The Portland Trail Blazers used superior guard play from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, plus a punishing dose of big-man rebounding, to flatten the Indiana Pacers tonight 114-96. For the second straight game the Blazers faced an opponent congenitally unable to hit from long range. Once again they showed that their defense, if not redeemed, is at least sufficient to stand and fight in close quarters. That’s a new development for Portland, and they’ve ridden it to a welcome 2-0 start to the season. They, and their shiny margin of victory, stand as living testament that winning ugly games is far better than losing them.
If the Blazers swore off bad defense this season, they fell off the wagon at the outset of this game. Indiana ran whenever they could, identifying specific matchups to isolate when confined to the halfcourt. Pacers guards took it right down the lane while forwards hit from the side. Connecting on an impressive 7 of their first 9 shots created excitement, but no separation on the scoreboard. As the Pacers torched the nets, Damian Lillard returned the favor on the other end, driving the ball straight to the cup on his way to 10 in the period. The faucet of Pacers points slowed to a drip as the Blazers got a handle on defense when Indiana’s bench came in. Portland led 31-25 after one.
The second quarter got ugly again from Portland’s perspective. The Pacers’ eyes lit up when they saw Pat Connaughton and Caleb Swanigan on the floor. Forwards T.J. Leaf and Al Jefferson butchered Portland from the perimeter as their guards drove inward. But once again a Blazers guard rode to the rescue. Evan Turner created shots inside with size, connected from the baseline, and even hit a three on his way to 13 in the quarter. ET’s barrage saved the period and put the Blazers up 62-52 at the half.
The second half also started in shaky fashion as Jusuf Nurkic picked up his 4th foul with 10:15 remaining in the third quarter, following a pair of all-too-common turnovers. Ed Davis would pick up his 4th with 7:15 remaining, leaving Portland without their top two centers.
It didn’t end up costing them much because pretty much everyone was in the lane anyway, regardless of size or position. 12 of Portland’s first 14 shots in the third came from the paint. Indiana packed inside and denied many of those looks, but the Blazers remained stubborn. The other side of the floor was a mirror image, as the Pacers failed to connect on any shot outside of five feet and ended up clinging to the key like a baby to its binky. The lane-bound stalemate preserved Portland’s lead between 10-12 points until McCollum went crazy in the last two minutes of the third, connecting on a couple of close shots and a couple of threes to blow open the game. The Blazers led 91-73 at the third-period buzzer.
After that, the Blazers played keep-away, slowing down the pace and grinding through garbage time, walking away with the relatively easy 18-point win.
Despite pretty margins in the first three periods leading to another apparent blowout, it took the Blazers a while to get into the rhythm of this game...and each quarter thereof. They weren’t dominant, just eventually more solid than the Pacers overall.
The final outcome was predicated on three things:
- The Pacers were utterly unable to connect on any shot outside of 15 feet. They went 4-18 from distance, 8-24 on shots between 15 feet and the arc. Early in the game when they spread a relatively naive Portland defense, they found plenty of success. As the evening progressed and the outer ranges became a wasteland, the Blazers just followed the ball into the lane for stops. Defense became easy and Indiana’s percentage from the field plummeted. Calling Portland’s defensive performance Fool’s Gold would go too far. They actually defended well, given the circumstances. But this wasn’t 24-karat gold either. So far deeply-flawed teams are making the Blazers look good on the defensive end. This is just the boost they needed to start the season. Let’s hope it translates when opponents can actually shoot.
- Indiana had very little weak-side help in the lane and no ability to bother ball-handlers. This created field-day conditions for Lillard in the first quarter and Turner in the second, each racking up double-digit periods on layups and short jumpers. When the Pacers compensated by dragging their defense inside, McCollum turned them into compost with a shot chart that blazed across the sky like the Milky Way. News Flash: Portland’s guards are impressive. If you cannot deal with them, you’re going to face 30-point quarters.
- Rebounding again proved an absolute, bankable asset for the Blazers. Intense concentration on the lane for both offenses put bodies against bodies under the basket all night long. Portland won that war, finishing with an 11-6 advantage in offense rebounds and a 51-39 edge overall. The Pacers wanted to play fast tonight, compensating for their lack of firepower by running. The Blazers reeled back the tempo (in part) via rebounding and ended up with 95 field goal attempts to only 78 for Indiana.
Damian Lillard’s 7-17, 0-3 from distance shooting line doesn’t describe what he did tonight. He was a sharp stick poking into Indiana’s rib cage over and over again in the first period, messing up their defensive schemes with layups they couldn’t deal with. After he got them jittery with 10 in the first, the rest of the night was easy. Flashbacks of him swooshing down the lane were enough to keep the Pacers on their heels and Portland’s passing lanes wide open.
After Lillard set the Pacers reeling in the first period, Evan Turner blindsided them in the second. He didn’t worm his way inside; he bulled and bullied, then stepped back for simple jumpers when haunted defenders leaned the wrong way. His size helped on the other end as well, as rotations got confined to a 15-foot radius. 7-12 shooting, 17 points in 32 minutes.
After the Lillard and Turner Show, 28 points from CJ McCollum wasn’t fair. But given the damage the two penetrating guards did, CJ’s outburst against single coverage (and sometimes no coverage) was all but foreordained. It was the perfect setup for him. He didn’t have to close out on shooters, he could shadow dribblers into a crowded lane and feast on rebounds, and he had his pick of shots in the offense. 12-18 from the floor, 3-4 from distance, 7 boards.
Speaking of tailor-made, if McCollum was fond of this setup, Al-Farouq Aminu wanted to marry it. He’s bulky, he’s aggressive, he likes to muscle people, and he knew exactly where everybody was going to be on the court. Say hello to 16 rebounds (4 offensive) plus a stea, a block, and lots of twisting, ugly shot attempts from opponents who got to a spot, then suddenly found no room there. 7-13 shooting for 16 points was a nice bonus.
Not surprisingly, that story held true for Ed Davis, who was wondering if the setup had a sister he could ask out sometime. 9 rebounds in 20 minutes.
Moe Harkless did well enough, looking spry early, but his mobility went to waste a little in this game. Turner and Pat Connaughton stole some of his thunder. Connaughton hit a pair of threes for 8 points but looked vulnerable the few times the Pacers caught him in individual defense.
Rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins had rough nights, combining for 16 minutes, 0-8 shooting, 2 points, 2 rebounds, and 4 personal fouls. Swanigan will prosper in this kind of game eventually but it was too crowded and ugly for him tonight.
That was also the story for Jusuf Nurkic, who prefers free-flowing mobility to standing and swarming. Nurkic never looked comfortable with the ball, found his post moves covered, turned it over 6 times, and committed 5 personal fouls. His shooting ability ended up completely superfluous due to the success of the guards. He played 26 minutes, shot 4-13, scored 11, and grabbed only 3 rebounds.
IndyCornrows is going to start missing Paul George any day now.
The Blazers face Giannis Antetokounmpo the Milwaukee Bucks tomorrow at 5:30 PM, Pacific time.