Inconsistent effort has been driving Portland Trail Blazers fans bonkers for the last 13 months. One night the Blazers will look like world beaters, the next they’ll seem destined for a complete teardown, and a week later they’ll look exactly average. It’s a maddening pattern that has Blazermaniacs vacillating wildly from ecstatic, to downtrodden, to flummoxed.
The Blazers upped the ante tonight by packing an entire season of inconsistency into a single 48 minute game against the Orlando Magic. The Moda Center faithful, however, were able to walk away definitively happy – despite the dramatic peaks and valleys the Blazers managed to prevail 99-94.
Along the way to the five point victory, observers witnessed 18 minutes of abysmally lazy defense, six minutes of the most enjoyable basketball the team has played all season, and an entire half of good-enough-to-beat-an-iffy-team grinding.
Ultimately, a 19-point outburst from Shabazz Napier against a team that traded him for $75,000; defensive intensity from CJ McCollum(!); and 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists from Damian Lillard made the difference.
The Blazers make basketball fun again
The most memorable moments of the contest came mid-way through the second quarter when coach Terry Stotts went with a three-guard lineup of Lillard, McCollum, and Napier. The Blazers ripped off a 17-0 run to end the half and turned a 13-point deficit into a 51-47 lead.
Each Blazer guard played an essential role in turning the game around. Napier provided a spark plug off the bench, scoring 11 points and hitting three 3-pointers in the quarter. His play helped alleviate the defensive pressure on Lillard, who had been hounded every time he tried to drive to the rim (2-for-7 on 2-pointers in the first half). Napier’s razzle dazzle proved indispensible on a night that saw nearly every other Blazer struggle offensively.
Lillard also deserves credit for adopting a facilitating role in the second quarter. After settling, at times, for lackadaisical long bombs early on, Lillard adopted a true point guard mentality and looked to get his teammates involved. On three consecutive possessions from the 3:54 to 2:55 mark Lillard made smart decisions to help create open looks for his teammates and spark a 7-0 run. He would finish with a game high 7 assists.
And, lastly, McCollum got involved scoring 8 points in the quarter on his usual array of nice off-the-dribble moves and also used some aggressive defense to get into Evan Fournier’s head. He would finish with 24 points, and four 3-pointers.
Throw in some solid all-around effort on the defensive end and the Blazers were genuinely fun to watch for the first time this season since opening night.
“Orlando hasn’t been this open since the pre-Disney World days” – Blazer’s Edge editor Timmay!
The bad news is that the 17-0 run to end the half only gave the Blazers a four point lead. That’s because they spent much of the first quarter playing some of the worst defense of the season, on their way to a 33-24 deficit.
At times, it looked like nobody had read the scouting report for the Blazers. Portland’s big men failed to recognize their assignments, leaving Orlando’s sharpshooting big men Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, 40 percent and 52 percent on 3-pointers, respectively, wide open to rain down open jump shots.
The lack of awareness was combined with all-around laziness; the Blazers perimeter defenders allowed unchallenged drives to the basket and the help defenders failed to do any helping on multiple occassions.
The consequences were not pretty: the Magic hit their first six shots to open the game and scored 33 points on 64 percent shooting in the opening quarter.
The bottom line is that the Blazers’ abysmal opening quarter can be attributed to inconsistent effort and awareness on defense. This has become a theme for the team and they were fortunate to be playing an inferior opponent tonight or the poor first quarter might have buried their chances in the opening minutes of the game.
Blazers do just enough to win
Not content to stick with extremes, the Blazers settled into a middle ground, keeping the Magic at arm’s length for much of the second half but never quite pulling away thanks to sloppy offensive play down the stretch.
The Magic, however, were unable to respond to the Blazers’ defense – after spending much of the first half letting Orlando’s best shooters get open looks, the Blazers defense got smarter. For example, they sagged off the poor-shooting Terrence Ross on the perimeter, while the Portland big men also recognized the threat of the outside shooters and started to slide up to challenge the previously open looks.
Once their pet plays were taken away they struggled to create anything other than contested jump shots, leading to visible frustration.
McCollum also deserves heaps of praise for playing stifling defense down the stretch. In the second half he forced Gordon into a jump ball, drew two offensive fouls from Fournier, got his hands on multiple passes, and generally disrupted the Magic offense. He showed flashes of solid defense in the playoffs last season, but tonight’s game took those flashes to another level.
With McCollum playing great defense, Stotts was also able to play the three-guard lineup of Lillard/McCollum/Napier for the latter half of the fourth quarter. Every other Blazer was struggling to score, so being able to keep those three in the game together made a huge difference and helped the Blazers secure a win despite an otherwise inconsistent night.
Damian Lillard’s team-leading 11 rebounds should not be overlooked. With the Orlando big men often inverting the court the Blazers had to rely on their guards and wings to crash the boards at times. Lillard delivered.
CJ McCollum is going to be an absolute menace if he can become a true two-way threat like he showed tonight.
Shabazz Napier continues to show flashes of instant offense off the bench. Whether or not he can string this together into consistent performances, or if he’ll remain a matchup dependent secret weapon remains to be seen. But tonight was certainly fun to watch.
Unfortunately the rest of the Blazers ranged from “pretty good at times” to “abysmal.”
Jusuf Nurkic occasionally played solid defense and had a couple nice offensive plays but failed to assert himself consistently against the mobile Magic big men. He finished with 11 points and 8 rebounds.
Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis provided some rebounding off the bench but mostly just filled space. Vonleh, especially, looked lost.
Caleb Swanigan looked like a rookie and only played six minutes despite getting the start.
Next up: The Blazers head to Sacramento to play the Kings on Friday.