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Lillard Shines, but Lakers Defense Outlasts Blazers

The Blazers brought a backcourt to L.A., the Lakers a team.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For one half, the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers looked up to the task of topping the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers. If only NBA games were 24 minutes! After a second half of adjustments and ultra-aggressive defense, the Lakers were able to pull away for a 102-93 victory. The loss sends Portland to 18-14, and back into the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference standings. The silver lining is that Portland only has three games left before getting an entire week off to rest and recover. Not to encourage mediocrity, but in seasons past, being No. 6 and treading water above .500 would have been a welcome sight for the Blazers over the first half of a schedule. Right? In any case, here’s a look at the recap.

One has to imagine the Blazers were watching tape of last season’s Western Conference First Round during the flight to STAPLES Center. Early on, Portland looked the part of a team set on revenge.

They jumped out to a 15-4 advantage, creating more turnovers than a bakery at breakfast time. Anchored by Gary Trent Jr.’s infectious energy, they forced four giveaways in the first six minutes — this after forcing just one turnover in 48 minutes on Tuesday against Denver — and that kept them away from Los Angeles’ No. 1 ranked halfcourt defense.

How the stars were defended in the first quarter was likely the most intriguing story. After struggling to defend LeBron James in last summer’s postseason, they had to have been inspired by the results with Derrick Jones Jr. He made life difficult for James, using his 7-foot wingspan and athleticism. On the other end, Damian Lillard appeared up to the challenge, with 15 points on 5-of-8 from the field. He pushed the Blazers to a 29-24 advantage after one.

Basketball, as they say, is a game of chess, and it was around this time that Frank Vogel and Terry Stotts began to move their pieces. The Lakers seemed to take a page out of the book of recent opponents in how they defend Lillard. In the pick-and-roll, they made a focused effort to get to that dribble to his left, where he’s most dangerous in pull-up situations, whilst also keeping some size in his area. Ever the creator, Lillard found other ways to “go hunting” for his shot — as CJ McCollum would say — with inbounds cuts and quick pull-ups in transition.

Outside of that predominant storyline, this game offered more positives in terms of Gary Trent Jr.’s development as an all-around scorer. He’s become Portland’s No. 2 point producer, averaging 19.0 points over his last 16 games. He put the ability to score at all three levels on tape, as well as creating his own shot.

The end of the second quarter was a test in resiliency; Lillard got dinged up on a textbook defender-steps-under-the-shooter’s-ankle contest, and Jones Jr. and Robert Covington dealt with foul trouble. Yet even so, the Blazers held a slight 57-54 lead going into the second half.

After spending much of the first half absorbing the Blazers’ best haymakers, the Los Angeles Angeles Lakers opened the third quarter prepared to send a message: at full focus, they’re still the Western Conference’s premier heavyweight.

Portland didn’t quite have an answer for the energy of the Lakers’ role players, namely Alex Caruso, Montrezl Harrell, and Kyle Kuzma. Two statistics in particular — points off turnovers and offensive rebounds — showed the disparity.

The Lakers had 20 points off turnovers and 12 offensive rebounds heading into the fourth quarter. Because of it, the Lakers won the quarter 31-19, and walked into the fourth quarter with an 85-76 edge.

If you’re looking for a quote or soundbite that describes this game, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, courtesy of ESPN’s Richard Jefferson: “They’re going to need someone else to start making shots, because they’re just tailoring their defense towards stopping Damian Lillard.”

The Blazers played with moxie, but, as Terry Stotts might say, Portland just wasn’t able to make enough shots. The offense was uncreative scheme-wise, save for a Lillard post up, but Portland had chances to cut into the deficit. They used Lillard’s gravity in the pick-and-roll or double drag screens to stretch the Lakers’ defense out, but couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean.

All told, that proved to be the sequence of the game. It proved to be a tail of two halves, in terms of how aggressive Los Angeles was in defending Lillard. In their victory tonight, they made a statement: you cut the head off of the snake, and the rest of it won’t survive. They held one of the NBA’s best second-half teams to just 36 points with that suffocating defense. As tonight’s game shows, Portland may still have a ways to go to reach the top of the West.

Notes:

— Damian Lillard’s ability to play through pain has become almost Iverson-like at this point. One could say that he wasn’t quite the same after Talen Horton-Tucker stepped under his foot on his 3-point attempt in the first half. That he was still able to draw the attention that he did is remarkable. A few bounces here or there, and perhaps this ends up being a different game.

— Talk about coming up short at the wrong time. The Blazers’ 36 points in the second half tied for the fewest of the season. Their offense hasn’t gone this dry in a half since their Jan. 14 loss to Indiana.

— It’s unclear to whom the finger points first, but the Blazers couldn’t find a way to score on the Lakers’ traps on Lillard, nor when he was off the floor. The second unit combined for 13 points on 16 shots. Getting one of them going almost certainly changes the scene of this game as well.

Up Next:

The Blazers will hope to end the final run of the “first half” of their schedule on a high-note, starting with a home game against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, Mar. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.

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