The Portland Trail Blazers suffered an epic collapse against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday night, one that may go down in the annals of Blazers lore in infamy. In the short-term, it raises loud questions about the state of the 2022-23 Blazers and what changes are needed — and could be coming — to right this ship.
To fall from such a great height against the Lakers, the Blazers first had to reach that mountainous elevation. They did that with one of the most ascendant quarters of basketball this writer has ever seen, outscoring LeBron James and the Lakers 45-13 on their way to a 71-46 halftime lead. But that quarter feels like a lifetime ago, as Portland slowly crumbled at the will of the Lakers in the second half, coughing up the lead and falling 121-112.
LeBron James led the Lakers’ charge with 37 points, while center Thomas Bryant added 31. Anfernee Simons led Portland with 31 points in the deflating loss.
If you missed any of the action, check out Dave Deckard’s quarter-by-quarter recap. Now, here are five observations from this rollercoaster ride of a game.
A Game of Runs
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: This was a wild game of runs, a seesawing affair of extremes and emotions, with both teams hitting rock bottom and Cloud Nine at different stretches. The game started with an 18-4 L.A. run. Then Portland responded by outscoring Los Angeles 67-28 during the rest of first half, including that bonkers second quarter scoring explosion. To put that second quarter in perspective, 45 points marked Portland’s highest-scoring quarter of the season, while 13 points marked the Lakers’ lowest-scoring quarter of the season. According to ESPN writer Kevin Pelton, Portland put up the largest single-quarter margin (plus-32) for any team since the 1986-87 season and the second-largest single-quarter margin in the 3-point era. It’s not hyperbole, that second quarter was historically good. But the Blazers followed it up by looking abysmal after halftime. The Lakers promptly got back in the game by outscoring Portland 40-20 in the third quarter and they took over the game with a 35-21 fourth quarter advantage. The game ended with a comfortable 9-point win for the Lakers — After all that.
I was ready to sing Portland’s praises after the first half. The defense, sparked by a scrappy second unit, was pressuring and active. They got hands in the passing lanes for deflections and steals, firing up the fast break for easy buckets and unlocking a free-flowing offense. Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little were on fire, Jerami Grant was dunking in transition, Damian Lillard was talking threats to Patrick Beverley and following up Russell Westbrook airballs with logo airstrikes. It was must-see TV. It looked like the Blazers of October, the team that played loose and fiery and started 10-4. After the collapse in the second half, none of that seems to matter anymore.
Hounding Guard Pressure
So how did L.A. turn the tide in that third quarter? It started with perimeter pressure from their guards, Beverley and Dennis Schroeder. The duo got in the grill of Portland ball-handlers and didn’t allow Portland to comfortably start its sets. Anfernee Simons struggled with the pressure the most, nearly getting forced over the line for a backcourt violation on one possession and then throwing an arrant pass to Lillard for a turnover on another. It was no picnic for Lillard either, who had the ball stripped by Beverley on one drive and really had to work to get his points the rest of the way. He finished with 24 points on 5-17 shooting from the field and 3-13 from deep. More so than the turnovers (four in the quarter), the biggest impact the ball-pressure made was it mucked up Portland’s offensive rhythm. That fluid, momentous scoring punch was gone and the game grinded to a halt in the half-court. Rather than 3-pointers cascading in and the Blazers getting easy looks at the rack, feeding the crowd life, their shot stopped falling. They could only break through with difficult drives to the basket or free throws. Portland never found its rhythm back and like a chorus of “Fah Who Foraze”, the Lakers’ comeback started off slow and then it started to grow as the control shifted. It was all because of that physical defense inserting its will on a wilting Portland squad.
Fast Break Freight Trains
That defensive pressure led to run-outs in transition for the Lakers, but they pushed the ball on Blazers misses, too. Coming into the game averaging the second-most points in the paint per game in the NBA, L.A. came out of halftime with the plan to play to its strengths: Get out on the break and stuff the ball to the rim. In that scenario, LeBron James was an unstoppable freight train. He scored 16 of his 37 in the third quarter, including 12 points in the paint and 7 fast break points. As a team, L.A. attempted only four 3s in the third quarter (30 for the game), while scoring 24 points in the paint (62 for the game) and 11 fast break points (21 for the game). After scoring just 22 points in the paint in the first half, the Lakers scored 40 in the second half. In the fourth quarter, they weren’t playing especially great, but they were more physical than the Blazers on both sides of the ball and it made the difference.
Panic Ball Down the Stretch
It seems like an eternity ago that Portland was winning close games with clutch heroics and poise. Because for the last two months or so, the Blazers have unravelled late with tight play, turnovers and missed shots. Sunday night added another stinker to the case files, as Portland completed its collapse by not even keeping this game close. With L.A.’s physical play and hounding pressure, Portland’s offense devolved into desperate 3-point attempts from Lillard and Simons that missed badly and a hectic dance of drives and kicks where players looked sped up. Portland was again furiously paddling upstream to try and salvage a win before the clock struck midnight. One commenter in the second-half game day thread titled the theatrics “Panic Ball” and I thought it was an exceptionally-apt description. (Please, show yourself in the comment section below and collect your credit).
Lakers center Thomas Bryant was the best big man on the floor tonight, going 12-15 for 31 points and 14 rebounds, while shooting 4-5 on 3-pointers. He opened up the game with two triples, then slammed the door shut with back-to-back demoralizing slams in crunch time. While Beverley and Schroeder helped give L.A. physicality on the perimeter, Bryant ensured the Lakers’ toughness in the trenches. On Portland’s side, if we’re going to point out any positive from this game, let it be Drew Eubanks. With Jusuf Nurkic struggling and hampered by early foul trouble, Eubanks stepped in with probably his best game of the season, at least on defense. In 30 minutes of play, the backup center finished with 6 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks. It felt like he was getting a hand on every shot in his radius. In the fourth quarter, when Portland was sorely lacking fire, Eubanks kept Portland in for a stretch with his energy and grit.
The Blazers have a chance to bounce back quickly tomorrow night with a game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Moda Center. Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. PT.