Damian Lillard scored a career-high, franchise-high, opponent-high 60 points against the Brooklyn Nets tonight. Those highs would be the only ones the Blazers experienced. Mounting injuries, bad defense, and poor shooting would doom Portland to a 119-115 loss, their fourth straight, taking their season record to 3-6.
Here’s how it unfolded.
Mario Hezonja started this game in place of Anthony Tolliver, a surprise to nobody who has seen Tolliver play of late. Hezonja committed a turnover on Portland’s first play, then Damian Lillard took over, scoring the next five. The teams traded buckets throughout the quarter, prospering in the absence of defense. The power forward issue did not resolve. Hezonja was largely ineffective. Skal Labissiere picked up three fouls in the quarter. Lacking containment and consistent scoring, the Blazers trailed 20-26 after one.
The defense did not improve as the second quarter began. Portland’s bench was physically present, but spiritually ineffective, on “D”. Anfernee Simons treated the home crowd to dazzlingly quick moves on offense. The guards had to carry Portland’s scoring load through most of the period, as the bigs were clueless or worse. Simons and Lillard took turns racking up the nets (lower- and upper-case). A barrage of threes near the end of the half gave Lillard 26 points at intermission, but Portland gave away as good as they took. They still trailed at the half, 49-54.
Lillard spent the first part of the third quarter proving that he’s had just about enough of losing. His scoring game was Yoda-with-a-lightsaber strong. He busted out all the moves despite a concerted Brooklyn effort to keep the ball out of his hands. Even better, The Blazers kept Kyrie Irving under control for much of the period. The same could not be said for Spencer Dinwiddie. He peppered the Blazers with three-pointers of his own, then took to the lane for more. With Lillard scoring heavily, the Blazers should have been up by double-digits, but their defense never kept up. Lillard had an amazing 44 points by the end of the third. When Irving finally came on late, he lifted the Nets to an 89-86 lead.
The lid came off of everything to start the fourth. Newly-inserted Nassir Little had a stirring dunk; Simons hit yet another three. But Portland could not stop Brooklyn’s guards to save their lives. Lillard uncorked again, becoming a Fountain of Infinite Points. He finally got support from the frontline, as Hassan Whiteside turned up the defense a notch, blocking and altering shots. For about two minutes, this game looked rosy.
Just as Whiteside showed up, Lillard began slowing down. His jumpers started falling short, as if his legs were spent...no surprise, given the amount of driving and jumping he had done earlier in the game. Joe Harris had no such difficulty, canning a pair of threes. Little provided nice energy all through the period, but the Nets went straight at the rookie as the game closed, drawing fouls and buckets. Without Lillard, Portland’s scoring dried up.
When Irving hit a three with 1:41 remaining, the Nets led by double-digits, 115-105. Then Lillard let out his last might “Yawp”, hitting buckets and foul shots to pull the Blazers back within three, 115-112, with 40.4 seconds left. Portland needed one stop. Simons could not provide it. Irving eschewed the two-for-one opportunity, dribbling the shot clock to its dregs before driving on Simons and putting in a short bank. Lillard’s ensuing three missed. He’d hit a final shot at the buzzer to cap his night at a career-high 60, but by then it was academic. The Blazers fell, 119-115.
Analysis and Observations
Portland suffered two more injuries tonight, as Rodney Hood left the game in the first half with back spasms, Skal Labissiere in the second half with a sprained ankle.
Portland’s defends like the screenwriters of Lost. Their initial thrust is good and they can usually follow it up with a second rotation. What happens after that, when they need another rotation or a rebound? Nobody seems to know.
The Nets stepped up with two high-powered guards tonight. Spencer Dinwiddie scored 34 on 11-18 shooting, Kyrie Irving 33 on 12-27. The Trail Blazers stepped up with Lillard’s 60-points on 19-33 from the floor, but once again CJ McCollum was largely absent. He shot 4-19 from the field, 0-2 from distance, for 8 points.
For perspective, Lillard scored 60 while his teammates combined for 55. He shot 57.5% from the field, the rest of the Blazers 32.8%.
Hassan Whiteside reprised his “4 minutes of hell, 30 minutes of ‘What the hell?’” performance from L.A. last night.
This was a night for the young players. Nassir Little impressed with drives and active hands on defense, scoring 8 points with a steal and a block in 19 minutes. Simons scored 15 but only shot 5-14. Gary Trent Jr. played 13 minutes. All of them showed energy. Along with injuries, that’s the main reason they were in. That’s a hopeful sign, but it’s also a referendum on the veterans, who don’t seem to be able to get their sneakers out of molasses.
At the end of the night, no matter how much promise the young players showed, no matter how historic of a barrage Lillard unleashed, the Blazers still lost. This is not good news. Instead of putting together a complete game, Portland is playing rock-paper-scissors with energy, experience, and scoring ability. No matter which of the three they’re throwing, the opponent has a counter. Portland’s defense just isn’t good enough to make the other team’s edge anything less than decisive.
The Blazers have to worry about getting healthy. They can’t stare down the season without Rodney Hood, Skal Labissiere, Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic, and Pau Gasol. It’s going to get gruesome. But health alone won’t cure them. They have to look each other in the eyes, committing to fewer lapses and more sustained effort. Depleted roster aside, Portland isn’t losing games because they’re bad. They’re losing games because they aren’t good for long enough. As tonight’s contest showed, there’s not enough Damian Lillard in the world to make up for that if it continues.
The Blazers welcome the Atlanta Hawks to the Moda Center on Sunday afternoon.