On Saturday night, the Portland Trail Blazers logged a defensive effort against the Boston Celtics so bad that it qualifies a crime in 46 states and several U.S. Territories. Boston pummeled a relatively-lifeless Portland squad 145-117, dropping the Blazers’ record to 11-13 on the season.
If you missed the game, well, count yourself lucky. But you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. If you’re wondering how it all went down, or how the team is looking without franchise superstar Damian Lillard, here are a few take-away points from the evening.
It’s hard to describe how abysmally the Blazers started this game defensively. Their effort was less than zero. The Celtics missed more shots by percentage in the pregame shootaround than they did in the opening 9 minutes of the game. That’s right...NO defense was actually better than whatever Portland was playing. At one point in the period, Boston was shooting 93.3% from the field. It takes a college math major to figure out how many attempts they lofted to get to 93.3% as opposed to 50 or 75. (Hint: 14 of 15.) Threes, dunks, and everything in between fell for them.
You can’t even call what the Blazers were doing “defense”. More like standing around to see if the other guy would miss. When they didn’t...like, EVER...Portland fell behind by 20 in the first.
Incredibly, the Blazers repeated the fiasco in the third, after having battled the entire second period to get within reasonable distance. It was better-concealed because Portland scored more and Boston wasn’t quite so hot, but it was there. Even if you excuse the first-period performance as trouble getting into the game, Portland’s third quarter was bang-head-against-the-wall material.
Second Unit Energy
The only thing that distinguished this game positively was the effort of Portland’s second-string players in the second quarter. With injuries to Damian Lillard and Nassir Little, some of those are third-string players. They were also the only Blazers into this game at all.
Cody Zeller set great screens. His guards used them. (Unlike Portland’s starting guards with many of Jusuf Nurkic’s picks.) Zeller and Larry Nance, Jr. managed to cover the lane and rebound the ball. Ben McLemore didn’t look great, but at least he moved. The bench forced turnovers and upped tempo. They surrounded CJ McCollum, absorbed his deficiencies, and allowed his points to matter.
When the starters checked in for their end-of-half shift, the game had turned. They picked up on the energy and finished the second period much stronger than they had started the first.
As detailed in the defense section just above, the momentum didn’t last. But that shouldn’t obscure that the bench players at least tried. That’s more than you can say for most of the first unit right now.
Portland’s starting guards looked good tonight in Damian Lillard’s absence if you only look at the point totals. CJ McCollum had 24, Dennis Smith, 21. Both had 6 assists, which was something. But McCollum shot only 8-21, 3-9 from distance. Meanwhile Marcus Smart went 6-10 for 17 points in 23 minutes. Dennis Schroder notched his second-highest game of the season with 31 points in 32 minutes, shooting 10-16 from the field. Payton Pritchard scored 19 in 18 minutes, shooting 6-12, but it was 6-9 until he missed three threes in the final minute of the game.
At the end of the year, Portland’s numbers will blend into a season-long mulch and they’ll look productive. Right now they super, really aren’t.
Portland can’t figure out a single way to impact the game defensively that matters. The Celtics shot an obnoxious 31-37, 56.8%, from the arc. The scored 50 in the paint. They had 29 free throw attempts against 32 for the Blazers. Outside of a couple second-quarter turnovers forced, nothing the Blazers did mattered in the slightest.
145 points scored by the opponent—a regular-season record in Portland—tells the story by itself, but even that needs context. It wasn’t an aberration. It wasn’t a surprise or a product of hot shooting by the Celtics. The Blazers defended in 145-point fashion.
Without Damian Lillard, opponents are keying in on CJ McCollum big time. They know he’s going to hit jumpers but they’ve been vicious in shutting off his penetration attempts, often by swatting his layups into the 200 section. It’s been effective. McCollum eats so many possessions—and takes so many dribbles—to get his points, the rest of the offense is having trouble flourishing around him.
The lack of drive-and-dish opportunities particularly hurts. Portland is not getting good three-point looks off of CJ’s drives. He either scores or gets swallowed. Ultimately either way ends up stopping the flow of the offense.
Robert Covington not being able to fill the team’s defensive stopper role is one thing. We knew last season that he was a help defender, not a one-on-one impresario. Shooting 1-6 on mostly-open three-pointers is another entirely. On the few occasions the Blazers did make the right play, catching the Celtics in slow rotations, Covington couldn’t make them pay. It’s a serious issue. If the defense isn’t helping enough and the offense isn’t great (4-11, 9 points, 2 turnovers in 22 minutes), making the case for him to continue starting gets harder.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the Blazers can be divided into two, likely non-intentional, camps: those who are buying into the system and playing hard for Head Coach Chauncey Billups and those who are going through the motions or doing their own thing. The bench players—minimum-contract signings, young guys getting their first real opportunities, and recent acquisitions from other teams—mostly fall into the former camp. They’re hustling and at least trying to run plays. The starters might be drifting towards the latter. Jusuf Nurkic is a fairly substantial exception, but he requires cooperation to run his game, and even he has moments. Norman Powell looks good and usually plays hard. There’s a sense of discouragement following McCollum, Covington, and sometimes other players that the team doesn’t seem to be able to shake.
This is more than shakedown cruise woes. If it’s injuries, the players stepping up to fill gaps have a funny way of showing it. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the team has already driven off the cliff and just doesn’t know it yet. They better bust out some gravity-defying mojo soon.
Things don’t get any easier. The Blazers face the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific before drawing the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.