The Portland Trail Blazers relied on the unlikeliest of players to create offense tonight against the Boston Celtics: Al-Farouq Aminu. The Celtics, on the other hand, leaned heavily on Isaiah Thomas, the league’s top fourth quarter scorer. Unfortunately for the Moda Center crowd, Thomas and the Celtics managed to outrun Aminu and the Blazers down the stretch and picked up a 120-111 victory.
Aminu scored a season-high 26 points on an impressive variety of offensive moves. He finished multiple driving and-1 lay-ups and even managed to shoot 3-for-5 on 3-point shots. The Blazers, however, learned that it can be dangerous to depend too heavily on a secondary player in the clutch. Aminu committed a key turnover and then missed an open 3-pointer in the closing minutes, helping the Celtics stretch a 2 point lead to 6.
Blazers fans were reminded why the Celtics call Thomas’ number on every play in the final frame. The diminutive 5-foot-9 point guard has become the most reliable fourth quarter score in the NBA and he did not disappoint tonight, scoring 34 total points, including 15 in the fourth.
Damian Lillard (28 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) and CJ McCollum (20 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds) were also solid for the Blazers. Marcus Smart, filling in for the injured Avery Bradley in the starting lineup, played sidekick to Thomas with 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals. Overall the Celtics had seven players in double figures.
Despite the 120 total points surrendered, the Blazers actually played very good defense in the first quarter. They held the Celtics to only 22 points on 9-for-25 shooting (36 percent). Maurice Harkless did an admirable job holding Thomas to two points, and the Celtics were unable to take advantage when players such as Noah Vonleh were forced in to mismatches. The Blazers went on a 13-3 run in the middle of the quarter and took a 17-8 lead with 5:30 to go on a Lillard 3-pointer. Portland would finish the quarter shooting 58 percent (11-for-19) and holding a 32-22 advantage.
Celtics Head Brad Stevens told TNT that his team was a “sieve” on defense in the first quarter and the Celtics adjusted that to start the second by taking away the easy baskets from the Blazers. It didn’t really matter as Aminu began to find his groove hitting on jumpers and remarkable drives. He even took the time to throw a spectacular pass from the perimeter to a cutting Lillard for the lay-up. The Blazers lead 41-28 mid-way through the second.
The Blazers lead would grow to 17 before the Celtics responded. Thomas, who had struggled to score in the standard offense, hit his stride at the end of the first half. He began to get buckets in transition, on second chance three-pointers, and while freelancing out off busted sets. The Blazers responded by …turning the ball over and forcing up outside jumpers. The game reached a nadir for the Blazers early in the third when they turned the ball over four times in the first five minutes. When the dust had settled the Celtics had ticked off a 23-4 run from the latter stages of the second quarter into the third. Al Horford’s post-up with 8:32 to go in the quarter gave Boston a 59-57 lead.
The Blazers recovered and hung with the Celtics from there. The teams entered the fourth with Boston leading by only a single point – 77-76. And that’s when all heck broke loose. Both teams began raining down offense, and would combine for 78 points on 26-for-44 shooting from the field (59 percent).
The Celtics opened the quarter by feeding the Blazers a steady diet of Thomas pick and rolls. McCollum and Meyers Leonard did their best to contain the reigning King in the Fourth, but the Celtics jumped out to a quick 84-79 lead. The Blazers, again led by Aminu who finished with 10 points in the quarter, cut the lead to 102-100 on an Aminu dunk with 4:56 to go.
But Aminu’s star finally began to fade in the closing minutes. The Blazers trailed only 106-104 with two and a half to go. After forcing an off-balance miss at the rim from Jaylen Brown, Aminu grabbed a rebound and took an ill-advised jaunt down the court into the heart of the Celtics defense. Smart picked Aminu’s pocket from behind and Brown drew a foul at the other end on the break. The Celtics now led by four.
On the next possession, Aminu missed an open corner triple and Horford grabbed the possession. Then an offensive rebound putback by Smart over Aminu and Mason Plumlee put the Celtics ahead 110-104 with 1:37 to go. The Celtics played the foul game from there and ended up prevailing 120-111.
The Blazers have been waiting all season for Aminu to find his form on the offensive end. Aminu’s poor shooting this season has been a major impediment to the Blazers’ success on offense after he shot a promising 36 percent from deep last season. After 35 games of erratic play, he finally delivered tonight against the Celtics. His brief return to form tonight showed that the Blazers can be dangerous when they have a third option punishing the defense.
The flipside to relying on Aminu is that his style of play will always be, for better or worse, erratic. He thrives on seemingly out of control drives to the hoop and (probably) ill-advised transition dribble attacks, during which he looks like he’s awkwardly about to lose control of the ball at any moment. Those plays will inevitably backfire at least a couple times a game – unfortunately those “couple times” came at the end of the contest tonight. The Blazers will continue to hope that Aminu shoots well, of course, but relying on him to do more than spot up for corner 3s down the stretch will always be a risky proposition.
Of course Aminu should not be blamed for tonight’s loss. As expected with the 2016-17 Blazers, the defeat can be explained in two words: terrible defense.
Many teams wait until the fourth quarter to put the clamps down on their opponents, preferring to ratchet up the intensity throughout the game until the other team is stifled down the stretch.
The Blazers managed the opposite tonight.
The Celtics point total increased across each subsequent quarter and culminated at an inexcusable 43 in the final frame. Giving up 43 fourth quarter points, 71 second half points, and 98 in quarters 2-4 is not going to win an NBA game.
The Blazers actually played solid defense in the first quarter. Harkless and a weakside double team managed to contain Thomas on most possessions and the Celtics failed to check down to their second or third options. They adjusted, partially, by looking for opportunities to score outside of the usual halfcourt offense. The strategy worked and the Celtics opened up their scoring with transition points, foul shots, and second chance opportunities.
The Blazers defense can do a decent job against a base offense, but throw any kind of second option at it and the players look totally lost as they scramble to make switches and remember their coverage. That was evident tonight when the Blazers failed to handle the Celtics offensive adjustments in the latter half of the game.
Thomas also deserves full credit for shredding the Blazers. He spent the entire fourth quarter driving to his left out of a pick and roll, rarely even looking to make a pass. And yet he was repeatedly successful. It’d be easy to blame the Blazers for not doing more to make him uncomfortable, but right now all 28 teams are struggling to contain Thomas.
It should also be noted that the Celtics were without starters Bradley and Jae Crowder. Neither are household names but they are the team’s top two 3-point shooters and perimeter defenders. Losing both simultaneously has a disproportionately dramatic effect on the Celtics. Despite all their struggles this season, the Blazers should have been able to turn this into a victory. Instead they let Brown and Smart combine for 32 points, 13 rebounds, and several game changing plays down the stretch. Not even 26 points from Aminu can make up for that.
Damian Lillard played a solid game. He did go 12 minutes without a field goal, spanning from late in the third to late in the fourth, but made up for it with 11 free throws.
When the Celtics tried to take away the inside shot, CJ McCollum punished them by attacking from the mid-range. McCollum also spent some time on Thomas in the fourth quarter and did a decent job of handling the pick-and-roll defense with Meyers Leonard.
Speaking of Meyers Leonard, he completely froze on a wide open 3-point opportunity from the top of the key. Not great. His defense was 50/50 - he made some nice plays but also gave up some easy buckets around the rim. As always, he sets the best screens on the team.
Mason Plumlee started the game strong with 6 aggressive first quarter points but his impact faded later. Nine points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Maurice Harkless got the start for the injured Evan Turner and played solid defense to open the game. He was mostly anonymous from there. Harkless finished with 4 points and 4 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Noah Vonleh grabbed 9 rebounds but scored only 2 points. He continues to make a living swallowing up rebounds and playing fundamentally sound help defense. It’s almost like he’s transforming into last season’s Ed Davis.
Welcome to the rotation, Pat Connaughton.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @EricG_NBA