The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Los Angeles Clippers 117-109 tonight. It wasn’t the typical Portland loss, though. Those have come in two stripes: get blown out or get outworked. The Blazers did neither in a nip-and-tuck affair. Damian Lillard, Norman Powell, and Jusuf Nurkic all had big moments. Portland hustled on defense, patrolling the glass and the lane. Even with all that going for them, they looked like an 80%-complete squad. That’s about how much of the court they ended up covering on any given possession as well. Those open cracks allowed Paul George, Nicolas Batum, and friends to wriggle through to victory despite not playing their best game of the season either.
If you missed the action, our Instant Recap will give you a quarter-by-quarter look at the game. Below are some other significant developments—or lack thereof—which contributed to the outcome.
Norman Powell Has a Half
The Blazers had trouble with Paul George in both of their previous matchups with the Clippers this season. That’s not surprising; he’s playing like an early NBA MVP candidate. They tried to solve the problem tonight in a couple ways.
- They let George shoot over the top as long as they took away his driving lanes.
- After Robert Covington was unable to make that happen, the Blazers switched the smaller, quicker Norman Powell onto George.
Powell spent the first half reveling in the assignment, shining like a superstar. He got under George’s dribbles, cut off his lanes, and made him shoot. George did fine; he scored 14 before halftime. But Powell scored 16 in return, darting past and shooting over the taller, slower Clippers. At halftime, George had 3 fouls and the Blazers were within one on the scoreboard.
Powell’s scoring dried up in the second half. He finished the game with 23. But George spent most of the game in foul peril and even though he scored 24, he took 24 shots to get there. Credit Norm for helping to make that happen.
This was one of Powell’s best games in a Portland uniform. He showcased his two-way threat potential and it was good.
Dame Goes Strong in the Fourth
With 9:01 left in the game, the Blazers trailed 91-82, heading into a timeout. Damian Lillard came out of that break fully intent on taking over the game and leading his team to a win. He hit back-to-back mid-range jumpers, soon followed by a three-pointer and a layup. For about three minutes, Blazers fans got to see Classic Dame. Then a shot to the ribs appeared to take him out of it, returning him to more mortal form.
Sadly, this stretch also featured the Clippers scoring more buckets in succession than they did at any other point in the quarter. Portland’s defense couldn’t live up to their captain’s charge. It ended up going for naught.
We do know that Dame is in there somewhere, though...at least in microbursts. That’s something. Lillard finished with 27 points on 11-23 shooting with 6 assists and 5 rebounds. This is far more of a traditional Lillard line than the 19 and 10 assists we’ve been seeing so far this season.
Despite that, Lillard only shot 4-13 from distance. It’s a work in progress.
McCollum the Facilitator?
It’s pretty clear now that the Blazers view CJ McCollum as the primary facilitator with the second unit, at least in the opening shifts of the game. Anfernee Simons is there, but the ball is going to CJ first.
He’s not doing poorly, either. He’s a scoring threat first and foremost. With Lillard off the floor, McCollum is a defense magnet. When he’s single-covered, he can still score easily. But when the Clippers sent two against him tonight, he made good passes. He only notched 3 assists. His passes weren’t leading to scores directly. But his ability to draw defenders did open up good looks for his teammates.
The hitch came in the second half when both played together. With the game in the balance, the scoring came from one or the other (mostly Lillard), never both.
I don’t know how to describe Portland’s rebounding escalation this season other than noting that they’ve got something special going. It’s not there all the time, but when you see it, you know it.
Jusuf Nurkic stands at the center of the attack. He’s often rebounding against 2-3 opponents. It seems like half the time, he gets the ball anyway.
Nurkic had 13 boards in 27 minutes tonight. That augmented a 15-point, 6-assist evening in which he shot 6-9 from the field. The Blazers may have over-fed Nurkic slightly in the second half, but it’s hard to argue with anything he gets after helping them to success on the glass.
The Clippers needed help with George in foul trouble most of the night. They got it from Nicolas Batum, who knows how to hit an open shot when he gets it. Batum made 6 of 8 three-pointers, 5 in the critical second half, en route to 22 points on 7-9 shooting. The Blazers are supposed to be deep, but tonight L.A.’s third option on offense was just as good as Portland’s second.
On the surface, the Blazers appeared to have a decent night shooting from distance at 14-37, 37.8%. Powell hitting 5-6 boosted their number. It also disguised that nobody else was making the three consistently, despite having fairly open attempts. The usually sure-fire Robert Covington shot 1-6. McCollum was 0-2 and we’ve already mentioned Lillard’s 4-13. This isn’t necessarily an issue per se. (See also: they shot 37.8% from distance.) But this year’s Blazers weren’t supposed to live and die by the three. To this point, they kind of are. They belong taking three-point shots. They just really need to hit them if their defense is going to be so bad.
No “D” in Trail Blazers
And yeah, despite some awesome individual efforts during various stretches of the game, Portland’s defense was pretty bad in aggregate once again. The Clippers shot 51.8% from the field, 53.3% from the arc, and ended up +7 in free throw attempts. At least the Blazers held them to 44 points in the paint, which isn’t a huge number. That was probably the plan. But as we’ve said before, you have to guard the rim AND the arc, not OR the arc.
Nassir Little At Work
Playing in relatively small doses, Nassir Little continues to impress. His individual defensive stands are as good as anybody on the team. That includes Portland’s higher-profile veterans. Little combines athleticism, willingness, and that naive, young-player conviction that he can do anything. That led to a couple of blocks tonight. It’s going to lead to even better things as he matures. Watch him. Like him. He’s doing what he needs to be doing right now.
This loss drops the Blazers to 0-5 away from Moda Center this season. At this rate, they’ll need a Gatorade bucket to dump after their first road victory.
The Blazers make a trip to Phoenix to face the Suns tomorrow at 6:00 PM, Pacific.