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Trail Blazers Down Mavericks in Nail-Biter, Move Into 8th

Portland edges Dallas behind 61 points from Damian Lillard.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131 in a shootout in Orlando today. I think after this game it should be legally required to have an AED on hand in your home for every Blazers game. Damian Lillard dominated once again, scoring 61 points and pouring in nine threes. Carmelo Anthony also played extremely well, scoring 26 points — including some big shots down the stretch — and grabbing eight rebounds.

Kristaps Porzingis led all Dallas players in scoring, with 36 points and a pair of blocks. Luka Doncic almost notched another triple double with 25 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

First Quarter

The Blazers found out early on just how difficult it can be to take on the best offense in NBA history (statistically). Doncic did what he does best, toying with defenders to either get a tough step-back three or an open shot for a teammate. Porzingis was hot to start as well, taking advantage of the second unit (especially Hassan Whiteside, though he had an overall successful return) and scoring 16 points in the quarter. But the Blazers didn’t let that deter them. Lillard remained hot and broke double digits in the quarter while Zach Collins did an excellent job getting into good post position early and often to earn a quick nine points. Pair that with some key defensive stops (from Carmelo Anthony) to end the half and you have the recipe for a strong first quarter. Portland led 38-31 after one.

Second Quarter

Gary Trent Jr. continued to put on display how he brings a different dimension to the club. The impressive second-year wing infused energy into both ends of the floor, especially on defense. Melo also put in work on both ends, forcing some Dallas turnovers and relentlessly posting up against the smaller, weaker Mavericks defenders . It’s not always the most efficient shot, but Anthony showed it can work depending on the match-up (Sorry Justin Jackson). Lillard sat the beginning of the quarter nursing an apparent finger injury only to come in and absolutely dominate. He attacked Porzingis relentlessly inside while also indulging in the occasional three out of the pick and roll. The two-man game with Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic was an unstoppable force in this quarter, and it led to a 66-58 lead at halftime.

Third Quarter

Head Coach Terry Stotts decided to start Trent in place of Collins in the second half, and Trent showed why, playing stellar defense then lasering it up ahead to Lillard early and often for easy buckets. The best offense is early offense, and Lillard hitting three quick shots from outside showed exactly why. But it wouldn’t be a Blazer game if Portland didn’t give the folks watching at home something to sweat over. Dallas started hitting more threes, with Porzingis torching the Blazers in the pick and pop. It doesn’t matter how often you score if you can’t stop the opponent on the other end. The Mavericks hit seven threes in the quarter, but some key mid-range scores from Anthony as well as points from Lillard and Whiteside preserved Portland’s 98-95 lead at the end of the third.

Fourth Quarter

The final quarter did not start out great for Portland. Dallas went on an 11-1 run while Lillard sat on the bench. CJ McCollum — who apparently has been playing with a fractured back — struggled to score, missing shot after shot despite open looks. Things got chippy as Maxi Kleber and Anthony engaged in verbal jousting and Doncic shoved Trent with no foul called. Lillard checked back in and continued to dominate offensively, with 19 points in the fourth period alone. His ability to get to the line helped significantly, but also his tendency to hit the most ridiculous shots possible.

When the teams weren’t trading threes, they were trading shots at the line, with refs calling anything and everything on both teams.

Lillard and Anthony were the keys to victory offensively, with Lillard doing his best flamethrower imitation and Melo staying calm and collected while hitting from range. Whiteside stepped up when Nurkic fouled out. Meanwhile Trent Jr. nagged every Dallas player imaginable, keeping the team steady on the defensive end. Lillard refused to let Portland lose; instead they won, 134-131.

The Lillard-Nurkic two-man game is unstoppable when working

Believe it or not, Damian Lillard once again was absolutely dominant. He built upon his 51-point performance against Philadelphia on Sunday with a 61-point performance. He attacked the hoop constantly while also pulling up often in the pick and roll. His scoring tear has been historic, as he became the sixth player with at least 11 50-point games this season. And Jusuf Nurkic was a (physically) big reason for his repeated success today.

It helped that Dallas kept dropping their bigs and allowing Lillard to get easy shots, but the Lillard-Nurkic combo is dangerous offensively regardless. Nurkic is a great screener, which allows Lillard to either get by guys earlier and attack the rim or pull up for an open three. He can attack the rim without fear because he knows Nurkic will be there to clean it up. Or he can dump it off to Nurkic who almost inevitably will make the right play, whether that’s using his size for a bucket or making a pass to an open shooter. Nurkic fouled out which prevented him from being out there as much as Portland would like, but when he was out there he he made everything exponentially easier for Lillard.

Stay Melo

Carmelo Anthony continued his bubble resurgence with a 26-point performance against Dallas, and he did it in classic Melo fashion. He backed down smaller defenders for shots in the post and set himself up nicely for spot-up threes, especially late in the game. It was his third straight 20-point game. He stayed true to Melo and it worked.

The narrative around Anthony in the bubble has been interesting. His big plays late in games have made critics question whether they were too harsh on him, even though his statistical profile in the bubble doesn’t look too different from the regular season. Detractors will continue to point to the defensive deficiencies and analytically-unfriendly shots as reasons not to buy in, but that doesn’t matter to Melo. As the third or fourth scorer (sometimes second in the bubble) he’s been invaluable. His veteran presence shined through in this one.

A new starting lineup?

Something interesting happened at the start of the second half. Gary Trent Jr. started instead of Zach Collins. While it looked like Collins was just stretching out on the sideline, Trent remained a fixture of the second half thanks to his stellar defense on...well, pretty much everyone. He also finished the game while Stotts opted for Whiteside over Collins at center.

This isn’t an abnormal closing lineup by any means (as Nate Mann pointed out), but what’s interesting to think about is whether or not this could be a preview of a new starting lineup. Trent has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of a starting spot and Collins has struggled with over-fouling and inconsistent offensive production. Trent is a solid offensive player and Portland’s best defender, so why not start him at the 3 and slide Melo to the 4? It could be something worth exploring.

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Box Score

The Blazers now sit in 8th place in the Western Conference by virtue of a Memphis Grizzlies loss today. Portland will play their final seeding game against the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday. If they win it, they will enter this weekend’s play-in games with inside position, needing just one win to earn a spot in the 2020 NBA Playofss. Tip-off for Blazers-Nets is at 6 p.m. PT. It’ll be televised on TNT.