The Trail Blazers fell to the Clippers 122-117 in agonizing fashion to open Saturday’s slate of games. This was a tale of two games in both style and outcome. The first half featured the Blazers out in front inside a matchup that was pure offense. The second half turned into a grind that helped facilitate a gutsy comeback from a Clippers squad that played the majority of the fourth quarter without Paul George and Kawhi Leonard (Leonard was out for the entire game). The true disappointment for the Blazers came in the final four minutes—a stretch where they converted just a single field goal. In the end, a costly trip to the free throw line for Damian Lillard paved the way for a Clippers victory.
The Blazers faced a familiar defensive setup early in the first quarter. The Clippers’ drop-heavy setup, led by Ivica Zubac, opened the midrange for Portland’s shooters. Led by alternating looks from Carmelo Anthony and Lillard, the Blazers pushed the lead to double digits before Los Angeles changed course.
Once Zubac headed to the bench, the Clippers relied on a blitz-centric style on the defensive end and spaced the floor effectively on offense. JaMychal Green, who subbed in for Zubac, poured in eight points in just six minutes. Lou Williams added 12 points of his own off the bench—a scoring line that cut Portland’s lead to a single possession. Despite a late-quarter run, Lillard’s double-digit opening frame allowed the Blazers to escape with a 37-34 advantage.
Much like the Clippers’ rally in the first quarter, the Blazers’ second unit overflowed with energy once they hit the floor. Wenyen Gabriel, seeing his first significant minutes since the scrimmage schedule, was all over the place on both ends of the court. The former Kentucky big man smothered ball handlers off screens on defense and fought through traffic to get to loose balls. Gary Trent Jr. provided a similar boost with added three-point shooting. Trent is proving that he is the safety valve that the Blazers have always coveted. Defensively, the second-year guard did an excellent job getting under George’s skin, prompting a prolonged verbal back and forth.
Led by Trent’s 12 points in the frame, the Blazers pushed their lead to nine points through the fist six minutes of the second quarter. The Clippers once again turned to their competent reserves and rebounding prowess to stay within striking distance. The Blazers headed to the locker room with a 75-69 lead.
The free-flowing style of the first half tightened in the third quarter for both teams. The Blazers, who connected on 11 three-pointers in the first half, would produce just two conversions from that distance in the third quarter. The Clippers forced the change by leaning on their small-ball lineup once again. Portland countered with a game plan that focused on exploiting individual matchups. Lillard, McCollum and Melo all went to work inside the arc and combined for 16 of the Blazers’ 21 points in the third quarter. Fueled by the shift in pace, the Clippers clawed within a single point of the Blazers as the third frame closed.
With the points-centric first half firmly in the rearview mirror, both the Clippers and Blazers slogged for points via disjointed possessions. McCollum managed to keep his scoring output going by getting to his spots early in possessions and rotating to open lanes when Los Angeles pressured Lillard with multiple defenders. Unlike McCollum, Lillard and Melo were unable to replicate their success from the third quarter. Lillard and Melo combined for just two points in the final frame, which applied extra pressure to McCollum and Nurkic on offense.
Back-to-back three-pointers at just under the five-minute mark from McCollum appeared to put Portland in the driver’s seat down the stretch. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they would convert just one more field goal following that flurry from McCollum. Despite their lack of scoring, coach Terry Stotts’ squad was in position to reclaim the lead from the Clippers with 18.6 seconds remaining. Trailing by a single point, Lillard expertly maneuvered down the lane to earn a trip to the free throw line. Lillard, who is shooting 88.6 percent from the charity stripe this season, missed both his attempts. Behind in the free throw game, the Blazers failed to make up ground in the final moments, leading to a disastrous 122-117 loss to the Clippers.
The Blazers’ potent offense was firing on all cylinders in the first half before the Clippers committed to a modern, switch-friendly defense. When the pressure was turned up, the Blazers were unable to win the individual matchups that they normally have success with.
Lillard was absolutely suffocated by a blitzing defense, Melo went cold from the midrange and Nurkic couldn’t get his post game rolling against smaller opponents. Those are justifiable hurdles that can trip up any contending team. The toughest part of Saturday’s loss is how the final four minutes played out. George played just two minutes in the fourth quarter. Kawhi Leonard did not play in this matchup. The true sting of this loss lies in trio of events that happened in quick succession in the final minute: Rodney McGruder buried a three-pointer to give the Clippers the lead, Lillard missed both of his free throw attempts and Nurkic fouled out.
Needless to say, this is not an ideal way to start a weekend.
Big Fella Hand Offs
One of the bright spots of today’s performance was how McCollum and Nurkic played off each other in halfcourt sets. Typically, the Bosnian Beast does his best work with Lillard in two-man actions. Against the Clippers, Nurkic effortless created space for McCollum’s offense when using precise passing and hand offs. By the time McCollum’s man weaved around Nurkic, the ball was already in the bottom of the net. Outside of McCollum’s shooting, Nurkic’s lone three-pointer was generated by a gorgeous two-man action in a similar set.
Nurkic’s scoring was not in top form, but he made up for it in other areas. He finished Saturday’s game with 10 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
The Blazers face the Sixers on Sunday.