The Portland Trail Blazers turned in another would-coulda-shoulda-didn’t effort against the Golden State Warriors at the Moda Center on Sunday evening. They played a fabulous defensive game against Warriors MVP Steph Curry, but couldn’t contain the ball in the middle of the floor, giving all the points Curry would have scored (and more) to his teammates. They rode 30 points from Jerami Grant and 24 from Anfernee Simons into a tight fourth-quarter dogfight, but couldn’t execute when the possessions became most critical.
After falling behind by 22 early, Portland clawed back to tie the game in the third and fourth periods, but couldn’t get over the hump, ultimately falling to the Warriors 118-114. That brought their 9 loss at home in 11 tries this season and an overall 6-19 record,
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other key factors that played a part in the game.
Even a Caveman Could Do It
It’s a tale as old as time. If you want to stop the Warriors, you have to watch the three-point arc and keep them from running on the fast break. Maddeningly, the Blazers weren’t horrible in either category. The Warriors shot 13-38, 34.2% from the arc, but Portland responded with 13 made threes of their own, shooting 37.1% . Fast break points went 30-9 for Portland.
So how did Portland lose this one? It was simple. They gave up such basic shots in the halfcourt offense that your average “halftime run” fifth grade team could have scored on them. The Warriors shot 52.9% from the field on their way to 52 points in the paint. This to a team that’s dead last in the league, averaging 40.5 per game.
Head Coach Chauncey Billups has been quoted often saying, “Wait until we get this whole team healthy and together. Let’s see what happens.” Given anecdotal evidence so far, recently and at times with most of the lineup intact, “what happens” is the Blazers absolutely sucking defending the paint.
To Portland’s credit, they held Steph Curry to 2-12 shooting, 0-8 from the three-point arc. That broke a 268-game streak in which Curry had hit a three.
The Blazers basically ported over the Luka Doncic defense from their Dallas games to Curry, keeping a man close to him, switching on screens to make sure the distance never closed. To keep it up, they ended up switching pretty constantly. The drawback of that approach is what we just mentioned above: ending up with mismatches of bigs against smalls in the lane. Occasionally they ended up with open threes for other players as well. Golden State took full advantage of both. That’s how they continued producing points even when Portland’s defense looked good.
As is their wont, the Warriors muscled the Blazers out of rebounds for large swaths of this game, generally corresponding to the stretches in which the Blazers fell behind. Control of the glass became control of the game. Portland lost the overall rebounding battle 43-37, offensive 11-9.
Trayce Jackson-Davis looked like a monster against them in particular, grabbing 8 rebounds, 5 offensive, in just 18 minutes of play. He scored 14 points besides.
The switching defense had something to do with this as well. But the Blazers still need more size overall, they need more intensity at the big positions. The players with the most verve are undersized and often get in foul trouble. The legit bigs either aren’t talented enough to stay on the floor or don’t have the killer instinct to control the game via rebounding. Future drafts and trades may get targeted to address this.
Guard Penetration and Dish
Anfernee Simons and Scoot Henderson both committed to the driving against the Warriors, trying to use speed and athleticism against the AARP-ready Golden State backcourt. Henderson had plenty of success getting to the rim, Simons less so. But both employed a classic technique we haven’t seen enough of this year: the drive and dish. They found three-point shooters, but also cutters aplenty. Simons ended up with 7 assists, Henderson 2, but he scored 14, largely off of layups and free throws.
Part of Henderson’s success on the drive was his increasingly-apparent ability to change direction and speed with the ball in his hands. The Blazers broadcast team noted his deceleration and acceleration in the lane, but Scoot’s famed ability to angle—or even reverse—direction on the drive is starting to come into play as well.
At the start of the season, Scoot’s drives are all straight ahead and full speed. The game is slowing down for him now. Or, conversely. his relative play is speeding up. That’s going to be a huge key in taking full advantage of his abilities.
In order for the drive and dish to work, the outlets for the dish have to connect. Nobody exemplified the phenomenon better tonight than the usually-offensively-challenged Toumani Camara. The forward’s confidence in his own shot is growing and it shows. He’s taking attempts quicker, more decisively, and with purpose. Tonight he shot 3-3 from the three-point arc. If he can keep that up, he’ll become a true weapon for this team.
Once again we pay deep tribute to Matisse Thybulle’s disruptive play on the defensive end. He is practically a Tasmanian Devil in the passing lane, denying the ball, popping out to poke it away, almost always keeping his body between the offensive player and the rim at the same time. If you want to know what amazing defense looks like, watch Thybulle right now.
Unfortunately, Matisse is neither taking, nor making, shots on the offensive end. That’s limiting his overall effectiveness somewhat. But it’s a bargain worth making for a Blazers team desperately in need of a defensive anchor. If only they could get a big playing the same role...
For the third straight game, Shaedon Sharpe got muffled by the opposing defense, and by his teammates making him not-so-much the focus of the offense. Sharpe hit 4 shots tonight on an anemic 10 attempts. He did go 3-5 from distance. That was a huge plus. But his drives (and a few of Anfernee Simons’) got met and muted by the Golden State defense.
Maybe Sharpe shouldn’t be the center of Portland’s attack now that Jerami Grant and Deandre Ayton are back, but the Blazers looked more energetic, and frankly dangerous, on offense when Sharpe got more quality touches.
The referees played a large role in Portland’s last loss to Golden State, giving the ex-champs a huge free throw advantage against the upstart youngsters in red and black. The playing field evened tonight. Golden State attempted 19 foul shots, Portland 23.
It wouldn’t be a game between these two teams without some kind of controversy rearing its head though. In the final seconds, with the Blazers down 1 and needing the ball, they forced Curry into a trap on the right baseline. Jerami Grant came from behind and knocked the ball off of Curry’s leg out of bounds, giving Portland possession, but the referees called it the other way, giving the Warriors the ball. They failed to review the play and Portland had no challenges left to force them to.
It hardly matters, because this season is for learning and growing anyway. But dang. That’s no fun if you’re a Blazers fan.
The only consolation might be that the refs actually thought it was a foul and, for some reason, thought it was kinder to just award Golden State possession and not free throws. Since the Blazers ended up having to intentionally foul anyway, that point is moot, though.
The Big Quarter
Portland seems to have addressed their addiction to giving up huge first periods, a problem that plagued them mightily through the first 20 games of the season. Tonight they fell back only 27-23 in the first 12 minutes.
They haven’t gotten past giving up a big quarter somewhere in the game, however. In this one, it was the second. Portland got outran, out-shot, and outplayed to the tune of 38-26, favor to the Warriors. It’s hard to sail the ship effectively when you spend half the night bailing water. For Portland, it isn’t a question of whether, but which half they’ll be doing the bailing in.
And the Comeback
As is typical of Portland, the counter to Golden State’s big second quarter came one period later. For about ten glorious minutes, the Blazers did everything you could wish: defend like they were five Matisse Thybulles, rebound like unholy terrors, and work for easy shots themselves. Down 22, they came all the way back. The Warriors stopped the bleeding by throwing a zone in the last two minutes of the frame, stalling Portland’s offense into a swamp of contested threes. But the comeback was still significant.
It always is, of course. This is the problem with the Blazers. They play inspired and correct ball when the game might be taken away from them. They just can’t seem to leverage that same commitment into taking the game themselves.
And so it goes. Again.
The Blazers don’t get much of a break. They’ll play the Phoenix Suns at the Moda Center on Tuesday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start time.