With the teams having combined for 45 wins in 141 attempts. today’s contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons held all the intrigue of a pair of cautious drivers stuck at a four-way stop, arguing who was going to be the politest. The Blazers managed to concoct a starting lineup without Josh Hart or Anfernee Simons. The Pistons countered with Cade Cunningham and not much else. It was not prime-time, ABC television material.
Portland, as is their habit, charged hard through the game. Detroit, as is their habit, did not. As a result, the Blazers earned a 20+ point lead. It’s also in Portland’s DNA to give those back, though. Three quarters of squashing the Pistons morphed into a 14-minute nightmare at the end, as Detroit came ALL the way back and turned the game into a nail-biter.
After all was said and done, free throws and a couple opportune plays late gave the Blazers a narrow, 119-115 win. It wasn’t easy, but it was satisfying for the young, victory-hungry players.
All five starters for the Blazers scored in double figures, led by Brandon Williams with 23. Ben McLemore added 21 off the bench. Cunningham and Saddiq Bey led all scorers with 25 apiece.
Both teams started the game fumbling and bumbling, not quite secure getting the ball up the floor. Each looked to convert opponent turnovers into easy points, the mantra of struggling offenses in need of oxygen. But both of them also found fertile ground in the depths of the lane. Inside scoring pumped the points skyward despite the lack of offensive firepower otherwise.
Detroit was the first to blink, lofting up perimeter jumpers that did nothing but clank. That allowed the Blazers to run out even harder off the rebound, turning nearly every possession into a fast break. Portland went up 17-9 by the 7:30 mark of the first.
The Blazers started picking up fouls from slightly-over-aggressive defense as the period progressed. Their energy was high, but a bit imprecisely applied. Free throws and lane dives helped the Pistons catch up.
Nonetheless, Portland got enough strips, run-outs, and shots in the lane to keep their scoring alive. As soon as Detroit stopped coughing up the ball, the Blazers’ scoring streak ended.
The free-throw imbalance and turnover follies led to one of the weirdest statistical quarters of the year. The Blazers shot 52.4% from the field against 23.8% for the Pistons. Detroit went 1-10 from the arc, while the Blazers only attempted a single shot from that range, going 0-1. Portland had 5 blocks and 20 points in the paint. Still, the Blazers led by just 7, 29-22.
Ben McLemore took the start of the second quarter in hand, canning a pair of three-pointers and a layup in short sorter, pushing Portland’s lead to 14, 40-26. The Pistons looked dumbfounded, or disinterested. Portland kept putting on the pressure, running out and converting at every opportunity. Detroit did pick up the inside scoring, but it allowed them to keep even, at best. Cade Cunningham got a couple of dunks in the halfcourt, but it wasn’t enough. The Blazers were able to counter by cutting off his dribble. With Detroit unable to hit a three, Portland never had to abandon that strategy.
The Blazers turned it over more often as the half dwindled to a close. Cunningham, ever persistent, continued to hammer away and had 18 by the half. That kept Detroit in it. The Blazers did well stroking their threes, though, and every one felt like the equivalent of four Pistons buckets. The Blazers led 67-52 at the half.
Portland’s point-of-attack defense fell apart a bit in the third, as Cunningham practically wrote a letter of intention to drive down the lane with the ball and the Blazers still couldn’t stop him. But CJ Elleby, of all people, hit a couple of key shots to keep the Pistons at bay. Speaking of... Saddiq Bey finally started to heat up, hitting a pair of threes, lighting a small candle for Detroit’s offense. Even so, Portland’s lead hovered around 20.
Just when the Pistons were watching Portland’s drivers well. Drew Eubanks came at them from the blind side. He posted up and cut into the lane for multiple conversions. Eubanks heated up at just about the same time Bey did. Once again, Detroit made a serious push but Portland matched it.
That could only last so long, though. Detroit just kept hammering away with their key scorers. Portland began sending them to the line again as well. By the 4:40 mark, Detroit had only made 2 more field goals than the Blazers had, but the lead had shrunk from 20 to 10. Hustle, tempo, and momentum were trending the Pistons’ way.
The Blazers turned Detroit’s own medicine against them, however, bulling inside, drawing fouls, and converting free throws. It continued the theme of the evening. Detroit was playing Whack-a-Mole. Every time they dropped the hammer against Portland, the Blazers popped up in another place. A late-quarter flurry of threes (read: two of them hit) gave the Pistons a credible run, but Portland still led 96-88 after three.
The Pistons started the fourth period with their reserves, a lineup even more no-namey than the no-name Blazers. Saban Lee made mincemeat out of Portland’s defense. Portland didn’t look capable of boiling water. Two and a half minutes after the start of the period, the lead was down to 1. Trendon Watford put on his Superman cape, converting a pair of shots in the lane, pushing it back to 5. With seven minutes left, Killian Hayes stole the ball and converted a solo layup to tie the score at 101. It was sure to be a nervous ending.
Either team could have taken the game at this point, but both were guilty of over-passing. They weren’t tentative as much as unaware, capable of executing a play but not taking over a game. One star-level veteran would have turned the contest, but neither team fielded one.
In the end, this game was decided largely at the free throw line. Neither team was capable of defending, or going for a loose ball, or blinking, without fouling. The final minutes of the fourth became a slog of whistles and charity tosses. Portland continued to shade towards Cunningham, the Pistons shut off the lane and forced the Blazers into contested threes...field goals became scarce.
Portland led by 2 as the 2:00 mark approached. They stripped Cunningham on a predictable drive and converted a two-on-one layup at the other end. On the next possession, they grabbed an offensive rebound and converted again. They almost had the coup de grace on the NEXT possession as they stole the ball, but they gave it right back for a Detroit alley-oop breakaway. Finally...FINALLY... Brandon Williams converted in the halfcourt via one of his patented super-speed drives. The Blazers led by 4, 116-112, with 48 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing play, Isaiah Stewart drew an offensive foul for hooking Justise Winslow in the post. Portland drained the shot clock before Kris Dunn missed a three, but the Blazers got the offensive rebound, effectively ending the game.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from the game.
The Blazers begin a five-game homestand against the San Antonio Spurs at 7:00, Pacific on Wednesday.