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Moe Harkless Returns from Obscurity to Key Blazers Victory over Lakers

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Not since Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has a neglected misfit had such a big impact.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of three quarters, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like they were ready to head into Christmas break on the receiving end of a listless loss against the Los Angeles Lakers. In the movie “Elf”, Santa’s sleigh runs on spirit...enthusiasm for St. Nick and the holiday. Had it run on Blazers spirit during the first 30 minutes of this game, not only would it have crashed, it would have tunneled its way into the core of the earth, imploded, and Portland’s players would have stomped on the smoldering ruins while sowing salt over its resting place. But suddenly, out of nowhere, the least likely hero imaginable came to save the game and the flight home. Maurice Harkless, buried on the bench for the last month, scored 22 points—most of them in the deciding fourth quarter—to captain a turn-around worthy of its own Christmas special. Harkless’ performance, coupled with that of equally-unlikely floor-mates during crunch time, earned an angel its wings and changed the tenor of Coach Terry Stotts’ Christmas, as the Blazers walked out of Staples Center with a 95-92 victory.

Game Flow

Portland started off the game missing every shot they took in the paint. The Lakers began a night-long trend of mobile defense, harrying scorers who don’t perform well under pressure. As has been true during many Portland outings lately, Jusuf Nurkic provided the initial scoring, hitting a pair of long jumpers. That would be it for the night, though.

The teams continued in sloppy fashion throughout the first, not quite at YMCA level but sloshing around in a Generic Bad NBA Game. The tide started to turn once the Lakers figured out that the ball was never coming out of Nurkic’s hands after he received it. With that puzzle solved, defending the Blazers became easier. Meanwhile Portland’s interior play broke down. The Blazers trailed 24-17 after the first.

Shabazz Napier rode to the rescue in the second quarter, converting a couple of driving layups to get Portland out of their offensive desert. Outside of Napier, though, all the Blazers displayed the same kind of possession-endpoint offense that Nurkic had in the opening frame. L.A. stuck in the grill of each Portland player receiving a pass. Under such scrutiny, the offensive attack became (more) imbalanced. Nurkic was powerless inside. A couple of bombs from Napier plus CJ McCollum taking over late pushed the Blazers to 27 in the period. L.A. scored 25 and the Lakers led 49-44 at the half.

The Blazers opened up the third quarter letting L.A. score twice in succession at the rim, starting a quarter-long process of futility. The Lakers weren’t good enough to take full advantage, but they still made Portland’s defense look disinterested. Until the final 2:00 of the period, everything the Blazers did looked flat. In the final run, Napier and Harkless provided a spark, hitting a three-pointer each. Napier’s tied the score at 70 in the final seconds. Despite everything, if the Blazers still wanted this game, they could have it.

And they did. Or at least somebody did.

As the fourth quarter commenced, a familiar tune played over the Staples Center loudspeakers...

You know Lillard and CJ and Vonleh and Layman

Davis, Connaughton, they all get to play, man

But do you recall, the unlikeliest hero of all?

Harkless, the hard-nosed driver

Had a passion for the rim

And if the Blazers needed

They could just rely on him

All of the Portland coaches

Used to laugh and call him names

They never let poor Harkless

Join in any Blazers games

Then one sparkling Christmas Eve (eve)

Coach Stotts came to say

“Harkless, with your nose so hard

Slip past all those Lakers guards.”

Then all the Blazers loved him

as they shouted out with glee,

“Harkless, the hard-nosed driver

Lead us on to victory!”

And by gum, he did. With the game neck-and-neck and the outcome in doubt the whole way, Harkless hit four layups, a three-pointer, and crucial foul shots in the fourth quarter, including an and-one off of an offensive rebound with 21 seconds remaining and a free throw with 9 seconds left, keeping Portland’s head above water long enough to earn the three-point victory. Napier also had something to do with the win, as did McCollum, but this night—and this period in particular—belonged to Moe.

Analysis

If you look up music on Amazon or iTunes, you’ll see slightly cheaper versions of songs done “In the style of” the original singer, basically performed by impostor karaoke groups. For the better part of three periods tonight, the people wearing Portland’s uniforms were playing “in the style of the Trail Blazers”. Even when they showed motion, they lacked emotion. The game was a surreal, almost satirical, copy of Blazers basketball in which they got out-hustled, out-shot, and out-rebounded. Their interior defense ranged from late to criminally negligent. Everywhere but the three-point arc, their shooting was frosty. They were all but D.O.A.

Napier and Harkless brought a flaming torch into the late third quarter, then sparked the Blazers through the decisive fourth. Both teams were bad...no doubt about that. But the Blazers had another gear they somehow couldn’t reach until that duo kicked them in the collective rear end.

In the fourth period, Coach Stotts seemed to follow his heart. McCollum stayed on the floor, pushing hard in the wake of the energy bestowed by Shabazz and Moe. Alongside that trio played Ed Davis and Zach Collins, both committed to defense in a way Portland’s other players—notably Jusuf Nurkic—just weren’t tonight. Nurk sat out most of the final quarter. Behind Davis, Portland’s former rebounding problems cleared up. Collins ranged out to the three-point arc with the defense. One of the cardinal rules of basketball is, “If you can’t play well, at least defend hard.” Stotts found the unit that would follow it and managed to eke out the win.

Why the Blazers came out so flat is up to debate. The turn-around was magnificent, however. Perhaps that fire will burn past Christmas and re-kindle next week without the team having to stink up the court for three quarters before remembering that it’s needed.

There’s little doubt that Damian Lillard is also needed...badly. McCollum shot 7-23 this evening. Napier scored 21 thanks to a 4-7 rate from beyond the arc, but it looked like he was playing on an island. The Lakers...well, they aren’t the most aware and polished team out there. If they caught onto the fact that every Portland player outside of Napier was just going to try to score (badly) after catching the ball, competent teams will surely follow suit. Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner lofting shots with decoys to distract the defense is palatable. Those same players shooting when the defense is keyed in is darn near unwatchable.

Individual efforts (or lack thereof) aside, the Blazers were saved tonight by great three-point shooting (10-25, 40%), 17 Lakers turnovers, and a few timely blocks. The Lakers had their way in the paint all night and rebounded strong against Portland until that final period. Had they been able to hit a three, this game would have turned out differently. They can’t; they’re the worst in the league at it. And the Blazers had enough energy, and enough Moe, at the end to make them rue it. Thank goodness.

Individual Notes

Moe Harkless shot 9-16 for 22 points in 25 minutes with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He went Cedric Ceballos tonight just when the Blazers needed it. Give the man credit...it isn’t easy to go from almost nothing to savior. Standing ovation.

Despite not being Damian Lillard, Shabazz Napier also deserves enormous credit for not giving up. He scored 21 on 8-18 shooting, actually moved around on offense, hit 4-7 threes, and managed 5 assists on a night when zero people were trying to get them.

CJ McCollum shot 7-23, 2-6 from distance, and looked pretty bad when his offense was confined to jump shots. He ignited when going to the rim and helped propel the Blazers out of their stall with nice drives. He should probably consider that a permanent part of his repertoire while Lillard is absent. The other thing isn’t working.

Jusuf Nurkic shot 2-11, becoming a black hole on offense and a non-factor on defense. He played 17 minutes and grabbed 5 boards. Maybe he’s still hurting?

Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu did OK, but were mostly forgettable.

Ed Davis picked up the peppy vibe of the fourth period pretty easily...like he was waiting for something he did to matter. I think I even caught him directing traffic out there on defense a little bit.

Zach Collins shot 4-6 for 11 points with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks and did not foul out. More than that, he played in crunch time and actively contributed to the win with his mobile defense and instincts.

Pat Connaughton hit 3-6 shots but went 0-3 from distance, which is sort of like saying the candy bar was good, but wasn’t really sweet.

Up Next

Boxscore

You’re going to want to check out the CJ McCollum dunk in the Video Recap.

Silver Screen and Roll is going to get darn frustrated with the Blazers soon. Moe Harkless?!? Really?????

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