The Portland Trail Blazers sauntered into the Moda Center on Thursday night fresh off a win against the Phoenix Suns, ready to establish a winning streak against the 4-22 Washington Wizards. Against most opponents this season, the Wizards have been helpless. As it turns out, though, if you let a running team run, get forced to pile inside and can’t get back to the arc, and generally play defense like it was optional, you’re going to lose, and records be damned.
Several Blazers had decent games. Jerami Grant scored 20, Deandre Ayton 23, and Anfernee Simons 41, including 22 in the fourth period alone to lead his team back from an 18-point deficit. Portland’s bench did their part, making up for the sins of the starters on the defensive end. But despite yeoman’s work from the reserves and the scintillating rally, the Blazers ended up one play short, leaving Washington with a 118-117 victory.
Here’s how the game went.
The night got off to a rough start for the home team. Two Blazers turnovers helped the Wizards to 7 points in the first 90 seconds against zero for Portland. The Blazers seemed stuck on the perimeter, throwing screens for everyone from point guards to power forwards. Those mostly yielded missed jumpers. A Malcolm Brogdon three fell. Portland scored off of a couple Washington miscues too. But that was no match for Washington’s fast, rim-based offense. At the first break, with 7:28 remaining, the Wizards led 17-7.
The story didn’t get any better as Portland kept hoisting deep attempts, then missing all the shots they got in the lane. The first created long rebounds, the second left several Blazers gathered in the paint. Both led to fast break opportunities, easy scores for a team in need of same. Washington built a 28-15 lead before Portland’s second unit—perhaps not so optimistic on offense and certainly more grounded defensively-stopped the flow.
The bench crew forcing Washington outside and curbing Portland’s own miscues helped close the game slightly. The Wizards led 33-24 after one.
Jerami Grant started off the second controlling the ball. He took 3 of Portland’s first 5 attempts, hitting all of them, drawing a foul for a pair of free throws besides. All of that scoring looked nice in theory, but Washington hit 5 of their first 6 shots against a permissive Portland defense, including a trio of threes, to keep their lead intact.
Portland continued to work through Grant inside, with a side dish of Deandre Ayton offensive rebounding, as the mid-quarter approached. It was a great offensive switch-up, a contrast to their opening approach. Finally that end of the court got humming for them.
Coach Billups also wised up, not re-inserting his starters en masse. Matisse Thybulle and Jabari Walker helped stiffen the defense, preventing Washington from making easy entry passes off of screens, also guarding the arc better. The Blazers didn’t close the gap, but they kept it from getting wider.
Duop Reath also put in some quality minutes in the second. He hit a three and his mobility on defense helped counter Washington’s quickness.
But eventually the starting lineup came back together again. No matter how they scored, the defense just wasn’t good enough to make their shift effective. Grant did his best, continuing to fire and hit, but a single scorer just wasn’t enough to make inroads.
The Wizards led 67-54 at the half. Portland retreated to the locker room to get a pep talk, some strategy updates, all in an attempt to turn around a game yet again.
Malcolm Brogdon got a lucky bounce off the bracket on a short jumper to start the second half, followed by Anfernee Simons with a floater in the lane. It looked like Portland was cooking. But Daniel Gafford got one right at the cup, followed by a Jordan Poole pick six to get it all back in about ten seconds, real time.
If Portland was going to strike back, they had a funny way of showing it. Missed mid-range shots and turnovers were followed by conversions right at the rim by Gafford and company, in a near-mirror of the first period. Washington led by 18, 80-62, when the Blazers called timeout with 7:42 remaining in the third.
Once again the second unit put a tourniquet on the open wound that was the starters’ defense. They crowded the paint and forced the Wizards outside, running hard off of the ensuing misses. Duop Reath, Scoot Henderson, and Jabari Walker provided the energy, and a couple of passes, that the first unit hadn’t. Oddly enough, matching the young and fractured Wizards’ energy was enough to match their production.
The bench squad managed to cut 7 points off of Washington’s 18-point edge by the 3:30 mark, leaving the score 88-77. The final three minutes of the period would go a long way towards determining whether this was a game or a disaster.
The verdict on that remained essentially neutral. Grant hit a three off of a broken play and active defense forced a 24-second violation from Washington. But Danilo Gallinari hit a stand-still three and then Henderson dribbled into a shot clock violation for Portland.
After those ups and downs, Portland still found themselves trailing 93-80 heading into the fourth.
Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons each hit three-pointers in the opening minutes of the fourth, closing the lead to single digits within the first minutes and a half. Then a Simons to Deandre Ayton alley-oop came clear off of a high screen set, followed by a pair of free throws for Ayton off of another drive. It was as much verve and concentrated effort as the starters had shown all night. The scored read 99-92, Washington with 9:00 remaining.
But just when you thought it was safe to take the hardwood, Tyus Jones hit Kyle Kuzma for an alley-oop off a turnover, then Jones hit a triple off of a Kuzma double team. Just like that, Washington led by 12 again.
Anfernee Simons continued to score, but the Wizards persisted in driving the ball inside against mismatches created by Portland switches. Foul shots kept Washington away from Portland’s grasp during the critical middle minutes of the period when the Blazers needed to engineer a decisive run.
When Jones hit another three with 6:37 left, Portland called a timeout. Washington led 108-94.
Anfernee Simons hit a three on the next possession, but Jones struck again right after. Then the Blazers got a break-away off of a Thybulle steal, followed by an Ayton rebound and put-back. That cut the lead to 110-103 with 4:51 remaining, leading to the first Washington “uh oh” timeout of the night.
After Jones missed a layup, Simons hit another three from the left diagonal, leading to his 14th point of the period. Right after he jammed the ball with both hands for his 15th and 16th on a run-out after a Wizards miss. The score was 110-108, Washington, with 3:57 remaining. “Uh oh,” became, “Oh [unprintable word],” as the Wizards called yet another timeout.
A Brogdon runner off of a broken play cut the lead to two right after. Jordan Poole flopped on the play and was whistled for a technical. The lead went to one. The scoreboard read 112-111, Wizards.
Kuzma defended Simons into a miss on the next possession. Simons returned the favor (barely) on the other end, but an offensive rebound gave Washington the critical score they needed. When Simons hit a three on the next possession, the roof blew off the building. Score tied.
Kuzma scored off of his own shot on the other end, making the score 116-114, Washington. Ayton had the same opportunity for Portland, but he missed both close-up shots. After a Kuzma miss, Grant charged hard and drew the sixth foul on Gafford, along with free throws. He made one of two, making it a 116-115 game with 31 seconds remaining. In a stroke of amazing luck, Ayton got the rebound and tossed it out to Simons. In a stroke of excruciating agony, Simons missed the easiest layup he had all quarter and was unable to put his team ahead.
Kuzma hit 1 of 2 free throws on the next possession, leaving his team up 2, 117-115. But Portland couldn’t corral the rebound. Kuzma was fouled on a tip-in attempt but again hit only 1 of 2. With 12.1 seconds left, Portland trailed 118-115.
After a timeout, the Wizards opted not to foul Simons on the drive. His dunk brought the Blazers within 1 again, 118-117. 7.6 seconds remained.
Typical of the chaotic, razor-thin nature of the quarter, Thybulle appeared to strip Jordan Poole on the ensuing inbounds play, but was whistled for a foul. The Blazers challenged the call. It was overturned, leading to a jump ball between the parties involved.
Thybulle won the tip, after which Portland called their final timeout. Improbably, they had one last chance to snatch away the win, down just 1 with 5.8 seconds remaining.
As it turned out Jerami Grant, not Simons, took the final play. He dribbled down the left side of the lane, but was well-defended. His looping half-hooked layup sailed over the rim to the opposite side of the backboard, leaving Portland a single point short of the win.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon!
The Blazers head south to face the Golden State Warriors on Saturday with an early start, 5:30 PM, Pacific.