The Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t play with the Washington Wizards during Portland’s final game of the pre-All-Star-Game schedule on Tuesday night. The Wizards fielded big men capable of scoring. The Blazers fielded...well...not much besides Damian Lillard. His 39 points were amazing, but he labored hard against a defense that had nothing to do but hound him mercilessly. Brief moments of excitement punctuated an otherwise-muddled performance for the Blazers, who fell to 28-30 with the 126-101 loss.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After you’ve read that, here are the whys and wherefores of the blowout loss.
The Blazers started out the game trying to counter Washington’s height advantage with a zone defense. It didn’t work well, half because Portland still isn’t crisp in executing it, half because the Wizards just passed out of it. Kristaps Porzingis proved a one-man zone-buster. He caught, kept the ball high, and either shot over Portland or tossed to teammates if the Blazers over-committed. Washington had enough three-point shooting to make the Blazers rue leaving gaps on the floor, as the zone is wont to do.
Portland’s man-to-man schemes didn’t work much better, at least not in the abstract. They fielded a lineup comfortable with switching, as most of their players stand at similar heights. Unfortunately those heights are still 6’7 or less. That meant no matter how they switched, they still faced the same vertical disadvantage. Shading towards drivers and trying to poke the ball away from Porzingis were necessary, but those tactics left Wizards open around the perimeter, same as the zone defense. The results were pretty much the same as well.
Overall, Portland’s defense was like playing the shell game with no ball under any of the coconuts. Porzingis had 28 on 10-15 shooting, Kyle Kuzma 33 while shooting 6-10 from the arc, and Washington shot 57.0% from the floor, 51.5% on threes.
Do the Hustle
When the Blazers found success, it was because of their hustle-based play: offensive rebounds, forcing turnovers, running out. Portland had huge fastbreak and rebounding edges early. That’s when the game was close. They also generated turnovers during a fourth-quarter comeback. As soon as they lost those edges, they also lost contact with the Wizards. Portland finished the game with 19 transition points (10 in the first period, 9 after) 16 forced turnovers, and 12 offensive boards (6 in the first, 6 after). They won all three categories, but that wasn’t enough to make up for the steady leak of standard buckets to the Wizards. It was like making the world’s best-diced peas for a rice bowl, but forgetting to cook the actual rice.
Say what you want about the Blazers collectively, but Drew Eubanks is out there giving everything he has on every possession in the absence of Jusuf Nurkic. Outsized, and honestly outmatched, Eubanks still generated 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. That’s not bad for a center who would have been considered a third-stringer a season ago but is now starting, and spurring, his team.
Damian Lillard was hot and cold in this game, largely depending on whether the Wizards were able to double-team him or not. He had a couple of extended runs, but never could put on the blizzard attack that the team really needed. He finished with 39 points on 14-30 shooting, but hit only 5-17 from the arc. The Wizards were pretty invested in chasing him outside, making him earn his points the hard way.
Threes Turn Disgraceful
Washington was able to devote defensive attention to Lillard in part because the Blazers were lousy at the arc overall. The non-Dame corps went 7-25 from distance, 28.0%, and most of those shots were open. Cam Reddish hit 4-7, Shaedon Sharpe 2-5, but Anfernee Simons went 1-3, Matisse Thybulle 0-3, Nassir Little 0-5.
Compare that to the Wizards hitting 17-33 triples overall, and what should have been a Blazers advantage—a necessary one given the height disparity—curdled quickly.
Let’s preface this last section with a caveat. The Blazers are now missing Nurkic, Jerami Grant, and Josh Hart, plus Anfernee Simons rolled an ankle late in the third quarter of this game. For those counting, that’s every starter besides Lillard from just three weeks ago...now out or gone.
That said, a night after praising Portland’s supporting cast against the barely-caring Los Angeles Lakers, we need to ding them against the active Wizards. Seven Blazers besides Lillard registered negative double-digit plus-minuses tonight. Nobody on the team had a plus. Eubanks was the closest with a zero.
No matter who they put out there, the Blazers got housed. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t close. And it wasn’t something they can sustain after the All-Star break if they have any hope of reaching for a playoffs spot in the West.
Stay tuned for analysis of the evening, coming soon!
The Blazers now have an extended rest over the NBA All-Star break. They next play on Thursday the 23rd, facing the Sacramento Kings with a 7:00 start.