When Damian Lillard makes the conscious decision to be in attack mode from opening tip until the final whistle, there are few, if any, defenses capable of matching that energy. Putting together a 42-point performance that seemed to have big-game potential from the start, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week ensured there’d be no funny business against the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks, guiding his Portland Trail Blazers to a competitive, entertaining, and ultimately nail-biting 129-125 win.
Monday night’s duel between two similarly-tested teams was an anomaly in some way. The Hawks took a 23-22 lead with 2:12 left in the first, only to never lead again throughout the entire game, despite tying the game on multiple occasions and staying within a possession or three throughout the night. It proved competitive in the most unconventional of ways.
Dejounte Murray led the Hawks with a brilliant, 40-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist masterpiece, and for the Blazers, Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons spelled Lillard’s 41-point highlight reel with 20+ point games of their own. Back in the win column, Portland moved to 24-26 and into a tie for No. 11 out West. Below are a few quarter-for-quarter thoughts:
If Jusuf Nurkic had any plans of easing himself back into the rotation, neither the Blazers nor the Hawks had any intentions of letting it happen. Working an inside-out approach to begin the game, the best and worst of the Bosnian big were present: the beautiful cross-court passes, the missed bunnies right at the rim, and serviceable rim protection against Clint Capela.
Over their last two home games, the Blazers have been outscored 68-33 in opening quarters; they came out like a team intent on flipping that statistic upside down, getting into actions quickly and moving the ball unselfishly. Fresh off of the weekly distinction, Damian Lillard quickly assumed that “best player in the arena” role, hitting three of his first four with speed and 3-point shooting, and thanks to Nurkic and Simons, among others, they maintained that built lead as Lillard rested.
Conveniently enough, Lillard returned to the game a few minutes later, picking up right where he left off. The Blazers put together a 9-0 run to close out the quarter, seven of which either coming off of a Lillard score, a Lillard assist, or through the benefit of the attention he drew. Eight first quarter assists; six transition points, an eight-point, 31-23 lead. In nearly every way, things were copacetic after one.
Perhaps sensing that the Hawks’ offense would be slightly off kilter without their two-time All-Star, the Blazers elected to go to a zone throughout the early portions of the quarter, and on offense, the Damian Lillard Show ran on. Even despite the officials’ hesitance to reward a whistle on Lillard’s drives, Portland found enough offense to avoid one of those droughts, maintaining separation.
The six or seven-point advantage remained too close for comfort, but it did appear as though the Blazers were on the cusp of a successful night. A quarter-and-a-half into the game, Lillard already had 20 points, the Blazers as a whole had only committed one turnover, and thanks to some aggressive pick-and-roll traps on Dejounte Murray, the Hawks’ top player proved productive, but not game breaking. For a while, at least.
We’ve talked briefly about how much differently Portland’s offense looks when they play with speed and controlled intensity; the benefits again showed tonight. Immediately after defensive stops, it wasn’t long before Shaedon Sharpe was running the floor, taking alley-oop jams from the likes of Josh Hart, or quick 3-pointers from Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant weren’t going straight through the net. Even so, it wasn’t quite enough to comfortably pull away from the Hawks. Picking the perfect opportunity to take over, Murray, another Pacific Northwest basketball staple, ran off 12 of the Hawks’ final 14 points to close the half, and that, paired with poor Blazers rebounding, set the tone for a competitive finish. The score at the half: Blazers, 64; Hawks, 60.
As the old saying goes, you can’t trade buckets when you’re trailing. Such was life for the Atlanta Hawks, who watched the lead balloon to as high as eight, but never to lower than four, despite Murray continuing his aggressive offensive approach while putting defensive pressure on Lillard in the meantime.
On the flip side, it often felt as though the Blazers were one run away from truly commanding this game. Opportunities were there; despite having a one-of-a-kind vertical leap and catch radius, Sharpe’s lob passes often came up errant, and the Blazers missed makeable shots that could have pushed their advantage. The Lillard vs. Murray duel ratcheted up a notch, with both of them surpassing 30+, and the team scores reflected that as well, with the Blazers leading 99-92.
With Lillard making it demonstratively clear from the opening tip that he would be taking on the Batman role, the Blazers had the luxury of having multiple different players assuming the “Robin” position throughout the night. With Grant, Simons, and Nurkic on the sidelines, the Blazers’ energetic backups, Nassir Little and Sharpe stepped up in a major way, hitting perfectly-timed shots to keep the Hawks at bay.
Reading this, one would think that eventually the Blazers were able to create some separation — it just wasn’t happening. No matter the situation, Atlanta found a way to hang within two or three possessions.
By this point, Lillard had worked his way into another one of those efficient nights, nearing 40+ points on fewer than 20 field goal attempts. Though, as the Blazers have had the tendency to do, that red-hot offense became stagnant down the stretch. Leading 119-111 with 3:49 left, the Blazers found themselves in a 119-119 tie just three minutes later. Fittingly, the game looked as though it would only end in one way: on the backs of either Lillard — who hit a clutch layup to break the tie — or Murray, who had kept the Blazers alive all night.
Taking advantage of a catch-and-shoot, Simons ended up hitting a 3-pointer to make it 124-121, and seemed to be out of the woods with one more stop … until Gary Payton II ended up fouling Bogdan Bogdanovic on a 3-point attempt. Thankfully, he missed not one, but two of the three. Billups’ substitutions proved helpful, toggling through the right defenders and rebounders down the stretch, and with a little fortune, Portland was able to escape with a closer-than-it-maybe-should’ve-been victory.
The Blazers look to get February off on the right note, starting with a Wednesday night duel against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Stay tuned for Matthew Legros’ extended, deep-dive review of this game shortly.