After a slow start, it appeared the Los Angeles Clippers would once again get the upper hand on the Portland Trail Blazers tonight. But thanks to a resurgent defensive effort and some timely buckets from Damian Lillard and friends, the Blazers awoke from their slumber to snag a 111-92 victory.
This marks the first time the Blazers are above .500, earning three victories over Western Conference Playoff teams from a year ago, with impressive margins — 29, 20, and 19 — to show for it. Lillard led the way with 25, but ten players had at least five. Here’s a quarter-for-quarter look at tonight’s game.
Three minutes in, this game looked like it could be one of those nights for Jusuf Nurkic. It was clear that the goal early on was to deliver the ball to the Bosnian big, and he certainly had priority shipping in that regard. He opened as Portland’s offensive hub, leading the game in touches, rebounds, blocks, and unfortunately, turnovers.
The Clippers entered this game among the NBA’s worst in 3-pointers on wide-open shots — defined as having 6-feet or more in space — but after tonight, it seemed that for a while, that was subject to change. Paul George was likely well aware of his 10-game winning streak against Portland. He played a key role, hitting dozens of 3-pointers in the warm-ups, and then three in the first quarter … not that you could’ve told a difference based on how open he was in both situations. Portland again fell victim to overhelping, or not fully committing to a proper closeout.
But, credit Portland’s resilience. They again received strong minutes from the reserves, and cut an 11-point deficit down to an actual lead, anchored by a five-man group of Damian Lillard, Larry Nance, Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Cody Zeller, and took a 25-24 lead after one.
As evidenced by their rollercoaster point differential four games in, when the Blazers’ defense is off, it’s generally historically off. But when everything is synchronized, rotations sharpen, and they’re forcing multiple misses, it’s a beautiful thing. They coaxed together arguably their best defensive stretch of the season to kickstart the second quarter, holding L.A. to an 0-of-7 start and a turnover, not allowing a score until 7:38 in. It was quite comedic that Billups called a frustration timeout after the Blazers’ eighth consecutive defensive stop. The message that sends could be potentially great, though.
That second-quarter run also coincided with an excellent stretch of two-way play from Norman Powell. Pick a sequence: he attacked the rim, hit an above-the-break 3-pointer in rhythm, hit Robert Covington on a pindown, and made this incredible defensive effort on a weak side rotation to contest Ivica Zubac.
He’s likely made a few transactions with that newly-signed $90 million contract, but the way his production buys time for Lillard and McCollum to rest for a possession or three will always be one of his greatest purchases. Save for a few missed bunnies at the rim, it was a refreshingly special effort from the Blazers overall, and that granted them a 48-40 halftime lead.
We spent much of the second quarter’s recap discussing Norman Powell’s defensive awareness and big-play ability, so, to share the love, let’s open by discussing Powell and Covington. Each had noticeable defensive efforts both on-ball and off-ball, getting into passing lanes and making offensive life tough for George. Given what we know about the Clippers — historically one of the NBA’s better post-halftime teams in the Tyronn Lue era — responding with a punch right away was paramount.
That defensive energy allowed the Blazers’ offense to continue thawing. To this point, they struggled to hit three of every 10 shots, yet, before you knew it, Portland had opened up a 20-point lead. And before you knew that, L.A. cut the lead right back down to five, matching the Blazers’ Playoff-like defensive intensity. George found a running mate in Luke Kennard (10 third-quarter points), though Portland got timely buckets from McCollum and Little to help play keep away, leading 76-67 going into the fourth.
Portland opened the fourth with that noticeably-productive Zeller-Nance Jr. frontline with Little, Simons, and one of their star guards alongside them. The Blazers seemed at first unable to put a dagger to the Clippers’ chances, merely keeping them a few possessions away. But their crunch-time scoring was about as balanced as a crossword puzzle; everyone from Simons to Nurkic to Lillard — of course — took turns twisting the dagger into the Clippers.
That allowed them to counteract George’s masterful, efficient one-man show on offense. For 42-ish minutes, he proved to be the most productive player on this night at the Moda Center. But in the final six, Damian Lillard became Damian Landlord, and unfortunately for the Clippers, rent was to be collected. Through his shooting, Portland’s lead again ballooned to as high as 16, rendering Los Angeles out of time.
Fun Facts and Notes
— One week after passing Elton Brand for No. 100 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, Lillard jumped ahead of No. 99, Rudy Gay. Lillard now has 16,911 points. Next up? Bob Cousy.
— One more Norm nod; the Blazers were a +27 in 24 minutes under Powell. That’s not a bad impact considering Billups’ promise to be “careful” about his minutes. Production on both ends.
Stay tuned for the extended analysis coming soon.
Portland preps for a Sunday afternoon matchup against the Charlotte Hornets at 4:00 pm PT.