots with confidence because that is what he does best and hopefully he will be able to build on that,” said Stotts.
In addition to the deep balls, Leonard flashed back to his low-post rookie season and threw down two thunderous dunks in the second quarter. The second one had the Celtics faithful “oohing” and “ahhing” for several seconds afterward – a rare happening in Boston where the fans pride themselves on being partisan Celtics supporters first, Patriots supporters second, and basketball lovers last.
“Those [dunks] are energy plays. And showing passion you know that he cares,” said Lillard. “Those are game changing plays.”
When In Doubt, Resolve Wins Out
The ferocity of Leonard’s dunks proved symbolic for the Blazers.
Portland repeatedly found themselves in a hole but clawed back over and over again tonight. The tenacity that defined the 2015-16 team, but was absent for the current incarnation of the Blazers, seemed to come back tonight. Consider:
- The Celtics opened the game with a 12-4 lead on 8 points from Jae Crowder. The Blazers responded by inserting Al-Farouq Aminu for Vonleh and went on a run to take an 18-16 lead.
- Lillard picked up his third foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter and the Blazers leading 29-28. But McCollum stepped into Dame’s wake and scored 14 of his 26 first half points to give the Blazers a 48-45 lead with 4:54 to go in the half.
- Lax defense squandered the lead and the Blazers went into the half down 65-56. But they put the clamps down in the third quarter, holding the Celtics to only 8 points over the first 8 minutes to take an 80-75 lead.
- Again, the Celtics roared back and lead 107-105 after Horford hit a triple. But, once again, the Blazers rallied to force overtime, as mentioned above.
Leonard summed up the team’s resolve: “Rough start, but we came back. But then, rough ending to the first half yet we came out in the second half and stayed with it. The way I would describe it is resilient and a big time win.”
Stick With It; Good Things Will Come
The opening of the third quarter featured perhaps most impressive comeback. After porous defense let the Celtics score 37 points on 73 percent shooting in the second period, Stotts eschewed scheme adjustments to open the third in favor of increased energy and tighter execution.
“We came into the second half basically with the same game plan as we started the game,” said Stotts. “I thought we executed the things we wanted to do pretty well.”
In the end, this was a game the Blazers absolutely needed to win to salvage a thus far disastrous road trip, and they responded to the call.
“Huge win, especially on this trip losing the first three,” said Lillard. “To pull one out like that, probably the toughest one on the trip, back to back, 5:00 game, but I think we showed some fight, we showed some heart.”
The question now is whether or not the Blazers can put together consecutive game with this kind of fortitude, or whether this will turn into another victory over the Cavs that is followed by a home loss to Detroit.
“I think if we maintain this focus we can ride this win and continue in the right direction. But that’s up to us to continue to do what we did tonight,” said Leonard.
Tonight was a major homecoming for much of Portland’s roster. Jake Layman, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier, and Vonleh are all Massachusetts natives. This created a tricky situation as there were fewer player tickets available for trade than usual to get family and friends into the game.
Layman had an inventive solution, saying, “My mom handled [tickets] – I told her you’re on your own with that.”
Both Vonleh and Layman said that returning home to play on Boston’s storied Parquet holds special meaning, citing it as one of the best arenas in the NBA. Evan Turner, who also enjoyed something of a homecoming, echoed that sentiment.
“Playing in Boston was dope. Putting on the uniform was dope. This isn’t like a normal franchise,” said Turner.
But ultimately the most important thing about the homecoming was seeing friends and family. “It’s awesome [returning home]. My parents made a big deal – trying to get as much family as possible here,” said Layman. “It’s going to be fun to see everyone in the crowd."
- McCollum shot a career high 13 free throws tonight. “I was just trying to be aggressive and take advantage of the hand checking and extra stuff that goes on late in the game and just being smart when you get in the bonus,” said McCollum.
- The Boston game operations crew deserves a ton of credit for working up the Celtics crowd. During key timeouts they showed fans wearing Patriots gear on the big screen, and then followed it up with the “cheer louder” scoreboard prompt. This tactic was guaranteed to rile up the Celtics supporters and help the Celtics go on a run in the fourth quarter. The Boston crowd can be one of the loudest in sports when they’re really into a game.
- The music is also top notch. Poison, KISS, and Bon Jovi all came across the loudspeakers tonight. Not many arenas are willing to queue up multiple hair metal tracks.
- The incessant foul calls generated some animosity from the fans. It hit an apex with a Smart foul on Lillard that wiped out a go-ahead bucket towards the end of regulation. Again, Boston fans are exceptionally partisan, so some ref hatred is not unusual, but the flow of the game exacerbated it a bit.
- Despite the unusual 5:00 pm local start time and rally-induced public transportation delays, the Garden was completely full tonight. Very few seats were unoccupied and everyone stayed until the end of the game.
- Best jersey alert: Last year I saw a Lillard Weber State jersey – nothing so rare this time. Larry Bird’s ISU no. 33 made an appearance, but a throwback John Havlicek jersey was probably the coolest.
- Insult of the night: “Your shot is as ugly as Kelly Olynyk” aimed at Plumlee’s free throws beat out “I bet you voted for Trump too” directed at an official.
- Returning to his former stomping grounds, Evan Turner was dubbed one of the best interviews in the league and his pre-game media availability had to be held outside the locker room to create enough room for everyone. The fans also cheered Turner politely to begin the game. True to form, those same fans were booing his free throw attempts down the stretch.
- With “Sully” (Jared Sullinger) and “Turnah” (Evan Turner) gone this season, the calls of local announcers tend toward the standard. Only “Smaaht” (Marcus Smart) and “Crowdah” (Jae Crowder) are left to bring out the legendary Boston accent.
- Crowder and Horford deserve credit for giving the Blazers fits in the early going. They combined for 20 points in the first quarter while Thomas scored only 2. Horford’s low post moves were responsible for a number of the fouls on the Blazers big men. He finished with 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. Crowder had 16.
Blazer’s Edge Night 2017
Celebrate this win by assisting us in sending 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring? Check out Blazer’s Edge Night 2017 for information on how to get involved, and help spread the word!