The Utah Jazz held a 2-1 advantage in NBA All-Stars as they battled the Portland Trail Blazers in the Moda Center on Saturday night. Utah sent Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert to pummel Portland’s beleaguered roster, trying to pull the high-flying Blazers back to earth. It hardly mattered when Portland’s single All-Star, Damian Lillard, might as well be named to the All-Time, All-Universe team. Mitchell and Gobert combined for 31 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists in the game. That’s not bad, except Lillard posted 51 with 12 dimes all by himself, driving his team to a 124-107 victory.
The Blazers came out with a bit of travel/emotional hangover. They looked slower and less determined than the Jazz as Utah jumped out to an 11-4 lead. The teams got chippy, which seemed to get Portland’s energy up. Portland’s offense clicked, but their defense was putrid. Carmelo Anthony got the iso game going. It was good enough to keep his team even, but they couldn’t cut down Utah’s gap. The Jazz just kept hitting. Mike Conley barely missed in the quarter, and he shot plenty. The Blazers finally managed an extended 12-0 run late, courtesy of Damian Lillard, who finished the first quarter with 10 points and 6 assists, including THREE alley-oop lobs. (That’s more oops than the Blazers usually get in a month.) Utah led 34-33 after one.
Portland’s second unit kept the pace brisk and began to move their feet on defense. They scored at the cup on the break and shut down the middle against the Jazz. The torrent of easy halfcourt scoring that typified the first period disappeared early in the second. That changed a bit when the starting units returned in force. But Utah committed the mortal sin of missing open shots as the quarter closed, allowing Portland to rattle off yet another late run, this time 15-0. Hassan Whiteside going hard against Rudy Gobert helped Portland’s efforts immeasurably. Behind better defense, the Blazers cruised to a 63-53 lead at the half.
Conley began to work the pick and roll again in the third period. The Blazers didn’t deal with it any better than they had in the first. When the threes started falling too, the Jazz seriously threatened Portland’s margin. Except Damian Lillard still existed. His combination of shooting and scoring proved deadly once more, forcing Utah to play cat-and-mouse with the lead the way Portland did in the first half. Dame keyed yet another Portland run, but this one came mid-quarter instead of late. The margin went all the way to 18 before settling back to 11, 94-83, after three.
The Blazers played bully ball in the fourth quarter, pounding it to Anthony and Whiteside, both of whom remained active and engaged. They kept the scoreboard ticking and rebounds running as Lillard rested. Then Dame came back in and it was all over. The future Hall-of-Famer was on his way to his billionth consecutive 50+ point performance, keeping the Blazers well ahead of all Utah comeback attempts.
Hassan Whiteside was a huge factor in this game. His 17 points and 21 rebounds don’t tell the whole story. He outplayed Gobert handily one-on-one, helped appropriately, and was even the first to loose balls upon occasion. A mobile, motivated Whiteside makes a huge difference for the Blazers.
Behind Whiteside, the Blazers controlled the middle tonight. They outrebounded the Jazz 51-37 and went +8 in paint points. When they’re also shooting 52% from the arc, key control makes them nearly unstoppable.
Lillard was once again the main story, and we’ll get to that in a second, but the pivotal moment in the game did not center on his scoring. Dame scored 10 points in the first period, passing for 12 more. The Blazers still trailed by one at the end of it.
The sea change came in the second quarter. It wasn’t on offense, but defense. Portland’s second unit locked down against their Utah counterparts, and the starters were able to continue the roll when they came back in. After an endless run of 30-point periods ceded to opponents who might not have deserved them, the Blazers finally held a team under 20. That gave them a significant edge for their offense to protect.
Portland coaches keep talking about defense in public interviews. The message hasn’t seemed to sink into the players, except for tonight. Portland’s “D” made the game not only winnable, but repeatable. That is huge. Yes, Lillard scored 50, but he didn’t need to in order to assure the win. This game could have been captured with a more modest, more human, total.
THE BIG DIFFERENCE
For all the glory of this recent streak, this is the first game in which that has been true. The Pacers played sub-par defense. The Rockets were godawful. The minds of the Lakers were not focused on the game. Whatever the finals scores read, you knew the Blazers were winning because they were scoring 120+, and that non-bizarro-land versions of the opponent would have given them trouble, as Portland was not really stopping anybody.
Tonight the Blazers stopped the Jazz. They out-hustled them and outplayed them. That’s been rare this season against any opponent, let alone good ones.
Outside of Lillard’s amazing production, this year has been full of forgettable, barely-significant performances in victory and defeat. This is the first game all year that’s made me truly sit up and take notice, with the Blazers not only playing like a professional team, but a playoffs team.
As if that weren’t enough...
Damian Lillard: 51 points on 17-29 shooting, 9-15 from the arc, 8-8 from the foul line, plus 12 assists. And this:
The jumbotron reads: “1st player in NBA history to score at least 6 3PT FG in 6 straight games.”
We’re trying to send kids in need to see the Blazers play the Timberwolves in person next month. As of yesterday, we still had 1000 more kids asking for tickets than we have tickets donated. Can you help with a ticket or two to honor Dame, or the kids, or just the good mood? Here’s how:
The Blazers better keep flying high, as they meet the Denver Nuggets in the Mile High City on Tuesday night at 6PM, Pacific.