The Portland Trail Blazers came within a few seconds and a single point of defeating the Phoenix Suns tonight in a game that had playoffs intensity and plenty of post-season ramifications. A victory would have guaranteed Portland a place in the 2021 NBA Playoffs without having to go through the league’s Play-In Tournament to earn a seed. The loss leaves their position in doubt.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were superlative in the 117-118 loss, but Portland’s bench struggled and, in the end, Phoenix hit one more free throw than the Blazers did down the stretch, providing the slim margin of victory.
Ryan Rosback provided a quick, quarter-by-quarter look at the action earlier. That’ll give you the outline of the game flow. Here are several other big (and little) things that raised Portland’s hopes or led to their downfall.
Super Fast Scoring
Neither the Blazers nor the Suns wasted any time scoring, especially with their starting units. Watching Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and company dribble and/or whip the ball around was exhilarating. Were it not for turnovers, the teams might have approached 100 shots apiece. Most were quality too, thought whether that was offensive prowess or defensive ineptitude is a matter of debate.
That doesn’t mean the Blazers were chucking and ducking. They started the game getting the ball inside, the ticket to their recent success. They went for the usual center-court play from Jusuf Nurkic, but both Lillard and McCollum made a concerted effort to drive the ball instead of just pulling up. Unlike many contests, this didn’t result in a foul-filled slog. Instead they converted layups and kept the Suns’ defense moving, which absolutely facilitated their three-point game when it picked up.
Through the fourth quarter, the Blazers continued to look for inside shots, making a surprising number of cuts and passes to get them. The blended offense comes just as fast as their isolation three-based scheme did, and it’s much harder to clock.
Three-Point Defense Lacking
The Blazers got away with lackadaisical three-point defense against the Utah Jazz last night, as Utah apparently shot into a crosswind on both sides of the court. Phoenix also struggled from the arc much of the night. Perhaps the Blazers are invoking some kind of curse in opponent arenas? In any case, Portland wasn’t as bad tonight as they were last, but this is still a pick-and-choose defense more than an all-points-covered one.
This was exposed as the Suns took their first significant lead of the game in the third. They got on a little run from distance and Portland seemed unable to stop it. Phoenix’s free looks from distance continued in the fourth.
Portland shot 45.5% from distance, but they allowed 41%. It was enough to make the Blazers look good, but not enough to let them escape.
Phoenix Chooses Poorly
The Suns took an old-school approach to Nurkic, sending an extra man when he started dribbling in the lane. Most Portland fans hold their breath when Nurk tries to make a scoring move in there. The idea that Phoenix would want to stop him from doing so in favor of a quick pass to an open shooter was...interesting.
The Blazers did an amazing job containing the Suns in transition tonight. Fast-paced games used to spell disaster for Portland, as opponents ran up the score on the break. Tonight Portland allowed Phoenix just two—count them, two—points on the run in a fairly free-scoring game. If you want to find the improvement in Portland’s defense lately, you can’t ignore this facet.
Clock Stuck on Dame Time
Damian Lillard scoring 41 points is barely newsworthy anymore. This was his sixth straight 30+ game, but even that barely causes an eye blink. Everybody knows how good he is.
Still, this was a gobsmackingly incredible performance. Lillard was superlative on drives, shooting 16-23 from the field. Not only was he unstoppable personally, his penetration made Portland nigh unstoppable. Phoenix absolutely HAD to double-team Lillard when he drove, which left somebody open on the perimeter. They didn’t have a chance of stopping Portland’s offense with Dame playing aggressive like that. Their only choice was to give up two points or three.
Dame had a lull in the third period. By no coincidence, Phoenix took that frame 33-24. Other than that, he was a series of chef’s kisses wrapped in a See’s Candy box.
CJ McCollum Blistering Hot
Lillard’s backcourt mate wasn’t too shabby either. CJ McCollum scored 27 on 11-19 shooting. Going 5-9 from the arc was his calling card for the evening; he’s been on fire out there lately. But he didn’t settle for long shots, often penetrating with mean intentions. He’s CJ, so “mean” stood for Midrange Excellence All Night, but even he converted four shots inside 10 feet.
McCollum shone most prominently leading the second unit in the first half. It’s just not fair when Lillard sits after scoring double digits in the first quarter then CJ tees off for 17-20 before halftime.
RoCo Outlet Shopping
Robert Covington’s defense is starting to get national notice, but his fit with Portland has been enhanced by his ability to hit outlet shots when the main shooters are covered. Covington is firing from the field with complete confidence and great judgment. Notably, he hit a three with 3:59 remaining in the fourth to bring the Blazers back into a tie after they got down by 9, which in this nip-and-tuck game seemed like an enormous margin.
Covington has become the forward the Blazers have been longing for and they should value him. The fact that he missed possible game-clinching free throws late doesn’t change that reality.
Head Coach Terry Stotts has shortened his bench in preparation for the playoffs. Nothing unusual about that. But two of those short-rotation players are Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter, whose defensive deficiencies have been well-chronicled. The Suns put Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig in double figures early tonight, part of a concerted bench effort that paid dividends. Portland’s shortened bench isn’t untenable, but they absolutely have to score consistently in order to make a positive impact. If they don’t, Portland’s going to suffer.
Anthony, Kanter, and Anfernee Simons were the only three bench players who saw the floor for Portland tonight. They combined for 14 points, with Anthony shooting a particularly painful 1-7. Payne scored 21 all by himself.
Record of Doom
This loss leaves the Blazers with only one win the entire season versus teams in the upper half of the Western Conference playoffs bracket, that being the victory last night against Utah, missing starting guards Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Portland will have a chance to double their winning percentage on Sunday, but that’s still not a great sign.
The Blazers have but one game remaining in the regular season, a tilt against the Denver Nuggets at the Moda Center on Sunday evening at 6:00, Pacific. If Portland wins that game, they’ll be guaranteed a 6th or better seed in the playoffs. They will receive the same reward if the Los Angeles Lakers lose a game. Hold tight.