We need to talk about trap games. The term is used far too often to convey the general idea of “It’ll be an upset if my team loses tonight.” In reality, trap games refer to contests that could easily be overlooked because of the proximity to a much more interesting or competitive game. Basically a warning to players not to focus so intensely on the BIG game that they come out flat in the run-of-the-mill game in close proximity.
To put it bluntly, the Blazers, coming off a heartbreaking 115-111 loss to the Rockets on Tuesday, saw the Celtics set the cheese directly on the mouse trap tonight, decided to snatch the snack anyway, and were then surprised when the lever snapped and caught them. End result: Celtics win, 105-100.
How’d the Celtics Set the Trap?
Portland entered the fourth quarter with 79-67 lead. The Celtics — playing without Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, or Marcus Smart — were on the ropes. The Blazers, despite shooting only 7-for-24 on 3-pointers to this point, looked poised to cruise to an easy victory. And, thus, the trap was set.
Rather than surrender to the double digit deficit, the Celtics turned to Jayson Tatum and Shane freakin’ Larkin. The backcourt duo combined to score 13 consecutive Celtics points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, cutting the Portland lead to three, 83-80. Blazers coach Terry Stotts, after disgustedly watching his team give up baskets on the same play on three consecutive possessions, was forced to call a timeout.
Spoiler Alert: That splash of green at the end is a bad thing.
The Blazers defense never recovered from the early onslaught and the Celtics eventually took the lead in the closing minutes. After holding Boston to only 67 points on 40 percent shooting through three quarters, Portland surrendered 38 points on 11-for-17 shooting in the final frame.
“We let our guard down. We had a good game going defensively. You can’t give them that life,” Lillard told the Portland Tribune’s Kerry Eggers after the game. “Once we had them down 10, they got themselves going. They made some tough shots. They were executing. We just let one slip tonight.”
CJ McCollum and Evan Turner typified the poor defensive effort on a miscommunication that allowed Tatum to score easily with 32.7 seconds remaining.
Jayson Tatum swinging from the rim! pic.twitter.com/YvJgwG74iQ— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) March 24, 2018
The lay-up put the Celtics up 103-98.
To add insult to injury, the Blazers still had a chance trailing, 103-100 with 28 seconds on the clock and the Celtics in possession — a scenario identical to the one they faced in the closing seconds against the Rockets. And, just like against the Rockets, the Blazers managed to get a stop but failed to secure the defensive rebound, sealing the loss.
“This one had trap written all over it,” opined Kevin Calabro as the final buzzer expired.
What Happened to the Blazers Offense?
The Blazers did not shoot well tonight, but, like the defense, the offense completely fell apart down the stretch. Portland shot only 36 percent from the field in the fourth and missed all their 3-pointers, which was not nearly good enough given the Celtics’ hot shooting.
For three quarters the ball had moved freely; Damian Lillard handed out 8 assists, and CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu registered some gorgeous passes of their own. Following the trend that has seen the Blazers average 23.2 assists over the last five games, they were darn close to over passing at times. Stottsfense at its finest.
But in the final 12 minutes that all went away as the intensity and execution waned. Some of this can be blamed on the sloppy defense — through three quarters the Blazers had 13 fast break points, largely on the back of defensive hustle leading to runouts. The Blazers only registered two more assists as overdribbling against a set defense and stagnant offense became de rigeur.
Fifteen dribbles in 12 seconds with no screens or passes against a disciplined Celtics defense isn’t going to get the job done. That bucket from CJ, who scored 11 in the fourth on his way to 26 for the game, may have looked pretty but ultimately it was just part of the trap.
Player of the Game
Lillard and McCollum both scored 26 tonight, but the game ball goes to Aminu. Chief finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals. He was a major factor on both ends of the court — his quick hands on defense repeatedly disrupted the Celtics all over the court (for 36 minutes, at least).
Offensively, he made the right decision on nearly every play, shooting when open, passing when covered, and driving when a lane presented itself, all while committing only one turnover. Spencer Lund and Zach Lowe both wrote about Aminu’s unlikely emergence as a two-way player this week, and his newfound confidence was on full display tonight.
This one hurts. The Spurs, Thunder, Timberwolves, and Nuggets all won tonight, narrowing Portland’s lead on the 3-seed in the Western Conference to a single game. The Blazers play their next two against the Pelicans and Thunder, who are directly below them in the standings.
With seven of their remaining 10 games on the road, having an extra cushion in the loss column would have been nice heading toward April, to say the least. It’s not time to panic yet, but if Dame and company want to hang on to homecourt advantage they’ll need to prove immediately that lazily grabbing for the cheese on the mousetrap against the Celtics was an aberration.