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Griffin, Pistons Run Down Trail Blazers

Portland tried to out-gun Detroit, but tired legs and missed threes doomed the effort.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers faced Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons tonight hoping to halt a precipitous road slide and pad their record against a nasty stretch of games in late February and March. They had no such luck. From the outset of the game Portland’s legs looked heavy, their commitment scant. Only Damian Lillard topped 20 points, eight bench players combined for only 32, and the Blazers went down to a near-laughable 111-91 defeat.

Battle of Tempos

From the outside of this game, the Pistons pushed a fajita-like pace, sizzling and greased with turnovers. They pressured on defense and tried to get bigs down the floor before the Blazers could set up. Meanwhile Portland went pulled-pork: low and slow. They sent the ball inside to Jusuf Nurkic and tried to trot their way through the opening quarters. The results were mixed. Portland did grind Detroit into a 22-20 first period, but the Pistons’ starters got off threes and inside shots, faltering only late in the quarter.

Portland’s screen defense started to crumble in the second. (Jean-) Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway made free with jump shots while Griffin and Andre Drummond pounded Portland inside. Three-pointers by Shabazz Napier and Al-Farouq Aminu kept Portland close, but cracks started to open as Detroit took a 49-43 lead into the break.

Threes Freeze

The dam broke in the third as Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith stepped up to prove anybody could score against Portland’s lagging legs. The Blazers did a good job containing Griffin but everybody else got loose. To make matters worse, three-point shooting deserted the Blazers like a Gilligan’s Island guest star. Pat Connaughton hit one from the coffin corner to save Portland from an 0-fer on 8 attempts from deep. Damian Lillard put his head down and got into the lane for layups, but anybody who’s watched the Blazers this year knows that Lillard flailing and driving means the Blazers started in a deep hole and nothing else will get them out. Portland allowed 30 in the period, scoring only 24, and Detroit led 79-67 heading home.

Rally-Free Zone

If the Blazers had tired legs in Quarter 1, you know they weren’t coming back in Quarter 4. They did manage to uncork the distance shooting, hitting 4 threes in the period. Detroit countered with 5. When the other team out-does your Big Comeback Gambit, you know it’s not your night. On the bright side, players like Noah Vonleh and Caleb Swanigan who hadn’t seen the court in ages got to play down the stretch. Detroit won by 20.

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

Fatigue seemed to play a role in this game. Whether it was physical or emotional doesn’t matter...the Blazers just weren’t in it. Part of it could be their heartbreaking loss to Boston a game prior. Part of it could be looking forward to home cooking and the All-Star break a little early. Part of it could be nervousness about all the speculation surrounding Thursday’s trade deadline. Don’t forget the Pistons are on a post-Griffin roll too.

Still, the cumulative effect is disturbing. This was another game in which the Blazers simply didn’t put up a fight outside of intermittent stretches. We can talk about bench contributions—Connaughton had a nice night on offense—but the Portland reserves aren’t good enough for their good nights to make that much of a difference.

If you’re of a certain age (or have played the right apps or video games) you’ll recall marble boards that challenge players to guide their metal sphere through a hole-filled maze without dropping it down the holes or off the side of the board. The nature of the puzzle is that the first few turns are easy, but finishing the maze is treacherously difficult. You get excited about a good start, then all your hopes sink down a hole and you get to start over.

The Blazers are embroiled in their own, personal marble board this season. Everybody got excited about four straight wins at the end of January—Portland’s longest streak of the season—but February has started with three straight losses, two of them near-humiliating. Every time the Blazers make progress, they throw it down a hole. Because they can’t rage quit a season like most of us do with those stupid mazes, they dutifully start again and build momentum, but it’s just resetting the same process.

The Blazers aren’t bad, but they’re not that good either...certainly not a team that anyone will take seriously at this point. For all the talk, promise, and hype, that thought should burn them. You’d think they’d be able to use it as motivation to get over the fourth or fifth turn in the puzzle, but nope. Every time you think they’re getting ahead, down the hole they go again.

The Blazers draw the Charlotte Hornets at home and Sacramento Kings on the road this week, before home contests against the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors finish the pre-All-Star schedule. They should be able to win 3 out of 4 of those games. That’s not the issue. The problems are:

A. Nobody would be surprised if they didn’t. And...

B. Even if they did, would it really matter that much?

Those thoughts should haunt every member of this organization, from traveling scouts to Paul Allen himself, as the Blazers enter the mid-season break to come.

For tonight, praise Connaughton, Lillard, and maybe Ed Davis most of all. They worked their tails off in this game. Zach Collins played hard too, despite his 1-8 shooting effort. Other players had good moments, but not enough of them. In the end, half of a hard-playing team with a vague talent mush around them isn’t enough to beat decent NBA teams. The Pistons were more than decent tonight. Hopefully Charlotte won’t be on Thursday.


Video Recap

Detroit Bad Boys

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge /