The Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns put on a huge show in the Moda Center on Tuesday night, with Damian Lillard pouring in points and Chris Paul dishing assists in classic fashion. Portland showed a little of everything: distance shooting, inside scoring, even defense. They pushed the Suns into overtime despite a stellar night from Paul and Deandre Ayton. Unfortunately, they couldn’t connect on enough shots to take the game and fell 111-107.
Lillard registered 31 points and 10 assists in 47 minutes. He was brilliant early, but ended up just 11-31 from the field. Paul scored 24 on 10-19, Ayton 28 on 12-17. Norman Powell added 23 for Portland.
The Blazers started the dream lineup of Damian Lillard, Norman Powell, Nassir Little, Larry Nance, Jr. and Jusuf Nurkic. One would expect a better defensive performance than usual from that group. It mostly happened. They pressured shooters hard and forced turnovers. Unfamiliarity plagued them at both ends of the floor, though. Continuity errors and missed rotations allowed the Suns a few wide-open jumpers. The rim was available for Deandre Ayton with only the barest of actions. The Blazers also had a hard time finding each other with passes. They relied on Lillard to carry their offense, which was non-existent otherwise. But the cumulative result was fine. At the halfway point of the first, the Blazers had allowed only 13 points, as opposed to their usual 8,000,005. They had forced 4 turnovers and were keeping the Suns well below 50%. The Blazers had scored only 14 themselves, but baby steps.
The defense wavered a bit during the second unit shift, which harbored all the continuity issues, but half the individual defense. Without Lillard, the offense went straight to heck. Portland couldn’t buy a shot or a break. They trailed 32-21 after one.
The Nance-Powell-Little triumvirate held court again at the start of the second and the defensive result was the same. Phoenix had trouble getting open looks and their offense stalled. But Portland’s offense practically went backwards. Had it been possible to lose points with some of their jumpers, they would have. The teams combined for 5 points in the first 4 minutes.
Lillard and Powell turned up the offense mid-quarter, giving the Blazers a chance. Just about then, the defense also slipped, continuing the theme of the half. Portland could either score or defend. They seldom did both at the same time. Forcing turnovers became a clear bright spot. Phoenix had 11 in the first half alone. Powell’s scoring was also big. He had a dozen by halftime, almost matching Lillard’s 14. That helped the Blazers endure a 37% shooting half. The Suns led 49-43 at intermission.
Mikal Bridges opened up the third period with a pair of threes. This was bad news for the Blazers, as up to this point they had defended the arc well. At the same time, Portland’s pick and roll defense went bonk, with Nurkic looking like he was trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube dipped in Vaseline. The Blazers needed every point Lillard and Powell could muster just to stay afloat.
Then Nurkic started converting inside shots strong, which helped big time. But despite the Blazers scoring, the Suns’ lead wasn’t shrinking that much. Until finally...FINALLY at the end of the third, Portland’s bench showed signs of life. Anfernee Simons hit a three. Robert Covington converted a layup. Portland went zone on defense, forcing the Suns into contested mid-range jumpers, which they missed. A Covington three with less than a minute remaining cut the lead to 1. Another at the buzzer, assisted by a driving Lillard, finally brought the Blazers all the way back. It capped off an 11-0 run that left Portland up 75-73 at the end of three.
Damian Lillard did NOT come to mess around at the start of the fourth. He hit a three, a layup, then set up Tony Snell for a three...one of two Snell hit in short succession. That kept Portland ahead despite scoring from Chris Paul and Cameron Payne on the other end.
It could only last so long, though. Paul was persistent, hitting teammates with incredible assists against a defense that tried to switch alertly on screens, but also got burned by an opponent that knew how to counter. Dunks and threes made Phoenix look good. Portland was still manufacturing points. An Ayton layup off of a Paul assist with 3:20 remaining tied the game at 91. It was going to be close ever after.
The game closed as the fourth period opened, with Lillard going ham scoring and Paul picking apart Portland’s defense with passes. Dame had a couple dishes too. He was white-hot dangerous.
Powell hit a runner with 1:20 remaining and was fouled. The free throw put Portland up four. But Phoenix scored on the next two possessions with a Lillard miss sandwiched in between. That left the score tied at 104 with 40 seconds remaining.
Lillard tried to hit a patented three on the next possession, but his shot missed. Nurkic was fouled on the offensive rebound and hit one of the free throws, putting Portland up by a point with 31 seconds left.
Paul blew the shot big time on the next possession, but the rebound went out of bounds on a contested play which Phoenix unsuccessfully challenged. 26 seconds remained. The Suns were out of timeouts. It was nail-biting time.
Portland got the tip off of the jump. The Suns fouled Powell to get possession. Powell made only one, making the score 102-100 with 22.1 remaining. Portland’s defense would be tested.
Paul took Covington to the cleaners, pulling up for an 8-footer to tie the game with 7.7 seconds left. The Blazers opted to skip the timeout. Lillard advanced the ball to the right side of the court, but couldn’t get off a shot. The game went to overtime tied at 102. Paul had scored 10 in the fourth, Lillard 13.
The overtime belonged to the supporting casts, as each team was more than cautious about watching the opponent’s star. (And, frankly, both Lillard and Paul were flagging from big minutes.) The Suns had plenty of open threes, but couldn’t seem to connect. The Blazers generated more precarious shots, also missing most.
At the end, the score read 109-106, Phoenix with 13 seconds remaining when Portland took a timeout. They tried to work Lillard into a three, but the Suns took the intentional foul instead. Incredibly, Lillard missed one of the foul shots, the 6th Portland free throw miss since the start of the fourth. The Suns inbounded down two. Cameron Payne fell and stepped out of bounds on the sideline, but the refs had whistled a foul. Coach Chauncey Billups challenged it unsuccessfully, costing the Blazers their last timeout.
Payne stepped to the line able to ice the game with Phoenix up 2, 10 seconds remaining. He hit both. Lillard missed a logo three and the Suns rebounded for the game. It was a great effort, but another loss.
Stay Tuned for extended analysis of the contest.
The Blazers are slated to play the Memphis Grizzlies tomorrow night at the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.