The Portland Trail Blazers returned home on Friday night to meet the Indiana Pacers. Like Portland, the Pacers have struggled through the first part of their season. They’ve had trouble defending and haven’t put together enough offensive consistency to overcome the deficit. Missing Malcolm Brogdon and TJ Warren didn’t help their cause. But the Blazers just spent the entirety of a three-game road trip losing to injured opponents. They needed this win badly.
Fortunately, they got it. Down late in the fourth period, they pressed an advantage in scoring and turnovers to squeeze out the 110-106 victory. Here’s a rundown of the things that went right, a couple that went wrong too, and what they might mean.
Santa Claus Lane
You could tell the Pacers weren’t interested in defending much tonight when CJ McCollum went right to the rim two minutes into the game and jammed the ball home with both hands. They doubled down on disinterest when Norman Powell drove straight down the lane less than a minute later for a monstrous dunk. If the Blazers had been at all committed to screening and driving tonight, they might have scored 200.
Unfortunately, Portland settled into a distance-shooting contest with the (s)Pacers instead, following the same frustrating pattern they displayed on the recent road trip: playing free and easy at whatever level their opponent cared to.
Nor was Portland’s lane defense much better than Indiana’s. Center Myles Turner attempted 7 of his 10 shots beyond the arc. He wasn’t inside much. Domantas Sabonis tried only 8 shots in the lane, scoring 15 points. Yet the Pacers still managed 52 in the paint.
Had the Pacers not blown wide-open layups in the fourth quarter, the result of this game might have been different. It was that close, on a night that was going that easily.
Recognition of advantages is not yet a Portland strong point. Or maybe it’s the persistence to take advantage of them? Either way, like the Lonely Island to the Hot Dog Man, the Blazers took the easy win the Pacers offered and threw it on the ground.
The Blazers had 27 assists on 40 made buckets tonight. That’s a healthy total, especially compared to last season. But they spent many of the middle minutes of the game in stall mode, not using screens or moving the ball. Off of those possessions they got weird, isolated attempts that were, for the most part, unsuccessful.
Portland did well at the very outset of the game, then again when they got threatened, down double-digits late. As we’ll talk about in a second, Robert Covington ended up being their mainstay, in some ways their hero. The only way in which that happens is if they’re setting him up with good ball movement. At least they managed it when it counted.
The heavens opened up and shined a victory on Portland when they remembered to take advantage of the Pacers’ permissive defense by shifting their focus inside-out and side-to-side. It’s a good lesson to carry onward to ensuing contests.
The first rule of survival in the business world, and mostly anywhere, is “CYA”. If you’re not sure what that means, well, “C” means “cover” and “Y” means “your”. We’ll leave the “A” to your imagination.
Suffice it to say that the Blazers had their “A” hanging in the wind with 4:48 remaining in the fourth, down 9 to a suddenly-charging opponent. CJ McCollum worked some of his usual magic, hitting a step-back three and threatening on several other possessions. But Robert Covington was Portland’s CYA comeback hero, providing backbone to their rally with three made three-pointers.
Indiana didn’t have to worry too much about a suddenly-silent Damian Lillard. There’s no way McCollum could have engineered the game-saving rally all by himself. When the Pacers moved to stop CJ, RoCo came through big. He finished the night with 19 points on 7-12 shooting, 5-10 from the arc. Nobody could have asked for more.
The Blazers did fairly well cleaning the glass in the first half, but flagged in the second. Their rebounding success pretty much paralleled their progress. Board work is becoming a prime ingredient in Portland’s attack. For the first time in years we’re able to say, “Watch how energized they are when the ball comes off the rim.” That’s probably going to tell you at a glance how they’re doing.
Jusuf Nurkic led the team with 9 boards tonight, but five players had five or more.
Speaking of Nurkic... this wasn’t his best effort of the season, but his energy seemed to spring back into first-week form tonight. He was active on the glass, set screens, and dove to the bucket to receive passes and convert layups. His head was on a swivel. He made appropriate and decisive dishes to teammates. He also got around on the defensive end, though his efforts deep in the paint were a little anemic.
Involving Nurkic is one of the main ways the Blazers can overcome the struggles that Damian Lillard is experiencing right now. Even if all the other guards score—and they did—that’s not going to result in a win unless the ball moves in and out and Nurkic is engaged in the game.
The guard trio of McCollum, Norman Powell, and Anfernee Simons once again provided most of Portland’s scoring tonight. McCollum had 27, Powell 25, and Simons 16 points in 21 minutes. Indiana’s defense wasn’t up to the task of stopping them.
There’s an asterisk here, though.
One of the temptations of game designers is to throw all kinds of options at potential players. “I made this role-playing game with 250 classes, 32 stats, and 6,000 monsters!” OK, that’s great, but how many of those options actually make a definitive impact?
The Blazers have a similar situation on their hands. Lillard is slumping, but the other three guards are doing as well as can be imagined. They’re great options! Yet the Blazers got stuck eking out a win against an undermanned, and incredibly disjointed, Pacers squad.
It feels like Portland has 3-4 different flavors of magic users in the party, all flinging fireballs, but they don’t have enough tanks, healers, diversity of spells, or the strategy to take advantage of same. When they run up against an opponent able to resist the Blue Wizard, Teal Wizard, and Aquamarine Wizard, they don’t have a lot of backup plans to compensate.
Coach Chauncey Billups once again went with a guard-heavy lineup in the fourth period. This time he put Larry Nance, Jr. and Nassir Little in the fray instead of running with Nurkic and four guards. He still had to pull the experiment pretty quickly. The Blazers saved the game when he went back to the regular starting five. Credit to him for doing so, but it does raise the question: If you can’t really play all these guards, what are they doing here? Or...if they’re all scoring lights out but that’s not producing clear wins, what’s the point of the points?
One piece of age-old advice from cross country coaches goes like this. “Don’t get so excited at the start of the race that you set a pace you can’t keep up for the whole distance.”
Coach Billups commented before this game that he wanted the Blazers to stop counter-punching and become the early aggressors. They did, and appropriately so.
Where’d it go, though? Over the first nine minutes of the game, the Blazers had the energy, the scoring, and an opponent that seemed all but ready to check out mentally. It all just dribbled away. They looked less like Haile Gebrselassie than an ice cream cone melting in the sun.
Portland’s next challenge, should they choose to accept it, will be to start off strong, then keep playing hard for all 48 minutes, not sinking to the comfort level of the opponent but exceeding them. Whatever instinct that is, the Blazers just don’t have it yet.
The win was sweet, returning home after three straight losses, but this was less Willy Wonka Golden Ticket than the Brach’s Candy bin at the back of your local grocery. It looks good enough, but once you dig into it, it’s not the best quality, you know?
This game wasn’t the answer to Portland’s issues. They just happened to hit an opponent who couldn’t exploit those issues for long enough to win, but they almost did anyway.
The victory was a necessary step in the turn-around, but the Blazers have to follow up with even better efforts in order to prove anything.
Lillard Hard Time
Folks, Damian Lillard is in trouble. It’s not just his 2-13, 0-6 performance, resulting in a career-low 4 points. During the last couple minutes of the game, he missed a layup, got burned badly by not-known-powerhouse TJ McConnell (who fortunately missed the ensuing layup himself), and completely demurred during the critical, game-deciding possession, staying high on the weak side of the floor and all but advertising not to pass it to him. Earlier in the game he’d gotten rim-checked on a fairly clear dunk attempt. The McConnell debacle isn’t the first time he got taken on the defensive end either.
It’s clear that the “O” on Dame’s uniform should now have an “Uh” sewn in front of it. Stay tuned. Whatever correction is needed, it’s starting to look like it may involve more than just helpful visualization.
The Blazers have a quick turn-around, welcoming the Los Angeles Lakers to Moda Center tomorrow at 7:30 PM, Pacific.