The Portland Trail Blazers completed a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback tonight to vanquish the Washington Wizards 108-105. In the process the Blazers answered the eternal question, “Is it better to be lucky or good?” with a resounding, “BOTH!” Portland caught a break with the absence of Wizards point guard John Wall, then caught another as Washington eased up on the throttle, assuming they were on their way to an easy victory. But CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard weighed in on the “Good” side during the late-game rally, while Jusuf Nurkic threw around his weight, helping Portland to a dominant night in the paint. Whether through fortune, talent, or a mix of each, the Blazers will take the win and the 12-8 record that comes with it.
The Blazers started the game going inside-out, with Nurkic and Noah Vonleh scoring at the rim, setting up exterior shots for their teammates. But Markieff Morris and company passed the ball through Portland’s defense to develop open mid-range looks of their own. The Wizards pushed the tempo, using all 94 feet of the court vertically and spreading shots sideline to sideline, keeping the Blazers off-balance. They went hard at new-ish starter Pat Connaughton. They also forced Portland turnovers. After a huge mid-quarter run from Washington, Lillard took over, shooting and passing, to give the Blazers one of their own, bringing them back to within 27-30 after one.
Ed Davis provided tough defense and even tougher offensive rebounding to start the second, giving Portland a brief boost. But McCollum picked up his third foul at the 8:00 mark, taking a bite out of Portland’s scoring attack. The Blazers tightened up on defense to compensate and did a good job shutting off the passes that had buoyed the Wizards in the first period. The game slowed down considerably. But in the process, the Wizards were also able to key on Lillard, holding him to three shot attempts in the quarter. Without their starting guards going crazy, Portland’s offense fell off, yielding only 14 points in the period. Washington compensated for 2⁄3 of Portland’s scoring in with a 9-0 run in the final 2:30 of the half. The Wizards led 52-41 at the break.
Washington continued to play angles in the third period, spreading around the offense through Portland seams. The Blazers couldn’t close quickly or authoritatively enough to stop them. But Portland countered with three-point shooting. Lillard and Connaughton each hit one, while McCollum signaled his huge half by stroking through three in the period. In a reverse of the first quarter, Portland’s outside game set up their inside looks. The dual-pronged attack gave the Blazers a respectable 32 in the period. Unfortunately the Wizards scored 31 and preserved an 83-73 lead heading into the fourth.
Turnovers and (more) sloppy defense by Portland helped Washington extend their lead to 17 points early in the fourth. It looked as if the game was decided. But that’s not how Washington rolls. In fact the only way the Wizards roll in the fourth is “over”. They did it again tonight. Their defense loosened considerably; their offense had that “just a half-inch off” flavor that comes from letting your guard down. Meanwhile the Blazers dispensed with everything except jamming it right down the heart of the lane, courtesy of dribbling guards and a posting Nurkic. Washington’s lead shrank by layups and free throws. Everybody in the building wondered when the Wizards were going to stop the bleeding. Turns out, the answer was never.
Portland still trailed by a respectable 105-98 score with 90 seconds remaining when the Wizards added stupidity to negligence. Nukic backed down Morris in the lane, using his bulk and a sizable elbow to gain ground. Morris objected and draped his arm over a shoulder as Nurkic made a spin move, shoving him downward and earning a Flagrant 1 foul. Nurkic made 1 of 2 free throws, but McCollum sank a three-pointer on the ensuing inbounds. At that point trouble was brewing. Washington felt it too. Their shots shifted from nonchalant lofts to over-aimed, pressure-filled thrusts at the rim. They were way too tight. Nothing went in. Then McCollum hit another layup. Then McCollum hit a 20-footer. Then McCollum stole their wallet, bought a nice gift for them at Best Buy, stuck it under the tree, told them Santa had been there, then stole that too, leaving them empty-handed and ruing the day they had ever invited him in their house.
After Hurricane CJ subsided, a couple of Connaughton free throws put Portland up 3. A double-covered Bradley Beal missed the tying three at the buzzer...probably while thinking that if he hit ONE of the totally-open, yet nervously short-armed, shots they had put up in the last 90 seconds, they wouldn’t be in that position. Blazers win, 108-105.
People have speculated that Portland’s “continuity” and “experience” would start to pay dividends this season. For the most part, we’ve yet to see it. Tonight provided one positive example, though. This was a game of huge runs. No matter how many times the tide came in, the Blazers rode it out and found their footing. They got swamped by double-digits a couple times. Yet Washington always ended up receding. When they did, Portland would reclaim 6-9 points and end up in range again. They didn’t give up even when down 17. Had the Wizards shut the door on the lane, the game would have been over. But there’s always a chance, so Portland kept pushing. Lo and behold, the door opened. The ability to shut up and just do what you’re supposed to regardless of circumstances is a hallmark of veteran teams. The Blazers played like a veteran team in the fourth tonight.
This was was made easier because Portland really only had to convince three players to stick with it offensively: Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic. None of them were going to turn down easy points; the Wizards were offering plenty. It was still impressive to see the focus of their attack change so dramatically. Once they started scoring in the paint, they just kept going back to the well. They read the situation and capitalized.
This game also showed how dominant those three players can be. McCollum spearheaded the second-half drive tonight...he was nothing short of phenomenal. The other two had their moments, though. Washington knew exactly which players Portland would come through and still couldn’t stop them. That’s something.
That said, this win would be more convincing and meaningful if the Blazers hadn’t spent most of the game getting roasted, letting the Wizards shoot 50%, turning the ball over like it was buttered. The flip-side of a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback is getting down 17 to a team without John Wall in the first place.
Again we see that if you give the Blazers a moment—or even a few minutes—with a targeted goal and specified areas of attack, they’re great. They just don’t seem capable of sustaining that greatness over 48 minutes. Their defense wasn’t that good tonight. Bradley Beal missed a wide-open free-throw-line jumper with 6 seconds remaining to put his team back ahead, and that was just the last of a litany of great looks off of ineffective Portland close-outs. Cumulatively, this was one of those games that makes you go, “The Blazers won this, which is great, but they aren’t that good.” That’s an old story for Portland. We know how it ends.
The Blazers were that good in the paint, dominating the Wizards 48-24. This was not accompanied by the usual huge rebounding advantage either. They earned those points the hard way. 51% shooting and 37.5% from the arc didn’t hurt either.
CJ McCollum will be showing up in Washington’s nightmares tonight. 11-20 from the field, 4-7 from the arc will do that to you anyway, but his final 90 seconds were the stuff legends are made of. The Wizards were preparing their little victory tea party and McCollum drove a steamroller over the whole joint. His final 7 points—Portland’s last 3 field goals of the game—were smooth and effortless under pressure. He looked as if he was just shooting around the gym against no defense. Rewind it; it’s jaw-dropping.
Damian Lillard scored 29, once again making hay from the free-throw line with 9-10 converted. Both he and McCollum committed 5 turnovers, a product of a focused Washington defense...until the fourth. When it mattered, the stars shone.
Jusuf Nurkic enjoyed being the biggest guy on the floor. He netted 3 blocks and 4 assists, working in semi-traditional post moves for 17 points. He helped keep the Wizards from returning Portland’s favor in the paint...a huge key to the victory.
Noah Vonleh and Pat Connaughton both had effective nights. Vonleh hit all 4 of his field goal attempts and grabbed 10 rebounds. Connaughton went 4-7, 2-3 from the arc, adding 2 steals and 3 assists. Connaughton also helped clinch the game, hitting the final two free throws to put Portland up 3, then executing help-defense close-out to make sure the Wizards didn’t get the tying shot off clean. Washington did run at Connaughton early with success, though. He’s pretty much an echo of the team at large. Give him one responsibility in one area and he’s great. Ask him to play the complete game and he’s shakier.
Ed Davis was the man off the bench tonight, grabbing 6 rebounds in 15 minutes and anchoring some of the only decent defense the Blazers evidenced in the first half.
Bullets Forever wishes their team had dodged one tonight.
The Blazers will face the New York Knicks on Monday at 4:30 PM, Pacific
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