A starting guard in the 2021 NBA All-Star Game met another guard who should have been given that designation as Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards faced off against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night. The evening did not disappoint. Beal scored 37 while Lillard poured in 35 as Washington prevailed, 118-111.
The game started out with the usual back-and-forth rounds of, “Can You Defend This?” which both teams answered with a resounding, “NO!” Passes flew all over the court. Beal and Lillard hit threes. Forwards cut quick while centers plonked baby shots into the rim. A 40-40 first quarter wasn’t out of the question. As the period wore on, Portland’s ancillary players started to connect from distance, giving them a distinct advantage over a Washington team dependent on getting to the cup against a collapsing Portland defense. As has been the story for so many Wizards opponents this season, the Blazers couldn’t contain Beal no matter where he tried to score. But Gary Trent, Jr., Robert Covington, and Carmelo Anthony hitting threes was enough to push Portland ahead, particularly when Washington’s second unit fell apart like a dollar-store bike. The Blazers led 43-31 after the first.
Portland’s scoring dried up like a cactus in the microwave as the second period commenced. Bad defense is the gift that keeps on giving, though, and this game might as well have been Christmas. Washington barely needed to try in order to close the gap. They started layup line and the Blazers did nothing. With three minutes elapsed in the period, the lead was down to 2. A three by Anfernee Simons stopped the bleeding, but only temporarily. The Blazers still fought hard on the boards—a first-half trend—but everything else went so far south that penguins were shaking their heads in disbelief. Once again no threes equaled no love, and no real game, for Portland. Washington led 61-55 at the half, an 18-point turnaround in the quarter. 12 points in the period for Portland marked a spiritual low, if not a season low.
The Blazers got back into their game in the third. Their offense came at the arc or deep in the lane, just like they want it. The Wizards shot tons of mid-range shots while missing three-point attempts, again, just the way the Blazers want it. Portland’s offense was driven by Lillard, who scored 23 in the period...double what his entire team scored in the prior quarter. But the rebounding advantage was gone and Portland let Washington out in transition a couple times, basically making the scoring a wash. Lillard capped the period with a deeeeeeep three at the buzzer to put the Blazers ahead 92-89. It looked like yet another nail-biter finish was on the way.
Portland’s distance defense looked decent at the opening of the fourth, but without bigs they had real trouble defending inside. They either committed three defenders to Washington drives or the Wizards scored. If the Wiz were able to make an interior pass, they scored even against the triple-team.
Portland wanted the game quick and perimeter-oriented, the Wizards went for close and predictable. When the Wizards started doubling Dame with every touch, the supporting cast had trouble connecting. Washington tried to take advantage by pushing the offense through Beal and Russell Westbrook, but they couldn’t get on a big roll. The Wizards didn’t do much better with their “other” players than Portland did. For a while, it became a game of dueling incompetence, but because it was the fourth and tight, it still went down as fun to watch.
The closeness ended quickly when Washington connected on back-to-back threes with 2:30 remaining in the game. That put them up by 9, 110-101. Lillard got fouled on a three and, not much later, connected on a 30-footer, but his team still couldn’t keep Washington from scoring. The heroics went to waste. Bad defense beat good offense as the Blazers proved themselves equally committed to both.
The Blazers gave up their rebounding advantage and then some as the game unfolded. They smashed Washington on the boards before intermission, but ended up on the wrong side of a 54-50 deficit.
Portland hit 19 threes, Washington only 6, but the Wizards proved that distance shooting isn’t everything.
Westbrook and Beal combined for 64 points. Lillard and Trent, Jr. had 51.
The Blazers will play their conference rivals, the Phoenix Suns, on Monday evening at 6:00 PM, Pacific.