The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night down their starting center Jusuf Nurkic and starting small forward Josh Hart. That duo comprises the second and third best defenders in Portland’s first five, plus all of their interior size. Given the injury news, the Raptors knew exactly where to attack. Pascal Siakam and company destroyed the Blazers in the lane, jumping out to a 23-point lead in the first period. Portland made a game try at a comeback, pressing the ball inside themselves. The Blazers managed 60 points in the paint and 18 made free throws, but Toronto had 68 and 17. That allowed the Raptors a fairly-hard-fought, but relatively secure, 123-105 victory.
Damian Lillard scored 30 in the loss. Pascal Siakam scored 24 for the Raptors, while Precious Achiuwa added a career-high 27.
The Blazers fall to 23-26 with the loss, 13-11 at home.
The Raptors caused all kinds of problems for Portland early, employing a dual approach. Their first instinct was to run the ball for easy points. They got a couple buckets that way. If they couldn’t streak past the Blazers defense, they pounded the ball into the lane against a Nurkic-less lineup and scored off of spinning post moves. Portland didn’t have the size or height to compensate. The Blazers found themselves down 9-1 after just a couple minutes of play, forced to call a regrouping timeout.
The timeout didn’t help. The Raptors simply took turns exploiting matchup advantages at every position. Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent, Jr...they lined up as casually as they would at a cafeteria, collecting trays full of paint points. Just after the 6:00 mark, Toronto led 21-7.
A layup and a three right after made it worse.
To be fair, lots of Portland shots were rimming in and out, but it didn’t matter with the Raptors now making it rain—Trent, Jr. would hit three long balls in the period—in addition to hammering it like a Triple-H sledgehammer right on the top of Portland’s collective heads.
The lead got up to 30-7, Toronto before Jerami Grant hit an improbable, twisting baseline layup and was fouled for the and-one. That started a trio of easy shots for the Blazers, which made the score look a little more respectable for a bit.
Portland’s second unit was already playing with the starters because of the injuries to Hart and Nurkic. Portland’s third unit, pressed into second-unit duty, had all the timing of The Great Khali trying to hit a moonsault. They ended up shooting late in the clock and covered, if at all.
The Raptors shot 16-23 in the period, 4-7 from distance, and led 37-14 after one.
Not even a young Chris Jericho could have saved the Blazers from that disaster of a first period, but they needed to start chipping away at Toronto’s edge anyway.
Head Coach Chauncey Billups picked up the youth movement theme anyway, putting in an NXT-like lineup of players not quite ready for the big show, but at least mobile and eager. The Blazers started switching on everything, which put them closer to most Toronto shot attempts...a drastic improvement from the first quarter.
Anfernee Simons started penetrating the lane instead of just shooting while Jabari Walker and Shaedon Sharpe ran the floor at every opportunity. Gary Payton II played William Regal in this motif, providing seasoned defense and keeping his teammates cool, to avoid further besmirching the game. Sharpe also had a couple nice defensive plays. By the 8:30 mark, Portland had the lead down under 20, the first step in relevance.
The starters checked in again around the 8:00 mark and the defense got as predictable as a John Cena match finish again. Once more the Raptors found success alternating threes and drives inside. All progress was lost. Portland had to start again.
Portland finally went on an extended run in the middle of the second, when they gave up on everything but sending the house inside to defend against Raptors drives. Denied their usual easy buckets in the restricted area, Toronto passed the ball outside for open threes. Fortunately for the Blazers, those shots stopped falling. Longer rebounds allowed Portland to get out into quick offense. Lillard took over, driving the lane and drawing fouls or dishing. That was the combined spark Portland was looking for. Getting the lead down to a dozen by the 4:00 mark felt like leading by two dozen instead, comparatively.
The Raptors starters got it back at the hind end of the period, though. Once again they disciplined themselves into setting screens, getting half a step, and driving inside. When Portland shifted over to help, Toronto would just flip it to another inside player, replacing their missed threes from earlier with and-one conversions right at the rim. It was like locking on a figure-four leg lock that the Blazers couldn’t escape.
Even worse, Toronto started to clock Portland’s isolation drives into the lane, queuing up for blocks, countering moves like a prime-vintage Kurt Angle.
The lead soared up past 20 again. Lillard scoring brought it back down to 19 at the half, 63-44.
The Blazers started the second half right, with Lillard dishing to Grant for a three. Portland wanted to strike as quickly as Rey Mysterio trying to club down a giant.
Lo and behold, the offense did Hulk up, even after all those blows from the opponent earlier. Shots started falling from mid-range and longer at a rate the Raptors just couldn’t match. Toronto’s offense looked forced, deliberate, like a 23-minute Test vs. Scott Steiner match. Portland was flying like Jeff Hardy coming off a ladder propped on a balcony. In less than four minutes, the Blazers had the lead down to twelve once again.
When Damian Lillard started producing points in the middle minutes of the third, it was like the Undertaker sitting up off the canvas. The crowd started stirring, but Barnes hit a few shots of his own to keep the Blazers down. Then Jerami Grant got in the act, driving the lane and dunking, then picking up fouls. That was the spark that finally got the Blazers going. The lead fell to single digits, then down to five by the end of the quarter. Portland’s defense fed off of that energy and it was on. Somehow, improbably, the Blazers trailed only 88-83 at the end of three.
The scoring stalled at the start of the fourth, as both teams bore down and forced the other to play ugly. Lillard, remaining in the game to begin the period, was the first to break through. He was going to do everything possible to make sure his team had a chance, even if it meant absorbing contact and feasting on foul shots. A Lillard three with 8:41 made the score 94-90, Toronto. It looked like a comeback for the ages.
But once again, Portland’s interior defense came up short. Siakam, Chris Boucher, and Fred VanVleet all scored in quick succession, VanVleet twice. Still stuck guessing the right road between ineffective single coverage and over-helping, Portland ended up prospering from neither. Toronto once again had a tempo advantage, forcing the Blazers into long, contested possessions while scoring quickly themselves. This was the same trouble the Blazers got into earlier.
When Portland’s jumpers started missing, it got worse. The Raptors kept pouring on points, building their lead back to 15 by the 6:00 mark. The Blazers would have to see if they had one more run left in them.
On the very next possession after the midway point, Lillard drove, fell to the floor in traffic, and turned over the ball trying to pass it from a prone position. After a couple more back-and-forth possessions without any scoring, Siakam found himself wide open on the sideline from three. The resulting swish was like a Goldberg jackhammer, putting the Raptors up 18 and signaling the game was over.
Stay tuned for analysis from the evening, coming right up!
The Blazers will have a day off to think about their sins before welcoming the Atlanta Hawks in a 7:00 PM, Pacific tip on Monday night.