Damian Lillard hit a three-pointer with 0.7 seconds on the game clock, propelling the Portland Trail Blazers to a 113-110 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night. The Lakers put up a valiant fight, overcoming a Larry Nance Jr. injury and their own lack of three-point shooting to push the game to the final second. An utter lack of defense typified the contest for both sides, but Portland’s “Big 3” of Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic trumped the unlikely duo of Kyle Kuzma and Brook Lopez, setting up Lillard’s triumphant game-winner.
Portland started out the first period a little sloppy, giving up offensive rebounds and turning over the ball. But the Lakers defense was looser than a tabloid rumor, allowing penetration down the lane at will. Good looks inside freed up the perimeter, then all hell broke loose from the arc. Lillard, McCollum Nurkic, Pat Connaughton...if you didn’t sink a three-pointer in the first quarter, you just weren’t trying. Portland shot 6-7 from beyond the arc in the period. A few layups pushed them to an impressive 41-point quarter. Kuzma kept the Lakers afloat late. The Blazers had as many answers for him as a Kindergartener doing calculus. But there are only so many highlight-reel layups to go around. Portland’s diverse offense trumped Kuzma’s brilliance. The Blazers led 41-25 after one.
With the perimeter avalanche cascading, the Blazers fell into “any three is a good three” mode in the second period. They proceeded to miss every triple they took. It didn’t end up mattering much, as even the threat of the long ball kept the Lakers scrambling. That opened up passing lanes inside, which allowed Nurkic to tee off something fierce. The Bosnian Beast would finish the half with 20 points on 9-12 shooting. His quick spins and layups worked well with defenders out of position. But the Blazers’ triumphal march got bogged down in a deep philosophical question: Is it better to scramble on defense and give up easy shots when you’re not in position or to have your defense set and swarming and give up easy shots anyway? The Lakers did the former, but the Blazers did the latter. Brook Lopez almost matched Nurkic with 17 points in the half. The only “stops” the Blazers managed were fouls. It was ugly. When halftime arrived, it found Portland up only 66-62.
Waiting for Portland’s defense to return in the second half was like waiting for Chrissy to return to Three’s Company. It wasn’t coming back, except for brief, cameo appearances. The Lakers employed their Picasso offense: paint all day long. Foul shots and layups sustained their scoring. Noah Vonleh picked up his 5th foul and Nurkic his 4th in the period. On the other end the Blazers reverted to isolation ball, giving L.A.’s defense a head start on stopping plays. Thankfully Portland’s second shift started rebounding hard and defending. The Blazers led 87-85 after three.
The fourth quarter was just as much of a chaotic mess. Neither team earned honest stops. If anybody failed to score, it was mostly luck...or a turnover. Nurkic provided one last spurt of dominance via close shots and free throws when he checked in mid-period. His offense closed down a 5-point L.A. lead and set the table for a McCollum three with 5:41 remaining which put the Blazers up 100-98. Momentum seemed to be going Portland’s way until Lopez returned the favor. And so it went.
Nurkic had the last laugh between the centers when Lopez fouled him foolishly with 18 seconds left in the game and Portland up 1, 108-107. Nurkic sank both foul shots, giving his team a 110-107 lead. On the ensuing play McCollum got rubbed off a screen, freeing up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a clean look at a three, which he sank. With 16 seconds left, the score was knotted at 110, Portland possession.
Following the obligatory timeout, Lillard took the ball in the backcourt, guarded by the much longer Brandon Ingram. He advanced, drained the clock to 2 seconds, then jabbed, stepped away from Ingram’s rangy arms and...splash. The Moda Center erupted for Lillard Time. Portland led 113-110 with 0.7 seconds remaining.
That should have put the game on ice, but sloppy defense reared its head once more. The Blazers appeared confused on L.A.’s inbounds play. Up three with no time for a pass, they had one job: disallow any open looks beyond the arc. When Kuzma caught the ball in near-perfect position up top, he might as well have owned his own zip code. Fortunately for Portland, his ultra-hot night ended up just short. The game-tying triple struck the front rim and the Blazers escaped. It was an unnecessary, but somehow appropriate, coda to the evening.
Portland’s “Big 3” were everything in this game. They scored a combined 82 of 113 total points, accounting for 73% of their team’s offense. The Lakers had no answer for Nurkic. Their young bigs were too slight; Lopez was too non-defensive. Nor could L.A. stop Lillard’s penetration. 14 foul shots boosted his 8-18 night from the floor, giving him 32 points. McCollum was deadly from distance, hitting 5-8 three-pointers.
When Portland’s offense was rolling, it was delicious. They took their pick of cutters and open shooters. Any two passes resulted in a good look. They shot 46.5% from the field, 40.9% from the arc. The Blazers also plastered a 10-2 offensive rebounding advantage on the Lakers. They kept turnovers in check. It was everything you could want.
Except when it wasn’t, it really, really wasn’t.
Whatever vows Portland made about defense in the pre-season, they fell off the wagon tonight. The only way to describe Portland’s defense was “Lakers-level bad”. The Blazers had less than no answer for Kuzma and Lopez, both of whom got free off of the simplest set of moves imaginable. Picks? Forget it. Lane? Wide open. L.A. ended up shooting 54.4% from the field. Only their ineptitude shooting threes (4-18 tonight, and they’re the worst team in the NBA beyond the arc this season) kept the Blazers from getting jacked in a game they once led by 18.
The confusion on the last play of the game stood in symmetric opposition to the glorious Lillard three, each as indicative as the other.
Portland’s bigs continue to indulge in fouls like they were post-Halloween M&M’s. At least half of the infractions had no rhyme or reason. It’s curious, preventable, and it’ll cost them if they don’t rectify it.
The Blazers reverted to isolation ball when the Lakers threatened seriously. Telegraphing where the play was coming from made defending far easier for L.A. One glance at the Big 3 stat lines will tell you that iso ball worked. Had the opponent been better, it wouldn’t have.
This game will be a Rorschach test for Blazers fans. If you’re looking for pace, star-powered offense, and a highlight-reel ending, this was your night. The Blazers also got the win, of course. But if they’re looking to set a new standard of excellence, playing with greater poise and integrity than years past...this wasn’t it. In fact, this game would provide a counter-example. It was a fun night of NBA basketball that also screamed, “Neither of these teams really matter.” For the Lakers, that’s expected. The Blazers were supposed to be different. So far they aren’t.
Lakers forward Larry Nance left the game in the second half with a broken thumb, tied up with Caleb Swanigan under the rim, jousting for a rebound.
Besides his 32 points, Lillard tallied 6 rebounds (2 offensive) and 5 assists. He made sure his team didn’t lose this game, not just via the decisive shot but by pounding the lane for points whenever L.A. threatened to escape.
McCollum also had 5 assists, but that three-point shooting was the back-breaker. Every shot he takes looks so natural, you just assume it’s going in. He scored 22.
This was Nurkic’s best game of the season by far, with 28 points on 12-20 shooting, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. The big “BUT”: he’s not helping Portland’s defensive situation at all, and may be causing as many problems as he solves. Whether it’s back pain or something else, he’s not moving with verve. The fouls he’s committing are moving from annoying, right past super-frustrating, and straight into inexcusable. Mentally, emotionally, physically, or some combination thereof, something is missing for Nurkic on the defensive end this year.
Noah Vonleh started in place of the injured Al-Farouq Aminu. He played some stiff defense before succumbing to foul disease himself. 0-2, 2 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 5 personal fouls in 15 minutes.
Swanigan took a minute to warm up to the game, but prospered in 14 minutes of play. He gave the team 2 offensive rebounds and 2 steals, plus 5 points. He eats up space when he gets inside in a way no other current Trail Blazer does.
Ed Davis rebounded even harder with 8 total, 2 offensive in 19 minutes.
Evan Turner;s shot looked smooth and he dished 5 assists, but he also committed 4 turnovers. It was a love-hate kind of night. When he was good, he was very, very good. It didn’t just happen for him consistently.
Pat Connaughton illustrates Portland’s conundrum. He hit a pair of threes in the first period and scored 9 points in 20 minutes, which is good. But the Lakers were salivating to get at him on the other end. They did the same thing to Swanigan and eventually he tightened down the leak. Connaughton didn’t. Does his offense help more than the lack of defense hurts? As long as Portland has to keep asking that kind of question, well...
Zach Collins was the deer and the Lakers his personal headlight. He played 11 minutes.
For those on Lonzo Ball watch: 28 minutes, 0-2 shooting, 3 rebounds, 4 assists. His passing looked as good as advertised but he seemed to be advancing the ball one space more than setting up plays. It probably wasn’t his night.
After back-to-back games, the Blazers get a short respite before facing the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday evening at 6:00 pm, Pacific.