The Portland Trail Blazers should have had a relatively easy time against the 4-22 Washington Wizards at the Moda Center on Thursday night. Instead they stumbled, bumbled, and mostly non-defended their way to a 118-117 loss. An amazing fourth-quarter rally fell just short, giving the Blazers their 20th loss of the season, their 10th defeat in 13 tries at home.
If you missed the proceedings, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here, including a blow-by-blow account of the big comeback. Once you’re up to date there, here are other observations from the game.
After a night of frustration, Anfernee Simons blazed through the fourth quarter with the intensity of six suns, scoring 22 points in the period to will his team back from a double-digit deficit. Simons would finish with a season-high 41 points on 15-28 shooting, 7-14 from the three-point arc. He even added 7 assists to his tally.
An interesting hiccup came at the end of the game when, down a single point with just under six seconds remaining, the Blazers opted to go to Jerami Grant instead of Simons for the game-winning attempt. Grant wasn’t having a bad night. He shot 6-14, 4-7 from distance for 20 points. But his drive was covered by tall and agile rookie Bilal Coulibaly. Instead of trying to bull into contact and draw a foul, Grant went left around Coulibaly. He was forced to throw up a covered, shaded, off-hand looper which never came close to touching the rim. Fans an analysts will no doubt debate whether the ball should have been in the hands of the incandescent Simons instead.
Be that as it may, it’s safe to say that without Ant tonight, the Blazers wouldn’t have been close.
Praising Simons and pointing out Portland’s incredible 20 offensive rebounds on the night are about as close as we can come to positive observations after a loss to a 4- (now 5-) win team, though. Here are some of the reasons the Blazers needed the improbable rally to even come close to winning in the first place.
The Trail Blazers showed great willingness to switch on screens, keeping defenders close to Washington’s guards rather than letting them into open space. It betrayed them when the Wizards figured out that, with the right screen, they could force a mismatch of a big player against Simons. Washington doesn’t score that effectively overall, but they’re deadly near the rim. They took Portland down low repeatedly, finishing with 56 points in the paint. This became slightly less of a factor as the game wore on, but it’s how the Wizards got their lead to double digits to begin with.
The other way the Wizards score is fast. Turnovers and long rebounds allowed them all the opportunities they pleased. Washington scored 23 on the break tonight, 10 in the first period alone. This played right into their hands. They’re third in the league, averaging 16.8 ppg on the run. It’s discouraging to see Portland fail at such a basic and obvious aspect of the game.
First Quarter Blues
It wouldn’t be a Portland game without the Blazers digging themselves a hole to crawl out of. They started off allowing Washington a 28-15 lead before coming back to close the first down 33-24. The starting unit’s response to the Wizards dunking and breaking was to hoist it deep and try to offensive rebound. That’s a strategy against a team you’re overmatched against, not a plan to dominate a weak one.
It’s possible that the Blazers just aren’t catching Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ message until halftime. (Or in this case, until the fourth quarter.) It’s also possible that the Blazers just haven’t found the right starting lineup combination yet.
Deandre Ayton got acclaim for his performance on Tuesday night versus the Phoenix Suns. He also had a deceptively nice stat line of 23 points and 16 rebounds tonight. Those were accumulated in brief, opportunistic spurts. In other moments, though, he looked overmatched.
Wizards center Daniel Gafford was faster and springier than Ayton. DA succeeded when he could secure the ball, stand still, and play like a classic big. Alternately, the grabbed offensive boards and went for the quick put-back. In every other situation—getting free on offense, catching, dribbling, and moving on defense—Ayton looked slow. He finished the game with 5 of Portland’s 16 turnovers. Credit for what he did well, but more consistent play might have helped Portland save this one.
This was one of the rare nights when the Blazers shot extremely well from the three-point arc but didn’t come away with the win, or at least a really good-looking performance. The Blazers fired 14-30 from the arc, 46.7%.
Portland didn’t do themselves any favors defensively, though. Washington shot 12-30, 40.0%, themselves. Many of those shots were open, the after-effect of the Blazers having to draw down their defense to prevent the Wizards from scoring in the lane.
Other than the inability of Matisse Thybulle and Scoot Henderson to hit shots—they went a combined 0-8 from the field—there are no complaints about Portland’s bench players tonight. The second unit set the table for the big rally by keeping at least marginal contact with the Wizards after the starters gave away the huge lead. Duop Reath played quick on his feet, scoring 10 points in 10 minutes with 5 rebounds. Jabari Walker netted 11 boards in 24 minutes himself. Both provided the defense that the starters missed, as did Thybulle and, to an extent, Henderson.
The second unit committed quite a few fouls, but they matched Washington’s energy at least. That, and paying attention to the basics, was all that was needed to stay even with the opponent. At least somebody realized it.
Simons was on fire late, but you know who also might have looked good in this game? 6’6 shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe. If the Wizards were going to play a devil-may-care, breakneck style, Sharpe would have been able to accommodate, maybe dominate. But Sharpe was forced to sit out with Adductor soreness, and there you go.
The Blazers head south to face the Golden State Warriors on Saturday with an early start, 5:30 PM, Pacific.