For years, the Portland Trail Blazers have lived and died — but mostly lived — on a go-to specialty down the stretch: keep the game close, and when it matters most, put the ball into the hands of their celebrated closer and get out of the way. Valiant effort as he put forth, Damian Lillard was unable to put the Blazers over the top against the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night. As a result, they fall in a 111-107 overtime thriller.
Lillard, in some ways, was statistically brilliant, chipping in a 31-point, 10-assist performance, going toe-to-toe with Chris Paul. He had notable help in the form of Norman Powell (23 points), who played the McCollum role, and Jusuf Nurkic (17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists). Though, in the end, they came up a few possessions short.
This loss, the Blazers’ ninth in ten games, drops them to 11-17, and in a tie for the No. 10 seed in the Western Conference. Here are a few takeaways from the loss.
Life as Damian Lillard is an interesting one. The six-time All-Star spent much of tonight’s game being defended by either Mikal Bridges and his 6-foot-6 frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan or, when given a “break,” by Jae Crowder. Everywhere he went, the Suns expounded on him with size and length, and that contributed to what was a productive-but-inefficient night.
Two games into his return, Lillard is averaging 27.5 points, 8.0 assists and 6.5 rebounds, though on 33.3 percent shooting from the field, 26.7 percent from deep and 75.0 percent from the charity stripes. Remnants of that “Vintage Dame” were there throughout the fourth quarter, which led to an exciting duel between Lillard and Paul.
The sheer threat of Lillard shooting was enough to continually pull Suns bigs, namely Deandre Ayton, out of the paint and open up opportunities for others. He also showed an ease in knifing through the lane for drive-and-kick opportunities for his teammates. Suns coach Monty Williams talked about the “emotional stamina” needed to rein in Lillard’s offensive attack, and he put pressure on them. As he continues to find his groove, one has to anticipate those numbers rising further.
From Trail Blazers to Lead Blazers, Back to Trail Blazers:
There are few moral victories that come with dropping nine of their last 10 games, though at the very least, this Trail Blazers group is beginning to tap into a gritter, more competitive side. Tuesday night’s game against the Suns proved no different. Phoenix jumped out to a 14-point first quarter lead, watched it slip to four prior to halftime, and then rebuilt an entirely new 14-point advantage in the third quarter.
Portland utilized a zone defense and a balanced offensive effort led by Lillard to get back into the contest. Unfortunately, when it was time to put away the Suns, they had the hammer, but not the nail, coming tantalizingly close. In a game deadlocked at 96, the Blazers’ 3-of-6 finish at the free throw line will sting, as will the missed opportunities in overtime. In the third time in as many games, Portland overcame a double-digit hole in the second half, made it competitive, and came up short.
End of an Era:
The Undertaker’s 21-match WrestleMania streak; the Celtics’ stretch of eight straight NBA championships from 1959 to 1966; and, the Blazers’ undefeated record in their “Moments Mixtape Nights” uniforms … What do all three of those have in common? As it turns out, all great works must someday come to an end.
For a few weeks, it appeared that the Blazers weren’t capable of losing in their classic, spotlight-on-history retro jerseys. It could’ve been a matter of confirmation bias, but heading into tonight, they were a perfect 4-0 — against the Pistons, Bulls, Raptors, and 76ers — producing some of their best sequences of the season in the black-and-red threads. In terms of on-court play, it likely means little. But for a team that’s historically been given the short end of the stick on luck, you’d take what you can get. Tonight’s loss ends the streak.
Looking Ahead to Wednesday:
It should be intriguing (and not in a good way) to see how the Blazers’ approach this back-to-back against the Memphis Grizzlies in just a few hours. It’s to their benefit that they won’t have to travel to Memphis, but after the minutes Portland’s key stars played tonight, one has to wonder about tired legs.
Lillard logged 47 of a possible 53 minutes tonight, this just two games into his return. Jusuf Nurkic played 39 minutes, a number that now marks the most in a single game in his career. Norman Powell plugged in a serviceable, efficient 39-minute performance, acting as the go-to sidekick. Among them, Robert Covington and Anfernee Simons each played 30+. The Grizzlies are coming in off a blowout and fresh, which should make for quite the dynamic with tomorrow’s quick turnaround.
If you missed it, here’s a look at Dave Deckard’s instant recap of tonight’s loss.
As noted, it’s a quick turnaround for Portland, starting with the second of a back-to-back against the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies.