The Portland Trail Blazers gave it their all in a 129-121 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night. Effort wasn’t an issue, nor was star power. Damian Lillard, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Anfernee Simons, and Nikola Vucevic all topped 20 points. But how they got their opportunities told the story of the game. Chicago’s attempts came easier, Portland’s through heroics. Over 48 minutes—especially out-sized and playing on the second night of a back-to-back—the other guy’s easy is going to beat your spectacular. That’s what happened to the Blazers as a 17-point lead melted into oblivion during the second half and Chicago won in a runaway.
If you didn’t see the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the evening.
Damian Lillard scoring 40 has become about as common as somebody getting upset on social media. You know it’s happening, but the frequency makes it hard to pay attention anymore.
Let’s stop for a second. This is the 10th time Lillard has scored 40 or more this season. He’s only played in 41 games. That’s a roughly 1 in 4 chance your franchise superstar is going to pop off for a 40-piece.
Putting it in perspective, Clyde Drexler scored 40 or more 17 times in 11.5 seasons in Portland. Geoff Petrie did it 13 times in 6 years. Nobody else has managed it more than 8.
Lillard has topped 40 points ten times this season. That’s practically everybody else’s career achievement, accomplished in the last four months.
Forget the loss for a second. Just hush up and appreciate that stunning level of talent.
For the second night in a row, the Blazers failed to stop the opponent from passing anywhere they wished. To be fair, Portland is suffering mightily from the lack of a frontcourt. They had to scramble and gamble every time the ball went inside, whether off penetration or in the post. That was necessary to have any prayer at the rebound, let alone to inhibit the shot.
Once that became clear, Chicago had a free hall pass to any area of the court they cared to inhabit. Breaking down Portland became as simple as, “One Defender or Two?” If the Bulls were single-covered, they scored inside. If the Blazers sent help, Chicago whipped the ball to the perimeter for an open look,
Granted, the Blazers closed out like they were being coached by old-school rappers: throwing their hands in the air, then waving them around like they just didn’t care. But the brutal speed with which the ball moved made coherent defense difficult.
Chicago registered 32 assists on 48 made buckets. That’s 67%, which would all but lead the league if extended over a season. Their normal average is 57%, off of 24 assists per game.
Those assists showed the connectivity between the different parts of the Bulls offense. That became devastating in a game where all parts of that offense clicked.
We can start inside. The Bulls scored 52 in the paint, bending Portland’s short-handed defense to the interior.
Chicago also hit 12-26 three-pointers, a 46.2% success rate.
Combined, that lead to a 60% overall field goal percentage. It’s hard to overcome that.
Not Enough Counters
Against that onslaught, Portland had three great hopes: Lillard, three-pointers, and free throws.
As chronicled above, Dame did great. But he had been carrying the team for three quarters and Chicago knew it. They threw the house at him in the fourth, daring anyone else to beat them. Lillard did not score in the final 9:15 of the game.
The Blazers also prosper when they hit the three-ball. Anfernee Simons shot 5-12 from distance, Trendon Watford 2-2, and both hit triples in the decisive fourth period when Lillard was getting bottled up.
But overall, the Blazers shot only 14-43, 32.6% from distance. You know things are going wrong when the Blazers are attempting that many threes to begin with. That’s not their game anymore. They average a little over 34 attempts per game for the season. The low percentage, coupled with Chicago’s stellar one, left Portland up only 2 three-point makes for the game, though they attempted 17 more than the Bulls did.
The Blazers had a free throw edge early in the game, but Chicago stormed back in the fourth as they pounded the ball inside and Portland lofted long shots. The Bulls ended up with 25 attempts to Portland’s 21 for the evening, no help there.
No triples and no foul shots left the Blazers with only Lillard standing against the storm. It just wasn’t enough.
The Blazers did get a breath of life during most of the 13 minutes that Gary Payton II played. He’s the only guy nearly guaranteed to lock down an opposing scorer. Something is just different about him. It’s too bad the Blazers can’t bottle it.
Payton can’t guard centers, though. Drew Eubanks did his best tonight, scoring 8 with 5 rebounds and a block in 26 minutes, but he wasn’t able to counter Nikola Vucevic or Andre Drummond. Chicago’s true centers got anything they wanted anytime they wanted, save when Portland sent three men to the restricted area to stop them. Vucevic finished with 23 points on 10-17 shooting and 11 rebounds in 35 minutes. Drummond had 7 points and 5 rebounds in 13 minutes, all but matching Eubanks in half the time.
Without Jusuf Nurkic or any kind of big man present, Portland didn’t have a chance against Chicago’s bigs.
Josh Hart can do amazing things. He rebounded well tonight. He’s one of the only Blazers who can snag a board, then run it the other way for a pass-shoot-drive triple-threat attack. Give the man credit for his skills.
At the same time, Chicago left Hart alone most of the night, and particularly during his fourth-quarter tour, and Hart did not make them pay. I didn’t say, “Could not.” Maybe he could have. But he fell into full shame-spiral mode where he passed up open threes, then appeared to second-guess after, then drifted into late-clock passing or tentative loopers as a bail-out. He pretty much took himself out of the offense, which really hurt in a game that was won by same.
Hart finished the night with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes, but the Blazers could have used at least a couple threes instead of his 0-5 effort from distance (and another 2-3 he passed up on).
You have to give the Blazers credit for being able to exploit their scoring advantages. Damian Lillard is on another planet, but Simons and Grant get plenty of looks as well. When it works, Portland feasts.
It’s pretty easy to see when it’s not working, though. Clue #1 is Lillard sitting. Clue #2: one player dribbles while everyone else stands. Grant, Simons, and Shaedon Sharpe operate best when some of their opportunities come off of catch-and-shoots, screens, or off-ball action. Once they’re hot, any of them can score at will. But when every shot is coming contested, the offense looks ugly.
That’s exactly how Portland lost contact in a third-period where they nursed a double-digit lead that they frantically tried to protect. The offense slowing down wasn’t a huge crime. You don’t want to get crazy on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, when you have a big edge. But you can’t have 80% of the team taking a break on the sidelines while one player dribbles, hoping to find an open pass that never develops because nobody else moves.
The Blazers are used to having Lillard bail them out of every stressful situation with individual heroics. Fair enough. But they can’t all play as if that’s their only option, nor as if every player is equally capable of doing so.
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.