If revenge is a dish best served cold, the Moda Center air conditioning must have been set on “Antarctic” tonight, as Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers sliced apart Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers 111-92. The victory made up, at least in part, for a 30-point squashing the Blazers took in L.A. earlier in the week.
If you missed the festivities, you can find a quarter-by-quarter recap of the game from Marlow Ferguson right here. After you’re done with that, here’s your in-depth analysis.
The Blazers defended incredibly well inside for most of the evening. They converted L.A.’s penetration passes into turnovers. They swarmed the ball whenever the Clips got inside, but still managed to recover cross-lane to prevent the short dish-and-dunk or offensive rebound. This was as coordinated and energetic of an effort as we’ve seen. Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe, who normally scores 92,000 points inside the arc, was a serious casualty. He attempted only 6 shots, hitting 1, committing 3 turnovers. Take a pair of nunchucks, remove one of the handles, then replace it with a Christmas wrapping tube. You’ll get the idea of the effect on the Clippers’ attack.
Three and Easy
The Clippers countered Portland’s inside defense by going deep. They found extreme success at the three-point arc early, but eventually cooled down. Portland did make a credible effort at closing out. At least they never gave up. They still need to solve the problem of having to choose between good defense in the paint and good defense on the perimeter, but right now they’ll probably settle for good defense somewhere, at least. They had it tonight.
Fourth-quarter panic shots took L.A.’s three-point percentage down to 35.7% for the game, but they started by making 7 threes in the first period alone. For a while there, it looked scary.
One place the Blazers simply could not defend was wherever Paul George happened to be standing. His combination of height and talent was simply too much for them. Diving inside or shooting over Portland’s collective heads, George looked completely comfortable all night. The Blazers are hardly the only team he does that to, but the frequency with which he’s able to punish Portland mismatches is pretty stunning.
George scored 42 on 15-24 shooting, with 6-9 shooting from distance. Ouch.
When in Doubt, Run!
Portland’s second unit may be finding their way still, but they’ve figured out a sure method to bridge the gap while they’re figuring it out: run like heck. As soon as Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Cody Zeller check in, the Blazers get super active in the passing lanes and look to convert every opportunity in transition. In most circumstances, particularly during the regular season, playing fast equates to playing well. It’s good cover for whatever ails them. It’s also fantastic to see young players bursting with energy.
Three-er and Easier
Even with all that, Portland’s success still depends on the three-pointer. They’re showing that repeatedly in the early season. Their new emphases appear to be keeping them roughly even with opponents. They only dash ahead when the long ball is falling.
Tonight Portland shot 19-41, 46.3%, from the arc. Many of those were assisted. The ones that weren’t came from Damian Lillard packing away the win in the fourth when the Clippers threatened. It was a good night all around for Portland shooters.
If the threes were the frosting completing the cake, screen and roll plays were the batter. If one wouldn’t do, the Blazers tried two. If they needed more, they threw three or four. Either way, Jusuf Nurkic was a dependable pick-setter and had impeccable timing on dives to the bucket. The Clippers’ defense concentrated on stopping Portland’s guards and suddenly...boom. The ball appeared in Nurkic’s hands, behind their frontline defense. Screen-roll has replaced iso guard moves as Portland’s go-to set. Tonight, it worked well.
Portland’s bench accounted for only 37 of their 111 points tonight, but two players deserve special mention for kick-starting the second unit with their aggression: Nassir Little and Cody Zeller.
Ever since Little got his dunking game going, he’s looked for trips to the hoop the same way Mick Foley looked for opportunities to take a chair shot: constantly, begging credulity sometimes. Little’s eyes are on fire right now on both ends of the court. If the Blazers didn’t want to run, he would all but force them to with his eagerness. Ironically, he didn’t actually get to jam tonight, but he pressed hard, hit a pair of threes, grabbed 8 rebounds in 24 minutes, and looked like he meant business.
Zeller can’t match Little’s showmanship, but he gave the Clippers a ride on the Zellerama tonight, anchoring Portland’s lane defense with the second unit, keeping busy hands, grabbing rebounds, and generally making such a nuisance of himself that the L.A. centers couldn’t make any headway even when Nurkic was out of the game. Ivaca Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein combined for 7 points on 3-8 shooting in this game. Zeller scored 8 on 3-7. Watching him fling two badly-missed threes was an experience, but everything else about his game was solid.
CJ McCollum started out the first and third quarters smoothly, looking like the guy who has put NBA defenses into spin cycle this season, ready to lead Portland’s attack. His second and fourth quarters featured no made shots, though. He ended up 6-18 for 14 points with 3 turnovers.
But who should ride to the rescue, emerging from the shadows of anonymity to boost his team to victory? I’m not sure if you’ve heard his name, but it was...Damian Lillard. Busting a season-long slump from long range, Lillard hit 5 of 7 threes tonight, leading the Blazers with 25 big points. He hit 4 of 5 shots in the fourth, including 2 triples, to secure the win despite L.A.’s best attempts to rally. Just as crucially, Lillard played the pick-and-roll game with Nurkic persistently, though not flawlessly. 6 assists and 6 turnovers aren’t Lillard’s flashiest stats of the season, but the Blazers were WAY better off with him scoring in the midst of a little chaos than they were with him muted with everything else seemingly in order.
Anfernee Simons was not so productive. His shots looked rushed, often coming in spite of the offense instead of through it. He did have 4 assists though. Plus his defense was decent.
Norman Powell returned to the starting lineup, hitting 4 of 6 from the arc on his way to 12 points. His knee looked ok, at least on TV.
12 Blazers played and 12 Blazers scored in this game.
The Blazers now head to the East Coast, facing the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday in a game that starts at 4:00, Pacific.