The Portland Trail Blazers came into Sunday’s matinee with the Los Angeles Lakers riding high on a 2-0 start to the season, including an overtime nail-biter against one of the Western Conference’s upper-echelon teams—the Phoenix Suns—on Friday. Their opponent, on the other hand, found themselves winless and already facing questions about whether their aging roster of veterans had the pieces to put together a winner.
While neither team delivered the performance their fans probably wanted, they put on a show nonetheless, and Portland was able to come out on top 106-104.
After a slow start, Damian Lillard was the man again, leading the way with 41 points for the second game in a row.
Here’s how the action went down.
The Blazers didn’t waste any time going back to the recipe that brought them success against the Suns, giving the Lakers a healthy dose of Lillard early. That medicine didn’t have the same effect the second go around, as Dame struggled to connect with his shot while dealing with the brunt of L.A.’s defense. The Lakers then took a page out of Portland’s book and shoved those misses back into their face with transition buckets. L.A. jumped out to a 10-2 lead in just minutes and the Blazers needed time to talk things over.
Once Portland managed to cut down on self-inflicted wounds, the chaos subsided. Lillard seemingly flipped the switch from “air conditioning unit” to “propane barbecue” and poured in 14 points in the quarter, attacking the Lakers defense on all levels. The Blazers were still somewhat careless with the ball, but recovered well enough on defense to keep those mistakes from becoming costly. Meanwhile, the Lakers offense seemed to run into a Jusuf Nurkic-shaped brick wall. Whether it was the Bosnian’s stout low-post presence or just another day for Russell Westbrook, L.A. was able to get into the paint at will but just couldn’t convert when they got there. The Blazers then obliged to capitalize and were off to the races.
Portland seized the lead midway through the period and then finished the frame on a 23-8 run to hold a 32-24 advantage after one.
The second quarter didn’t constitute much of a paradigm shift for either squad, as both teams continued to be held back by the same mistakes. L.A. was a dreadful 1-16 from beyond the arc in the first half, so they were forced to go full “ride or die” with taking the attack right into the teeth of the Blazer defense. Portland had difficulty when being forced to guard LeBron James and Anthony Davis 1 on 1, but with the Lakers essentially limited to a pre-three-point era offense for long stretches, the Blazers could offer help at little consequence.
Portland would have extended their lead if not for some near-misses and sloppy play. Shaedon Sharpe couldn’t quite get the handle on a one-handed tomahawk putback that would have easily constituted the top highlight of his young career. Blazers missed enough bunnies near the rim to populate a rabbit colony. When the dust settled, not much ground had been gained and Portland went into the break holding a 55-48 lead.
As expected, L.A. wasn’t just going to roll over and die. The Lakers started making shots. With that you could see their confidence rising as an inevitable dread creeping towards the Blazers. More brilliance from Lillard maintained the lead for most of the period, but it was rough sailing for anybody not wearing the letter “O.” Portland continued to attack the rim with reckless abandon, even though they were repeatedly met by a ready and waiting Davis, who won the battle more often than not. These stops led to more backbreaking transition opportunities for L.A., which led to more offensive stagnancy from the Blazers. It was a vicious cycle Blazer fans know too well.
Portland only managed 6 points over the final 5 minutes of the quarter, and could barely do more than observe as the Lakers slowly chipped away and regained the lead. L.A. took a 83-78 advantage into the final frame.
Now playing from behind, the Blazers had to operate with urgency. Even worse, the team was essentially back to square one in having to find a way to effectively attack the now stifling Laker defense while L.A.’s offense was humming. That’s a tall order for a road team in the third game of the season. Portland decided, for better or worse, to stick with the original game plan of taking it right to the nose of the defense to somewhat predictable results. Blazer guards had trouble even making it through the first line of defense, getting stripped more often than splitting double-teams, and when they did make it into the weeds, the Lakers had five defenders converging on them like a 5-star pursuit in Grand Theft Auto.
Still, despite the Blazers trailing 102-95 with less than two minutes remaining, L.A. inexplicably went ice cold and Portland was somehow able to claw themselves back into a position to win the game. It was almost all for nought, as prior to Lillard’s three that took a 104-102 lead, Nurkic was initially pinned for an illegal screen on Patrick Beverley at mid-court - it was total flop. Chauncey Billups immediately challenged the call and it was overturned, with official Ed Malloy even noting in his ruling that “Beverley took a dive.”
Clutch go-ahead baskets from Lillard and Jerami Grant—yet another last-shot hero—in the final minute put the pressure on L.A. to make a shot to force overtime, and James’ 20-foot fader at the buzzer was short. Who was guarding LeBron on the pivotal possession? Lillard, or course.
Portland got to run out of the Staples Center with yet another impressive victory.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon from Conor Bergin!
The Blazers will return to the Moda Center tomorrow to host Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, beginning a four-game homestand. Tip is set for 7 p.m. Pacific.