When the Portland Trail Blazers faced the Toronto Raptors tonight, they lined up against a quality team suffering from injuries. Neither power forward Serge Ibaka nor center Jonas Valanciunas suited up, leaving the Raptors short two-thirds of their starting frontcourt plus a quarter of their scoring and rebounding. Toronto’s “quality” designation held up throughout the game; as it turned out the “injured” part didn’t matter. Raptors defense, coupled with an utter annihilation of Portland’s big men, left the Blazers staring at the business end of a 99-85 home loss. In the process, Portland registered a historically bad second quarter in which they tallied only a single field goal and six total points, the lowest second period in franchise history. Yeah, it was that kind of night.
The Blazers opened this game taking it right to the rim. Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic led the parade; the guards followed. Unfortunately Toronto brought along the King of the Cup in shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who saw Portland’s interior moves and raised them to the tune of 10 points in the first four minutes.
As the quarter advanced, both teams adjusted. Toronto picked up Portland dribblers far out on the floor, not letting them into their sets easily. The Blazers got busy hands inside, knowing the Raptors wanted to score there. With defensive walls forming, perimeter shots became more frequent. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard prospered, but they were countered by Kyle Lowry. When the dust cleared, thrusts and counters led to a 29-29 tie. Both teams shot over 50% in the quarter, neither one gained an edge from it.
The second period was an unmitigated disaster for the Blazers. The Raptors started the period 0 for 5, Portland 0 for Everything. Toronto took the Blazers out of the game physically, muscling them away from the glass, hounding every drive and pass, and blocking what seemed like thousands of shots. Toronto’s defense was so scary, the Blazers were seeing the Headless Horseman out there: flinching and passing up shots they’d normally make in their sleep, riding their horse as hard as they could to get to the bridge of halftime. Portland did not hit a field goal until Evan Turner scooped up an unguarded miss with 5.4 seconds remaining and converted for a layup. Meanwhile Portland’s screen defense disintegrated and they still had no chance of stopping DeRozan in single coverage. DeRozan had 21 points at the half on 9-11 shooting. Portland scored only 6 in the entire second period. Toronto led 54-35 at intermission.
The Blazers started the second half with renewed energy, but no better results. When they tried to pick up dribblers out on the floor, the Raptors passed and found wide open shots. Portland’s rotations were non-existent, their foot speed darn near lethargic. Lillard hit back-to-back threes late in the third but Portland’s defense was nowhere near stout enough to make them matter.
The fourth quarter was an exercise in droopiness on Toronto’s part, as they conflated milking the clock with standing still on offense. Their defense was still spry enough to prevent everybody except Lillard from getting off. Damian treated them to a dazzling array of moves and buckets, but the lead didn’t shrink below double digits. The game was over long before it was over and the final horn was a mercy, as was the 14-point margin of defeat, all things considered.
The Blazers got beat every way it’s possible to get beat tonight, but the most shocking deficit (given their early-season performance) was the absolute manhandling in the lane. They probably could have dealt with DeRozan’s outburst in isolation. When it was accompanied by a litany of ferocious blocks, crowded drives, and damning rebounds, they had no chance. Toronto’s mobile, springy bigs treated the Blazers like they didn’t exist. After a while, they might as well not have. When Portland’s guards rode their men down into the lane, rotations were late. When the Blazers missed a shot, they had no chance of recovering. It was bad beyond anything a boxscore or highlight reel will reveal.
At some point, Portland’s point-of-attack defense also failed. The energy and blue-collar work they recently started putting into screens disappeared. Toronto dribblers didn’t just come off of picks open, but undefended.
After the game started going south, the verve melted away from Portland’s offense as well. Eventually sets featuring 0 or 1 passes made it easy for Toronto to tee off on every shot and anticipate every rebound. The only player who ended up prospering was Lillard, whose individual brilliance was on full display in the latter stages of the game.
The matchups tonight were interesting, but ultimately fatal for Portland. High-scoring guards Lowry and DeRozan met high-scoring guards Lillard and McCollum. Technically the Blazers won the battle 52-44, but their points came after the game was all but decided; Toronto’s duo decided it. We also saw two young, energetic defensive frontcourts face off. Except only one frontcourt was actually energetic. Tonight was a reminder that the Blazers don’t have a monopoly on promise and that promise is just air until it pays off consistently. If you had to guess which frontcourt was deeper and had a brighter future tonight, it’d have been Toronto in a landslide.
Already the narrative of the night is slanting towards, “We just couldn’t overcome that second quarter.” Fine. Missing 20 straight shots will do that to you. But the issue tonight wasn’t offense, it was getting outplayed in every facet of the game, including the ones that are supposed to make the margin of error large enough that a horrible quarter doesn’t end the game outright. Portland didn’t lose because they couldn’t hit a shot, they lost because they played like it didn’t matter either way.
Damian Lillard finished the game with 36 points on 12-23 shooting...an impressive performance. Nothing else went right for him, though. He registered 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and 6 turnovers, plus his counterpart finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. The points were frosting. There was no cake.
Ed Davis proved Portland’s most energetic big man, but he couldn’t do it alone. He pretty much had to. Jusuf Nurkic moved with all the alacrity of a bean bag chair, his style of play resembling a recipe for pulled pork: low and slow all night.
Nobody else’s performance was remarkable enough to mention.
Raptors HQ will be happy about all this.
The Blazers take on the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night in Salt Lake at 6:00 PM, Pacific.