The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers has already met twice on the young, 2021-22 season before they faced off Tuesday night in L.A. Each of the previous games was lopsided, with the Clippers blowing out the Blazers in the first and Portland returning the favor in the second.
That story would not be repeated tonight. The teams took turns exchanging defensive stands, big dunks, and superstar performances as the scoreboard see-sawed like an accordion.
Paul George scored 24 for the game, Damian Lillard 27. Others helped too. Norman Powell scored 16 for the Blazers in the first half. Nicolas Batum hit multiple threes for L.A. in the second, scoring 22 on the night. In the end, the Clippers had one more burst in them than Portland did. Despite Lillard’s best efforts to bring his team back, L.A. won the game 117-109.
If the Blazers intended to win this game, they sure had a funny way of showing it. They watched the Clippers hit 5 of their first 6 shots, allowing L.A. to streak out to a 13-3 lead. Threes from Lillard and Norman Powell brought them close again, but those were completely necessary, else the game would have gotten away early.
Fortunately for the Blazers, the Clippers started missing like they had just donned blindfolds. As with Lane Meyer in Better Off Dead, a little bit of success made all the difference for Portland. Their energy on the defensive end picked up. They started closing on shooters. Aside from Paul George, the Clippers are are shaky in that department. Behind strong guard scoring, the scoreboard started to roll Portland’s way.
The second unit couldn’t continue the trend, however. The closing minutes of the first were like a reboot of the opening. L.A. hit all kinds of threes. Portland missed them. The Clips finished the period shooting 7-11 from the arc and led 33-26 after one.
CJ McCollum took over at the start of the second, captaining the ball and distributing when covered. His teammates weren’t hitting, but at least they made the Clippers scramble. L.A. returned as good as they got, though. Still, CJ scoring was enough to keep Portland close. When threes started to fall, it helped.
The Blazers bench saved their reputation by starting to defend everyone they possibly could, which translated to anyone not named “George”. They seemed to be content with PG13 shooting over the top from just about any range as long as he didn’t get penetration. They achieved this by putting Norman Powell on him instead of the larger, slower Robert Covington. For a bit, at least, it worked. George heated up as the half wound down, but a four-point play by Powell with 1:50 remaining not only tagged George with his third foul, but actually gave Powell two more points in the half than George (16 to 14). The Clippers led 56-55 at the half.
The Portland starters came out defending more energetically in the second half, a great sign. That kept the scoreboard close. The Blazers tried to involve Jusuf Nurkic heavily in the offense, but it stalled. Nurk was asked to do everything, everywhere and couldn’t quite pull it off. He sat just before the 7:00 mark of the period. Cody Zeller came in, missed a three-pointer off of a blown offensive set, then fouled George for a continuation and-one on a drive. The spirit was willing for Portland, but the execution was weak.
The Clips were able to build a 7-point lead, but George picked up his fourth foul with 5:53 remaining in the period. Once L.A.’s superstar went to the bench, the Blazers jumped all over them. Kinda like this:
But Nicolas Batum hit a barrage of threes in George’s absence, keeping his team afloat. Though Portland’s offense turned on, their defense just didn’t keep pace. Lillard also started missing shots, which didn’t help. When the smoke cleared, the Clippers led 83-79 after three.
The fourth period started with the L.A. bigs scoring inside. Once again, the Blazers proved themselves capable of defending somewhere, but not everywhere, sometimes, but not all the time. Their permissiveness allowed the Clippers to ride out George’s absence without giving up a lead, squandering a potential advantage for Portland. When Luke Kennard hit a three with 9:02 remaining, the Blazers fell behind by 9. It was timeout time, trying not to let the game get away.
Coming out of that timeout, Lillard determined to take over the game. He hit a couple straight mid-range jumpers. He’d hit a three a couple minutes after. They could not cover the lack of second-half scoring from McCollum and Powell, nor Portland’s bad defense. The Blazers were running up a sand dune. The legs were moving, but whether they were gaining ground was debatable.
Portland got a break with 4:17 left in the game as George picked up his fifth foul. Tyronn Lue opted to leave him in. He missed a shot on the next possession, then the Blazers worked the ball to Nurkic for three, of all things. The Blazers were within three, 103-100, with 3:30 left on the clock.
The Clippers made a layup on the next possession then, after a time out, Lillard missed a pair of threes while Batum hit another himself. L.A. led by 8 with 2:00 remaining. Robert Covington got a steal and an attempt at a break-away layup on the next possession, but he missed it and the Clippers regained possession. The Blazers hadn’t hit shots inside or out, hadn’t gone up against George to try to foul him out, and in general hadn’t found that last burst of energy to carry them through.
When George hit a turn-around jumper for an and-one with 1:22 remaining, the Clippers led by 11 and the game was pretty much over. It was a fair try, but no win, for Portland.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of this game coming soon!
The Blazers make a trip to Phoenix to face the Suns tomorrow at 6:00 PM, Pacific.