The Portland Trail Blazers played with fire in a 121-118 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks tonight, and not in a good way. The contest was equal parts heroic and harrowing, wholly emblematic of their identity: it’ll look good in the boxscore while concealing a half-dozen weaknesses that will eventually come back to bite them. Damian Lillard saved Portland’s bacon with 33 points, followed by CJ McCollum with 22.
Portland’s supporting cast scored repeatedly at the cup in the first quarter, but nobody could hit an outside shot to save their lives. The result was a fairly mediocre 27-25 lead for Dallas after one. The second quarter was equally limp until Lillard, McCollum, and the starters sparked a torrential outpouring to finish the half, leaving the Blazers up 62-52 at the break.
The Blazers maintained a decent lead—often double-digit—throughout the second half until Dallas got hot from the arc late, overtaking Portland with under three minutes to go. McCollum and Lillard scored back-to-back late, all but erasing Dallas’ chances, until Luka Doncic dropped this down Portland’s chimney:
That wonderful, horrible shot took the once-secure game to overtime.
To their credit, the Blazers started the extra period strong, with McCollum scoring twice and finding an open Moe Harkless for a layup. Turnovers and missed rebounds almost gave the game back to Dallas, but four points from Lillard in the final minute of overtime were enough to seal it.
Here are some insights from the game.
Once again the Blazers had trouble gaining separation from an opponent and putting the game away until Lillard and McCollum took over. The Blazers shot 11-38, 29% from distance tonight. The starting guards accounted for 12 of their 27 deep misses, but a fair percentage of those shots were tough, with defenders in the vicinity. The other 15 bricks came from everybody else. Those shots were mostly open.
With the game on the line, Lillard and McCollum dared not pass much. Most of the time, it was better that they didn’t.
At What Point is the Bench Good?
Portland’s second unit was a mixed bag tonight. Meyers Leonard shot 6-10 and Seth Curry went 4-8 from deep. The Blazers still lost ground when both players were in. They couldn’t sustain runs because they couldn’t contain on the defensive end. Meanwhile Nik Stauskas was forcing so hard he might as well have been Kylo Ren. The whole thing felt uncoordinated.
The bench looked good when they hustled and got opportunity buckets. They did not look good when they ran two-man sets with three players standing, nor when they played with arms instead of feet on defense. If the role players are not all-in, all the time, the team suffers.
Evan Turner Turns It Up
Evan Turner’s 1-9 outing will get people up in arms, but he was he only bench player passing, defending, and playing in conjunction with his teammates. His defensive effort is worth a tape review. The Ball may not lie but sometimes shooting percentages do.
Portland outscored Dallas 60-52 in the paint, largely because the guards started taking it to the hole. (They were very, very good at that, by the way.) Despite that, Dallas found a fairly steady stream of scoring inside until the late stages of the game...part of the reason the Blazers couldn’t get enough separation on the scoreboard.
The Blazers scored 19 points off of fast breaks, almost doubling their season average. Again...opportunism and energy opened doors that shooting couldn’t. The Blazers look good when they’re diving and dashing. Where’s the “48 minutes of hell” approach? That would be better than “45 minutes of seeing if we can win it easy followed by 3 minutes of sheer panic”.
Damian Lillard is Incomparable
CJ McCollum sparked the Blazers in early overtime and probably shifted gears more noticeably than anybody else, but it wouldn’t have mattered had Damian Lillard not shored up the crumbling walls first. When the Blazers are in dire need, he takes the shot. If that shot does not go in, he drives it next time instead. Only when he has distracted the defense does the court loosen up for everybody else. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Lillard is special.
A win is always better than a loss, but this came could have been either. When will the Blazers stop leaving games up in the air and start seizing them definitively? Or is a coin flip plus a little extra edge from Lillard Time enough for them?
Portland faces the Utah Jazz at 7:30 PM, Pacific on Christmas Day.