Anfernee Simons dribbled down the third quarter clock last night near half-court. Trailing the Miami Heat 92-80, the Portland Trail Blazers were trying to get a bucket and some momentum for a fourth quarter comeback attempt.
Instead, as the Heat sent a double-team the young guard’s way, Simons threw a left-handed release valve high in the passing lane, perfect for Miami’s Caleb Martin to intercept. Martin batted down the pass with his right hand, then raced to the rim to dunk all over Simons. He got an unwarranted technical for flexing at his posterized victim, but it didn’t matter. Miami didn’t need the point.
Final score: Miami 119 - Portland 98.
The Martin breakaway, one of several for him and the Heat, represents the larger narrative of the night. In a game where Damian Lillard exited early with a third quarter injury and couldn’t save the Blazers, their sloppy passing and turnover issues finally caught up with them. The battle-tested, hard-nosed opposition pounced all over the errors and handed Portland, now 4-1, its first loss in lopsided fashion.
If you want one more microcosm for the evening, Blazers rookie Jabari Walker played the final 7:48 with his shorts on backwards.
“It was one of those nights,” Simons told reporters after the game. “It’s going to happen.”
Live-ball turnovers have been an issue for Portland since opening night, save for 24 minutes of nearly flawless basketball Monday against the Denver Nuggets. Through five games, Portland is seventh-worst in the NBA with 16 turnovers per game and fourth-worst in opponent steals at 9.6 per game. Portland anticipated growing pains with this unit, as it tries to integrate Chauncey Billups’ system and a new cast of parts around Lillard’s return. That learning process of how to execute together accounts for some of these problems. As a silver lining, some of the issues are a byproduct of Portland finally attacking with pace in transition, leading to occasional recklessness. But also, and this is what Billups and the Blazers know they must correct, some of the turnovers have been uncharacteristic and careless. Players have thrown looping lollipops up for grabs that other teams gladly convert into easy layups and 3-pointers.
“You have to be focused,” Billups said after last night’s game. “....Sometimes we get a little bit careless and just think they’re guys open because he looks that way, but they’re really baiting you to shoot the gap.”
In close wins against the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns (a season-high 14 steals given up) and Los Angeles Lakers, the Blazers played inspired enough basketball to overcome the turnovers. They also had back-to-back 40-bombs from Lillard, which can be enough to overshadow any trouble. But when you keep playing with fire, sooner or later, you’ll get burned. It’s fitting Portland’s burn came against the Heat — for reasons other than just the pun-perfect name.
Namely, Miami is a defensive dynamo that has pressured offenses for years, finishing top-five in opponent scoring per game in six out of the last seven seasons. Last season, Miami was within one shot of making the NBA Finals because of elite defense. They have dogs in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, led by a disciplined director in Erik Spoelstra. Last night, they were playing like a good team that had started the season 1-3 and desperately wanted a win.
When you aren’t sharp against a team like that, you’ll pay for it.
Miami forced 19 turnovers and 13 steals, outscoring Portland in points off turnovers 29-23 and a whopping 29-14 in fast break points. Nearly half of those points off turnovers (12) and fast break points (13) came in the decisive third quarter, which saw Miami extend a 5-point halftime lead into double digits. The extra opportunities gave Miami’s offense — which started off clunky and trailed through the first quarter — a chance to find it’s rhythm. Miami outscored Portland 52-40 in the paint (a game-high 18 of those in the third). Martin, Max Strus, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro helped Miami drill a season-high 15 3-pointers.
“They started knocking down a whole bunch of 3s in transition,” Simons said. “Obviously, us turning the ball over didn’t help. ....I think it’s a little bit of us being careless with the basketball.”
Billups reminded reporters the quality of the opponent also factored into the equation.
“You give them credit, We didn’t just play that way for no reason,” he said. “They force you to play like that.”
Against that kind of pressure, Portland’s last line of defense was for its star to play savior. And Lillard might’ve had a herculean performance in him. Midway through that pivotal third quarter, Lillard had a game-high 22 points. He had just nailed a deep step-back triple — his fourth 3-pointer of the night — to cut a widening Heat lead to 7. Maybe Dame Time was coming. Then with 5:10 remaining in the third, Lillard limped off the court and straight into the locker room.
For a moment, dread spread through Rip City, and the storyline changed from the Blazers losing an October game to their franchise star leaving the court with an apparent non-contact injury. But that dread soon turned to relief as the team announced in the fourth quarter it was just a right calf strain. Lillard’s calm demeanor with reporters in the postgame locker room brought further relief, as he shrugged off the injury and predicted he wouldn’t miss much time.
“I was able to do everything, it just was tight,” Lillard said “...Honestly, if this was a playoff game, I would’ve played.”
Back on the court, with Lillard gone, the levee broke, leading to that quarter-capping exclamation point from Martin and a blowout in the fourth. The play was one of Martin’s 4 steals on the night, to go along with 17 points and 8 rebounds (4 offensive), while shooting 7-8 from the field.
“I really thought Caleb Martin was the difference, man,” Billups said. “He was just all over the place, he pressured everybody that he guarded, he shot the passing lanes, he was just a timely player.”
On Portland’s fifth game in seven days, Billups waved the white flag early, subbing in the deep bench — including Walker in his backwards shorts — with 8 minutes left to play.
After racing off to a head-turning 4-0 start, the Blazers suffered their first loss on the season at the hands of Miami. Now they must go on without their six-time All-Star for at least a game.
The Blazers will live with the result in a long NBA season. What matters most is how the team responds to its first taste of adversity.
“We gotta keep our same kind of energy,” Lillard said. “I told the team after the last game, ‘We gonna lose at some point, but the most important thing is being able to hold onto the energy in what we’ve created and now it’s time to do that.’”