Tonight the Portland Trail Blazers faced a Los Angeles Clippers team intent on stopping NBA MVP candidate Damian Lillard. L.A. put two defenders on the All-Star guard as soon as he crossed halfcourt, forcing him to give up the ball to teammates. In that atmosphere, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell had a field day, scoring 24 and 32 apiece.
Normally, that would have been good news for the Blazers. Strong scoring often leads them to victory. On this night, however, their defense was historically inept. They allowed Paul George 22 points in the first period and 36 for the game. Kawhi Leonard scored 29 with 12 rebounds and 7 assists. Reggie Jackson scored 23, more than the entire Blazers’ bench. Instead of dogfighting for the win, Portland had their hands full trying to prevent a game-long rout. They succeeded mildly, falling 133-116 to their playoffs-bound foes. It wasn’t much of a moral victory. It was nowhere near an actual one, either.
Under pressure, Lillard scored 11 points on 2-14 shooting with 6 assists.
The Blazers did ok as the game commenced, with Lillard putting pressure on a scheme meant to stop him, shrugging off Patrick Beverley like a minor annoyance. Lillard either scored, hit Enes Kanter off of an imbalanced Clippers defense, or Kanter just grabbed offensive rebounds on his own. But the Clippers played excellently, hitting their first nine shots, because Portland just couldn’t defend. Mid-range, long-range, at the hoop...it just didn’t matter. L.A. scored like it was practice. Almost 6:00 had elapsed when the Clippers finally missed. By that time they had 24 points with the quarter not even half gone. CJ McCollum scored repeatedly as the period unwound, trying to keep his team in it. But with Paul George scoring a bucket per minute and the Clippers on pace for 50, there wasn’t much “it” for the Blazers to be in. Then Portland started missing their outlet threes in the halfcourt and it got really ugly. CJ scored 12 in the quarter, but George scored 22. L.A. led 47-32 after one.
When the Clippers hit a couple of threes to open the second, the lead stretched to 20. There was nothing the Blazers could do to salvage the game except defend. Portland called a timeout to stop the bleeding, only to watch L.A. hit another three on their next possession. The lead went as high as 26. The Clips got complacent midway through the period, fairly standard considering the circumstances. That was the only grace the Blazers got, but they took advantage. They managed to cut it to 15 behind McCollum and Norman Powell, then to 10 as Lillard hit a rare three, then 7 as Robert Covington hit another on the next possession. That was the margin at intermission. The Clippers led 73-66. L.A. shot 57% from the field in the first half, 48% from distance.
The Blazers acquitted themselves well in the third quarter, comparatively speaking. Another scoring flurry by the Powell/McCollum tandem cut the lead to two, but L.A. stretched it back soon after. Portland forced the Clippers into more misses in the period than they had all game to that point. Most of those came in the mid-range. L.A. did well in the lane and from distance, but it was not back-breaking, as it had been earlier. Portland gave as good as they got. They also continued dominating in the only category they had a clear advantage in: free throws. By the end of the third Portland had attempted 27, against only 16 for L.A. The Clippers led 101-89 after three, technically extending their lead from the half, but the Blazers were still in contact. In a game like this, that’s all you can ask.
Powell went BIG at the start of the fourth, as the Clippers defense still sold out to stop Lillard. Stormin’ Norman drove downhill, converting at the rim with relative ease. If Portland could have strung together decent defense, they would have made headway behind their superb third scorer. The “D” continued only intermittently, though. They could get it within 9 or 7, but never threatened beyond that. Portland wasn’t able to close out with authority at the arc, nor were they able to watch the middle. If they could have done either, they might have had a chance. It was not to be. A couple of L.A. threes put the game out of reach. The lead went to 20 once again, and that was it.
Stay tuned for observations from Steve Dewald’s extended recap!
The Blazers face the Utah Jazz at 7:00, Pacific on Thursday night.