It wasn’t quite Willis Reed, Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard gave his best rendition during a Sunday afternoon 110-99 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Limping and grimacing his way through, Lillard led an already injury-riddled Blazers crew in a valiant defeat at the end of a six-game road trip with a gritty 29-point performance.
If not for the HD quality and lack of fans, one might’ve thought Clyde Drexler and Patrick Ewing were on their way out of the tunnel, short-shorts and all in the first quarter. On one end, the New York Knicks sought comfort through the in-between game, punishing the Blazers in the midrange area, with a few attacks to the rim sprinkled about.
Fortunately for Portland, the new-school approach won out initially, thanks in large part to Lillard. After an abdominal strain forced him into a one-game absence, the six-time All-Star was up to his usual tricks, either through his own 3-point ability, or through the sheer threat of it.
Lillard often drew two defenders, allowing him to thread the needle and find teammates. Portland set themselves up for a marquee night by hitting seven 3-pointers in the first quarter alone.
Those among the “drop coverage fan club” are sure to be disappointed. Portland carved out an offensive rhythm on defense, by blitzing the Knicks’ screens and bringing the big up, trusting their backline of defense and recovery speed. They finished the quarter on a 16-7 run, and their aggressive defense was among the preeminent reasons why.
As has generally been the case with Carmelo Anthony on the roster, the Blazers again found themselves on “milestone watch.” It was, poetic that Anthony needed only 14 points to surpass Oscar Robertson for No. 12 on the all-time scoring list, in Madison Square Garden of all places.
Offensively, one could see that was conscious of it, missing his first five shots. He did some of the little things, though, screening on teammates’ makes, and clamping down on defense.
In the meantime, the Blazers found success elsewhere. Anfernee Simons showed legitimate comfort as the Blazers’ floor general, Portland continued that trapping on Immanuel Quickley — remember, he had 31 points in the first meeting — and that showed some proactivity on the Blazers’ part. They sought to test the rookie’s patience and discipline, with mixed results.
Even at less than 100 percent, the Knicks still viewed Lillard as the most dangerous man on the floor, often sending two to force the ball out. It led to a balanced scoring attack, but a six-point halftime deficit to overcome at that.
The third quarter proved to be nip-and-tuck. After a fall from Lillard just 30 seconds into the half, it appeared the Blazers would either need a standout performance from the supporting cast, or a SportsCenter-worthy string of defensive play. As it turned out, they got a little bit of both. Enes Kanter, another former Knick, stepped to the challenge on both ends, as did Gary Trent Jr.
The Blazers could never string together enough stop-and-score sequences to take a lead; New York seemed to always have a shot that kept Portland a stone’s throw away. But after three, it remained a competitive, single-digit battle.
A lack of composure played into the Blazers’ demise down the stretch in the fourth quarter; Anfernee Simons’ fourth-quarter offense kept the door open for some late-game Lillard heroics, but a series of mental miscues — an inbounds turnover, a technical foul, and a series of defensive lapses in a span of a few minutes — helped New York play keep away.
Late in the game, Portland could never get ahead, but they kept it within “Lillard Range.” We’ve seen him put together a quick offensive percolation and have it lead to a victory. He attacked that goal creatively, creeping in to attack the offensive glass or marauding passing lanes for steals. But, Portland just couldn’t sustain it consistently enough.
It proved to be a valiant effort for this group. The Blazers got serviceable looks down the stretch, but simply couldn’t connect. The effort level at the end of a six-game road stand was there. Unfortunately, they proved to be a few bounces away.
Other Quick Thoughts:
- It’s a tough sell calling this Blazers team “gritty,” since they’re the No. 28-ranked defense in the NBA. But, it is a welcome sign to see how balanced their offensive attack has been this season. They’ve had six players score at least 14+ points in their last two games, and this afternoon, they had five scorers in double-figures. That depth and resiliency should give them a chance to compete on almost any night.
- It wasn’t quite the homecoming Carmelo Anthony expected. He appeared anxious to put his stamp on the game. He did do some of the smaller things that help produce positives, but his shot wasn’t there. The chase for No. 12 on the all-time scoring list is just 12 points now.
- If you had told someone that the Knicks would make just five free throws, their response would have likely been, “So, how much did Portland win by?” From that vantage point, the free throw battle felt like an anomaly. The Blazers strangely shot 8-of-16, and the Knicks were just 9-of-13, mostly in garbage time.
The Blazers head home for the first time since Jan. 25 to play the Orlando Magic at Tuesday at 7:00, Pacific.