The Portland Trail Blazers won their second straight game over the Dallas Mavericks at the Moda Center on Sunday night, 140-123. Dallas All-Star Luke Doncic sat out the second night of the back-to-back. Damian Lillard played, though, scoring 40 points with 6 assists in 37 minutes. Blazers forward Nassir Little returned to action following an extended injury absence, scoring 10 on 3-5 three-point shooting. Jusuf Nurkic helped Lillard dominate the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 20 points. Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant also scored 20 each. Mavericks guard Spencer Dinwiddie scored 28 in the absence of Doncic, but it wasn’t near enough to bring his team a win. In fact it was barely enough to qualify him as an average Portland starter tonight.
The teams combined for 75 free throw attempts in the game.
The victory brings Portland’s record to 21-22, keeping them in the thick of the Western Conference playoffs race despite a recent five-game losing streak.
The Mavericks missed Luka Doncic in their early sets, but they didn’t have to work too hard to read the Blazers employing the same tactic that worked so well for them last night: blitzing pick and rolls to pinch the dribbler. Dallas took extra time setting up plays in those situations; it wasn’t as smooth without their superstar. But with a little time, they found open shots off the pass. Three-point attempts were plentiful, although they missed more than their share.
No matter what the Mavs did on offense, they weren’t going to stop Damian Lillard on the other end. Dame drove the lane like he owned it, breaking down the Dallas defense into baby food slurry. If Lillard didn’t score himself, forwards Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, and Anfernee Simons made hay against an over-committed defense off of Dame dishes.
The only development marring the opening six minutes for the Blazers was Jusuf Nurkic picking up two fouls in less than four minutes. That took away the pick-and-roll attack, forcing them to rely slightly more on bald penetration or deep shots off the dribble. But whenever they got too happy with iso shots, Lillard took the lane and dished again. Then their attempts came freely.
Portland led 21-15 at the 6:00 mark, beneficiaries of Lillard’s greatness and Grant’s scoring momentum playing off of him.
Even with the edge, the Blazers still showed cracks. They had trouble dealing with penetration from Spencer Dinwiddie. Reggie Bullock wasn’t going to miss open three-pointers. Those two had a combined 13 points in the first seven minutes of the game. Hart earned his second foul in the same span, joining Nurkic as an early candidate for “Starter in Perpetual Foul Trouble”. When Christian Wood started hammering home dunks, the Blazers cracked a little. Dallas had the lead down to 3 with 4:00 remaining.
With Lillard stepping back a little, Grant and Simons tried to score the Blazers through the late-middle minutes of the period. They were modestly successful. The Mavericks continuing to miss wide open threes helped the cause considerably, as did Dinwiddie earning a second personal foul of his own in a whistle-intensive period.
Head Coach Chauncey Billups kept Dame in through the balance of the first, playing alongside Shaedon Sharpe, Jabari Walker, and the reserves when they checked in. The success rate without the prime players was less than it had been when Lillard had multiple options, but it served. Gary Payton II was active and disruptive. Drew Eubanks did the usual stand-up job on defense. Portland finished the period up 33-31, a slowdown in scoring late turning a potentially great quarter into a good one.
Lillard tried to put the quarter away in the first 90 seconds of the second, hitting a step-back three and getting fouled on another. He had the shot-button on turbo, waiting for no man on scoring attempts. Both teams favored the three, as Gary Payton II, Dallas guard McKinley Wright IV, and (yet again) Damian Lillard the Only all sank them in quick succession.
The scoring dried up and the game slowed considerably as the quarter wound to its midpoint. Missed shots and momentum-stunting whistles characterized the action. The most exciting developments for the Blazers were Nurkic playing bully-ball inside against under-sized defenders and the long-awaited return of Nassir Little.
Both pace and Dallas’ scoring picked up after the 6:00 mark. The Mavs ran the ball, drew a third foul against Nurkic, and prospered with Wood taking advantage of his own height advantage after Nurk sat. Lillard continued to score—and occasionally assist—but everything outside of his hands dried up for Portland.
But Dame was enough. As Dallas continued to scramble and run, he kept his cool, hitting every target available off of his frequent (and unstoppable) drives. He’d finish the half with 22 points and 5 assists. Dallas eventually sold the farm on defense to get the ball out of his hands. Portland missed a few, but Hart and company hit the offensive glass, giving them extra opportunities. The Blazers sputtered slightly, but still finished the half ahead 61-54.
Dallas went inside-out to start the third. Their bigger players—Wood and Davis Bertans—scored inside the arc. Dinwiddie stroked a three after. Nurkic resumed his rampage from the second quarter but it took about three minutes for him to draw his fourth foul and put an end to that. The Mavericks’ scoring outpaced Portland 16-8 in the first four minutes and they caught up almost instantly.
The lead wibble-wobbled for a few minutes as the teams traded single-point margins. A couple threes from Grant in the sixth minute gave Portland their margin back. They led 77-74 with 5:59 remaining. Dinwiddie picked up his fourth foul at that exact moment, giving Portland a potential weak spot to attack. Simons hitting the ensuing free throws made it 79-74, giving his team as much breathing room as they’d had all period.
Dallas tried to initiate early offense to get the points back, but—absent point guards—failed to get off the launching pad on several possessions. Some went late into the clock. Others were interrupted by foul calls, leading to Dallas free throws...about the only way they were scoring consistently. But Portland began to capitalize on turnovers, converting run-outs into quick points of their own. By the 4:00 mark, the Blazers had the margin back to 7, saving a potentially disastrous quarter.
The story got better for Portland inside the 3:00 mark, when Little stroked his third three of the game. Little looked comfortable on the floor, especially on his open shots. The best part was, behind Little and company, the Blazers re-extended their lead without Lillard on the floor. Lillard didn’t take over when he returned at the 2:00 mark either. The biggest fireworks of the final 120 came from Shaedon Sharpe driving baseline in the halfcourt for a huge dunk. That made the score 98-89, Portland.
Dallas got a three from Jaden Hardy and a conventional three-point play from Dwight Powell in the closing seconds, but the Blazers still led 98-95 at the third-period horn. Wood had 11 in the period for Dallas.
The fourth period opened with Dame hitting a short shot, announcing his intentions to win this one. Grant fouled Dinwiddie on a three on the next play, allowing Dallas to get it right back. Then Dame got bumped for an and-one on a foul-line “J”. Then Powell dunked on the other end. Then Little got fouled on a skying dunk put-back attempt. And Dinwiddie hit a looping scooper in the lane. Hoo boy. This was how it was gonna be.
After that flurry, we got a big event, as Dinwiddie picked up his fifth foul by getting in the way of a Nurkic drive. The clock had more than 10 minutes left. The Mavs left him in, for better or worse.
Hardy and Lillard would both score on the next two possessions before Dinwiddie finally missed a jumper, breaking the streak of consecutive scoring possessions for both teams. At that point, Portland led 109-103 with 9:30 remaining.
But that’s when the lid came off for Portland and the fireworks began. After three free throws combined for Lillard and Nurkic, Lillard hit a three and Nurk followed with his own. The best buds scored 9 points in 80 seconds, pushing Portland’s lead to 15, 118-103, with 8:08 remaining. If Dallas had a run left, it’d have to be a huge one.
When Lillard stole a pass on the next possession and Nurkic hit a half hook in the post to complete the transition, the hope of a comeback fizzled. Dame and Nurk went Salt Bae on that victory and the Moda Center rocked the rest of the evening.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off before heading to Denver to face the Nuggets on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.