The Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls played a feisty game on Saturday night, throwing haymakers at each other like heavyweight brawlers in a sweltering gym. Damian Lillard and Zach LaVine showed why they’re two of the best scorers in the entire NBA. Portland countered Chicago’s size advantage with quickness darting down the lane and shooting prowess.
But the Blazers faced a constant problem, unable to deal with Chicago’s interior scoring. Lillard’s ability to generate infinite points countered the mismatch as long as the tap was on, but he couldn’t play all 48 minutes. Both he and his team suffered from fatigue, playing on the second night of a road back-to-back.
Portland was able to keep even for three quarters, both generating and suffering from huge runs. But the fourth quarter belonged to Chicago. Fast play, interior scoring, and plenty of foul shots propelled the Bulls to a hard-fought, but seemingly-inevitable, 129-121 victory.
Lillard scored 40 on 12-21 shooting in the loss. LaVine countered with 36, shooting 11-18.
With the loss, Portland’s record falls to 26-27, 12-16 on the road.
Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons both got points early as the Blazers leaned hard into their guard-oriented offense. Drew Eubanks set screens, but missed a couple of close shots uncharacteristically.
On the other end the Bulls equaled them and then some, penetrating against Portland’s weak interior defense, then tossing out for relatively easy catch-and-shoot threes. If the Blazers didn’t rotate hard inside, the Chicago bigs scored all but unopposed. If they did, Chicago shooters scored the same way. It was readily apparent that Portland better keep the points flowing, else they were going to fall behind quickly.
The Blazers managed it in the first half of the first quarter. They scored somewhat deliberately, but they scored. The Bulls’ offense came much quicker and more freely, though. Chicago would nab misses, then dart down the floor for layups. Their passing, detailed in the paragraph above, continued unabated.
But Portland’s second unit came to save the day. They didn’t do as well offensively, but they got scrum-ish on the defensive end, slowing down the Bulls and keeping them from running away on the scoreboard. Gary Payton II, Jerami Grant, and Trendon Watford made a decent trio on the defensive end. The whole thing looked cobbled together, but cobbled together is a lot better than falling apart.
Payton continued to put his stamp on the defense as the quarter closed, making up for his team’s miscues with hustle and stick-to-it individual defense no matter who he ended up on. He made sure the Bulls would finish the period closer to 30 than 40 (barely). But the second-unit offense just couldn’t generate enough momentum to keep up. Zach LaVine had 15 and the Bulls posted 12 assists on 14 made buckets in the first. 64% shooting for Chicago edged out 53% for Portland and the Bulls led 34-27 after one.
Chicago feasted on interior scoring as the second period opened up. They knew the Blazers had a weakness inside and they set out to exploit it, setting up drives off of screens and diving to the bucket before the Blazers could rotate.
Lillard attempted to Dame-inate them on the other end, hitting an initial three, then taking it to the rack with regularity.
Points came thick and plenty in this environment. Lillard caught a hot streak, scoring 10 points in the first three minutes of the period. But the Bulls couldn’t miss, inside or out, turning the game into a slugfest.
As the quarter continued, Portland’s shots came more contested. But they went to an audible, with Lillard drawing whistles like a Carnival parade in Rio. A huge free throw advantage kept the Blazers up by 4-6 instead of down by the same. To their credit, the Blazers found ways not to fall behind no matter what the Bulls did.
Portland also did a better job closing out at the arc in the middle and later second period, stopping the free-flowing threes that had given the Bulls offense extra zing in the first. Chicago still scored inside nearly at will, but any shot 8 feet and out looked trickier for them.
The Blazers got a break with 2:40 remaining when LaVine picked up his fourth personal foul, an offensive push-off on a fast break. LaVine had 21 points, Chicago’s leading scorer in the blizzard of points. Simons and Jearmi Grant hit threes as the period closed to extend the lead. Their combined contributions couldn’t even begin to match Dame, though. Lillard scored 28 in the half, Portland held a 16-2 edge in free throw attempts, and the Blazers led 70-59 heading into intermission.
The torrent of scoring that typified the first half dried up at the start of the third quarter. Simons put in a couple shots for Portland early. DeMar DeRozen and Nikoka Vucevic answered for Chicago. But four field goals in four minutes between the teams was a far cry from the four-per-minute pace set earlier.
Naturally this benefited Portland, hanging on to a double-digit lead. Any stalemate bleeding minutes off the clock reduced Chicago’s opportunity to take advantage of their matchups.
To their credit, the Blazers stayed strong rebounding as Chicago continued to miss. When the Bulls went cold, they got only one shot at breaking the drought per trip. Again and again they came up short. The lack of confidence seemed to cascade. Generosity from the first half became tentative play in the second, as the Bulls passed to avoid taking shots instead of creating better ones.
But all good things must come to an end. Portland’s luck did as the third period reached its midpoint. The Bulls went back to their tried-and-true, big-man-based interior attack, rattling off a 13-0 run that brought them to within 4, 80-76, with 4:19 remaining. Turnovers and rebounds started going against the Blazers, turning a slow leak into a flood. Kickouts for threes started falling for Chicago, increasing the damage further. Portland had to be careful not to let the whole thing slip away from them.
The reasons for Portland’s inability to strike back were clear. First, Lillard sat for much of this stretch. Second, the offense consisted of one player dribbling and four standing around, spreading the court.
When LaVine hit a three with 2:07 remaining, Chicago regained the lead, 85-84. Head Coach Chauncey Billups, sensing disaster unfolding, checked in Lillard right about the same time.
The strategy worked, too. The next possession, Lillard drove, drew attention, and kicked to the corner for a Shaedon Sharpe three. But LaVine had a head of steam and smoke pouring out of his ears, going hard at the hoop for twisting conversions or foul shots.
When the horn sounded on the third, Chicago had made good on their promise. Hard charging, harder rebounding, and LaVinomania combined for a 92-87 Bulls lead heading into the fourth.
The final period began with the teams combining for eight made field goals in a row. Lillard provided most of the fireworks for Portland, while DeRozan hit a couple for Chicago. The two weren’t really comparable, though. DeMar’s shots were within the realm of reason. Lillard hit an improbable three to start the action, then followed up with a couple and-ones through defensive cracks that a fly wouldn’t fit through.
That typified the first minutes of the period, Nobody missed. If ever an exception to the rule appeared, whistles put points on the board anyway. The teams put 30 combined points on the board before four minutes had elapsed. Extended over a full game, that would have given them 180 apiece.
One team was going to blink first. As it turned out, it was Portland. Their isolation attack was more predictable than Chicago’s. The Bulls’ interior scoring remained as steadfast as ever. Just as critically, the Blazers began to look tired, coming up short on jumpers that had fallen earlier. Behind LaVine and Vucevic, Chicago kept up their scoring pressure. Portland’s waned. Just after the halfway point, the Bulls led 115-104 and Portland was in comeback mode again.
The Blazers made a couple strikes as the quarter closed. Lillard drove and found Simons for an open sideline three. Grant found him in the same spot a possession later. Twin triples kept hope alive. Another a couple minutes later flamed it to life even more. But Chicago dedicated the house to stopping Dame, which slowed down Portland’s production. The Blazers never figured out how to stop Chicago scoring. Once the Bulls got into the penalty, their trips to the foul line became constant, making up any deficits in their offense. Aside from those threes, there just wasn’t enough gas in the tank for Portland to keep up. As the clock dwindled, so did Portland’s chances, and down went the ship with a whimper.
Stay tuned for further analysis from the game, coming soon!
The Blazers get a day to travel, then they welcome the Milwaukee Bucks to the Moda Center on Monday night for the first night of a five-game homestand. The game starts at 7:00 PM, Pacific.