The Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics matched up in a donnybrook between two semi-disappointing teams seeking to prove their relevance in the race for the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The Celtics featured Jayson Tatum, fresh off of a 53-point scoring performance that put him among the Boston greats. The Blazers offered Damian Lillard, in the midst of an MVP-like season, and veteran superstar Carmelo Anthony, looking to redeem himself on National TV after a poor scoring week.
As it turned out, everybody came through in one way or another, but neither team did fully. Boston forced turnovers and kept Portland’s starting guards reasonably contained, but forgot to watch the three-point arc adequately and had no answer for Anthony off the bench. Portland showed offensive razzle-dazzle, but failed utterly against Tatum while allowing Boston an all-you-can-eat buffet in the paint. Each team turned over the ball more than was comfortable. Neither team could press the advantage.
Close games have gone Portland’s way all season, but not tonight. Boston’s ability to get easy shots kept them close no matter how many threes the Blazers hit. A superior shot from Tatum ended up clinching it. The Celtics won 116-115.
Damian Lillard scored 28 with 10 assists in this one. Anthony added 25 off the bench on 10-15 shooting. Tatum put in 32 for the Celtics.
The opening moments of the game started pretty much as you’d expect for two teams that have struggled to play consistent defense this season. Nobody stopped anybody outside of the occasional, mostly-unforced, turnover. All three of Portland’s guards hit threes with no defenders within four feet of them at the release. That should have lifted them to the stratosphere, but Boston hit two of their own. The Celtics also made repeated attempts at lobs to the basket over Portland defenders, some of which connected. 75% shooting in the first few minutes kept the Celts even despite Portland’s long-distance barrage.
The Blazers finally got some separation mid-quarter by, you guessed it, hitting even MORE threes. It may have been Fool’s Gold, but boy was it shiny. When the threes stopped falling, though. Boston worked their way back. The Blazers did manage to shut off the leak inside. which prevented the quarter from becoming dismal. A Carmelo Anthony flurry late actually made it quite decent, thank you. When Boston stupidly fouled Lillard in the backcourt with 2.4 seconds left for free throws, it got downright great again. Behind 50% shooting from the arc, Portland led 38-30 after one.
If the first quarter started with fireworks. the second began like a waterlogged whoopie cushion. Neither team scored, except with mighty effort. It’s not like the defense picked up. Both sides bobbled the ball and missed open shots. It was almost like passing had gone out of style, as dribble iso possessions became the order of the day. Anthony was the only player on the floor thriving in that environment, picking up possessions and creating points out of them.
The Blazers were content to play slow and nice, but they took a few stiff jabs on the chin around the 5:00 mark when Boston turned up the heat defensively. The Celtics scrapped, scrambled, and dove, forcing turnovers and botched possessions, hitting threes on the other end. A 10-0 run in less than 90 seconds took the Celts from an 8-point deficit to a 2-point lead. This energized them for the remainder of the period.
Norman Powell keyed an offensive run in the final two minutes. Jusuf Nurkic stepped up on defense. Portland’s ball movement finally picked up as well, a welcome sight. After the frantic exchange of runs, the Blazers emerged with a 60-57 lead at the half.
The threes started to fall again for Portland at the start of the third, a fantastic boost. They frittered away the advantage by letting Boston score in the lane yet again. Nurkic helped his teammates score with passing, but they didn’t return the favor on the other end, as the Celtics pounded in layups and chip shots. The scoring continued apace through most of the period. Boston kept hammering it inside until the Blazers couldn’t ignore them, then stroked threes. Portland kept manufacturing shots off of Lillard (passing and scoring) and Anthony (mostly scoring). It’s hard to see brilliant offense wasted by permissive defense, but that’s the 2020-21 Blazers. Late turnovers by Portland gave Boston a slight edge, but the score was close at 92-87 after three. As usual, the game could go either way. Jayson Tatum was threatening the 30-point mark by the end of three.
The Blazers and Celtics both came out wanting to win it, playing almost frantically. Unfortunately for Portland, Boston’s inside shots were more replicable than deeper ones, particularly with Portland’s scoring coming off of isolation plays from the bench unit. Anthony once again flourished, though, hitting a couple of jumpers to keep Portland close after the Celtics surged. Neither Lillard nor CJ McCollum were hitting their threes, though. That made taking the lead difficult.
Grant Williams hit a three for Boston at the 6:25 mark, pushing their lead to 8, but Lillard struck back right afterwards. Then Kemba Walker drained one deep. Then Lillard struck back again! Haymakers flew left and right. This ignited Dame, who would score 5 more in short order, tying the game at 109 with 1:50 remaining. Boston scored, then Powell and Tatum each missed open threes. The lid finally came off for McCollum, who hit an open three off of a Lillard drive and kick. Portland led 112-111 with 48 seconds left.
Tatum got fouled on the next possession. He hit both free throws, and Portland trailed by 1 again with 40 seconds left. Lillard missed a step-back two, leaving Boston with one more possession, but no ability to run the clock out. As it turned out, they didn’t need it. Tatum drained a three and the Celtics led 116-112 with only 8 seconds remaining.
The Blazers had one more trick up their sleeves, however. They inbounded to Nurkic at the arc. He flipped a quick pass to Powell for the 30-foot shot. Powell drained it. The score read 116-115, Boston. The Celtics had possession. 5 seconds remained.
The Blazers fouled Marcus Smart with 3.5 seconds left. Smart missed the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. This left only a one-point deficit on the last possession, but Portland had no timeouts and had to go the length of the court. They never got the chance, as Boston trapped Lillard on the rebound. His length-of-the-court heave went way wide, and that was it.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from Marlow Ferguson, Jr.
Portland gets a couple days off before facing the Spurs in San Antonio on Friday night at 5:30 PM, Pacific.