The Portland Trail Blazers entered Friday night’s tilt against the Charlotte Hornets in desperate need of a win. The Blazers were 0-7 over the last fortnight, winless in December. The Charlotte game was their last chance to grab one at home before heading to Memphis and New Orleans with a 1-11 cumulative road record on the season.
Damian Lillard stepped up in the midst of the void, ruining the return of LaMelo Ball from COVID Health and Safety protocols with a 12-19, 43-point performance. Lillard staked the Blazers to an early 17-point lead, helped them almost double it to 30 by the third period, and carried them through a shaky fourth period as they took it home for a 125-116 victory.
In Lillard’s wake, Ben McLemore hit 10-16 from the floor, 8-13 on three-pointers, leading the Blazers with 28 off the bench.
The win takes Portland’s overall record to 12-18, 11-7 at home.
The Blazers started out in familiar fashion, at least since their starting lineup has taken injury hits. They went inside to Jusuf Nurkic. In three possessions to start the game he hit a spin shot, drew a non-shooting foul, and got a shot blocked. On the other end he got a nice help closeout off of a Hornets drive, then missed one late and gave up an easy and-one to Mason Plumlee. In other words he, and the Blazers, were all over the place.
At that point Damian Lillard took over with a shot and an assist, which smoothed things out. Charlotte countered with LaMelo Ball, who drove the rock to hit a layup, drawing another Nurkic foul. Portland’s interior defense got a little quicker and more chippy when Larry Nance, Jr. switched over to center. They weren’t necessarily stopping the Hornets, but they were getting closer to attempts in the lane.
This development gave the Blazers a big boost. Like the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, the Hornets had trouble connecting on open three-point attempts. With Charlotte clanking deep balls, Portland was able to patrol in the inside with impunity.
The Hornets’ inability to score made any Portland bucket looked significant. A couple of threes from Norman Powell gave the Blazers an outsized edge. Charlotte got tentative, driving repeatedly into the teeth of the Blazers defense. That generated more turnovers than points.
Portland’s deeper bench did their part by moving the ball freely against a stunned Hornets squad who, focusing on Lillard, failed to watch anybody else. When Dame said, “Screw the last possession,” and hit a deep three with 20 seconds remaining, Portland served notice that they brought the sauce to go with the steak tonight. The Blazers led 41-24 after one.
The Blazers started the second period all...the way...live. It seemed like everyone wearing the uniform was hitting threes, which was all Portland needed with a big lead. They had 50 points by the 9:00 mark in the second. In some games lately, they didn’t get to that mark until well into the third.
20-point leads make everything shiny. The Blazers looked looser, moved and gambled more on defense...it’s like they stopped thinking their way through the game and just started playing it. The Blazers had five triples made before the period was half over. Charlotte shot 2-7 in the paint in the same span. It was all going right, a welcome sight indeed.
THEN Ben McLemore caught fire. Dude hit six triples in the quarter, bringing his point total up to 20 in just 9 minutes of play. In the process, he staked the Blazers to a team record for threes made in a half.
Portland led 81-55 at halftime, cruising into the locker room with heads held higher than we’ve seen them in a month.
Portland started out the third period as many teams with huge, easy leads do: regarding nearly every shot as permissible, not quite going all out on defense. Charlotte made the obligatory quick shots early in the half. But Damian Lillard said, “Nuh-UH.” He converted a layup, a mid-range CJ McCollum jumper, and a pair of threes in the first four minutes of the third. He was NOT going to give up this game. He wasn’t even going to let it get close if hee could help it. With Charlotte threatening to get it within 25 and 4:00 remaining on the clock, Lillard hammered down his first dunk of the year, a huge exclamation point. It was his 14th point of the period.
Even though the Blazers weren’t defending that well anymore, those Lillard strikes were enough. Charlotte finally found the range from three just as Lillard sat for his rest. An 11-4 run to close the period allowed the Hornets to crawl back within 17, 103-86 after three. But Portland still looked secure enough to finish it out.
Chalotte guard Ish Smith made mincemeat of Portland’s perimeter defenders at the start of the fourth, driving to a trio of layups. But the Hornets suffered from the same three-point issue in the fourth that they evidenced in the first: they just couldn’t hit an open one. Threes on the other end from Powell and McLemore were enough to counter Smith’s driving brilliance.
Nurkic picked up his sixth foul and had to exit the game with 6:26 remaining in the fourth, but McLemore hammered home a jam on the very next possession as if to announce the Blazers’ intentions to win no matter who was on the floor. That typified the evening. Lillard keyed everything, but when Charlotte shut him down, Powell stepped up. When Powell wasn’t there, McLemore stepped up. When McLemore was quiet, Covington and Nance, Jr. stepped up. It was the kind of team effort the Blazers have been missing this season.
Portland kept playing sloppy on offense under heavy Charlotte pressure. They were slightly discombobulated on defense as well. Charlotte made a 13-3 run in the closing minutes, getting the margin as low as 6 with a minute remaining. But McLemore canned a near-heroic step-back three with 50 seconds left to finally put the game out of reach. Lillard had to play far too long to secure the win, but the win WAS secured, and ultimately that was the important thing.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the evening coming soon!
The Blazers will enter Christmas week by traveling to Memphis to face the Grizzlies at 3:00 PM on Sunday.