The Portland Trail Blazers faced a daunting task taking on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and the Boston Celtics on Friday night. The Celtics field enough firepower to obliterate Portland’s defense. Absent Damian Lillard and Norman Powell, the Blazers can’t return the volley in kind.
Lacking the ability to blow out the opponent, the Blazers held on long enough to make the game a coin flip, then won it. Three-point shooting (and the lack of same for Boston) kept them in the match. Portland shot an amazing 16-33, 48.5% from the arc. Then, when it came to crunch time, Portland kept their heads as Boston crumbled around them. Key free throws and a Robert Covington three pushed them above the Celtics 109-105.
Jusuf Nurkic had a strong game offensively, scoring 29 with 17 rebounds and 6 assists. He also had a gave-saving offensive rebound put-back in the closing minute. CJ McCollum added 24 and Anfernee Simons 21.
As has been typical of Portland games lately, this one started a little sloppy. Boston looked like they were running incomplete sketches of plays rather than a coordinated attack. The Blazers got isolated shots from wings, but their ball-movement action didn’t flow well. Portland couldn’t keep the Celtics out of the lane, but Boston couldn’t hit threes on the kick-out either. Midway through the period, both teams were hovering around a dozen points.
Portland pulled a Portland in the latter minutes of the quarter, getting red hot from distance. Ben McLemore and CJ McCollum each hit a pair. Portland made a half-dozen in the period. Boston, meanwhile, went 2-10. If the Blazers could have stopped them in the lane, they would have led by 20. Instead the score read 30-25 after one.
As the second quarter started, the Blazers remembered, “Oh yeah! Boston plays Enes Freedom on their second unit.” Jusuf Nurkic looked like a dog salivating after a bone, and his teammates threw it to him.
As Boston’s defense fell apart, their three-point shooting displayed all the charm of week-old sushi. You could see what it was supposed to be, but ewwww...just, no. That prevented them from catching up. Nurkic kept Portland’s rebounding pristine. The Blazers made a nice run and got up 13.
Portland is not good at keeping those edges, of course, nor did they here. The Celtics got a couple of defensive stops, then started running. (Having subbed Freedom out of the game first.) Conversions off of quick attacks made the scoreboard ring like a pinball machine. The Blazers tried to fend them off with shots from McCollum and Simons. Didn’t work. Boston re-took the lead with just under 4:00 remaining. With Nurkic working the first part of the period, he had to sit in the later minutes. The interior defense crumbled, rebounding slacked, and the Celts finally found outside success as the Blazers got caught in no-man’s land trying to keep from being trampled inside.
Nurkic returning helped right the ship enough to push Portland to within 54-58 at the half despite a semi-disaster of a second period.
If the Blazers came out of halftime looking to make a statement, that statement was, “Ooops!” Boston ran past them, shot over them, and caused Head Coach Chauncey Billups to call a timeout 90 seconds into the quarter. After that, Portland settled down a little, watching McCollum take iso shots, otherwise drawing fouls with their halfcourt grind. Boston still scored easier, but Portland filled the bucket enough to recapture the lead. Then Boston started playing slower, allowing Portland to set and force the shot deeper into the clock. The Celtics offense more or less wilted at that point.
Ben McLemore got set up well in the bench shift, allowing him to drain his patented threes. That sparked Portland’s offense to life. Unfortunately the Celtics remembered to run right about the same time. That put their scoring into third gear as well. The teams traded buckets and Portland took an 83-82 lead into the fourth.
The start of the fourth quarter was ill-omened for Portland, as the Blazers missed exactly all of their shots while the Celtics hit the threes that had eluded them all game long. Nurkic hit a three to stop the tide of scoring, but that was in between Jayson Tatum trips to the lane. One of those things seemed more sustainable than the other.
When Romeo Langford and Payton Pritchard each hit their second threes of the period, it was, “Uh oh...” time for the Blazers. The story was getting familiar: a team lies in wait, probing Portland’s weaknesses, until the final quarter, then barrels through the wide-open door to victory.
It didn’t happen that way. Portland didn’t fold. Those trusty three-pointers kept them within striking distance. But 0-fer-ing their shots inside the arc blunted the force of the strike. Their offense unfolded too slowly and sporadically to push forward, even when Boston’s offense slowed to a crawl again.
Still, the game was there for the taking. Portland got within 2 with a little over 2:00 remaining, then tied the game with 97 seconds left. The Celtics couldn’t buy a bucket with a Platinum AMEX. A pair of free throws off of a Brown drive gave them a 102-100 lead with 41.5 seconds remaining. Those were their first points in almost five minutes. After a scary inbounds play, McCollum got the ball to Robert Covington for a corner three, leaving the Blazers ahead by a point, 103-102, 28 seconds remaining.
Scoring the ball for Boston was as simple as inbounding the ball. Nurkic had no chance to stop a Tatum drive. He fouled him instead, and Tatum converted the foul shots. Boston led 104-103 with 27 seconds remaining.
After McCollum was blunted on Portland’s scoring play, he got the ball to Simons. Anfernee made his way into the lane, but missed the shot. Nurkic came up with the huge offensive rebound. A difficult half-hook put Portland up again, 105-104. 13 seconds remained. Could Portland’s defense hold up?
The answer was yes. Tatum tried to drive but Covington and Nurkic teamed up to close the lane. Tatum got an open three instead, but missed it. Robert Williams III had a clear look at a put-back but tried to tip it instead of controlling. He missed. Boston intentionally fouled Covington on the rebound. Two free throws later, the win was salted.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon!
The Blazers travel to Toronto to face the Raptors at 3:00 PM, Pacific on Sunday.