The Portland Trail Blazers played 20 minutes of inspired, energetic basketball against the Boston Celtics on Friday night. Unfortunately, the game lasts 48. Portland had plenty of flashy moments, led by Damian Lillard pouring fourth-quarter points like Guinness on tap. Lillard’s 41 couldn’t disguise Boston playing better basketball, nor did Lillard’s teammates step up to help him. The result was a 126-112 loss for the Blazers, their 17th at home this season.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here’s more analysis from the game.
Can’t Contain the Lane
The Blazers fell apart in multiple areas tonight, but if you were to pin the loss on just one, it would be a complete inability to stop penetration or control the paint in any fashion. Dribblers made a mockery of Portland’s man-to-man from the opening tip. The Celtics fell in love with the three after Portland switched to the zone, but the seams in the defense were just as wide and obvious. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t much help inside on that end. Drew Eubanks was more active and got a couple blocks, but Drew isn’t going to stop a championship contender by himself.
You could look at Boston’s overall field goal percentage (47.1%) their free throws (35 attempts) or their offensive rebounds (18). Any would tell the story. As would their 50 points in the paint, of course.
However you measure it, this game was easy-breezy for them whenever they wanted it to be because of attempts inside the restricted area.
If you were hoping for three pointers to rescue the Blazers—and let’s face it, that’s pretty much the only hope at this point—you were going to be disappointed. As we just mentioned, the zone left angle three-pointers so open that Boston just couldn’t pass them up. On the rare occasions Portland played stiff in man-to-man, the corner three was always there as a backup.
Portland was open for threes too. The Celtics concentrated on Damian Lillard, picking him up high on the court and forcing the ball out of his hands. He found open shooters again and again and again. (And again.) Those shots just didn’t fall.
When Lillard himself uncorked late, Portland finally prospered. But his 6-15 rate on threes was counterbalanced by 8-23 from everyone else.
Boston ended up hitting 15 threes in this one, Portland 14. And there you go.
The Blazers continued their recent focus on tempo tonight. Watch them off the rebound. Wings are sprinting out with their heads high and hands out. Scoring before the defense gets set is one of the better ways to battle a superior team. Since 24 or so NBA teams have been superior to the Blazers following the All-Star break, it’s a reasonable strategy.
The Blazers did great in that department tonight, scoring 24 in transition.
Here’s the problem with Portland going fast. They’re buying their opportunities in two ways.
First, they’re playing looser, getting up quicker shots. When those are layups, that’s fine. If they’re not, and the attempts don’t fall, the opponent has a free opportunity to run as well. Boston scored 18 on the break themselves. Portland still had an edge, but not nearly enough of one.
Second, the players leaking out used to be the extra men Portland sent into the lane to rebound. Since basic laws of physics dictate that the same mass cannot exist in two places at once, the Blazers are creating transition opportunities at the expense of boards. Neither of their centers are dominant enough to secure rebounds on their own, on the regular. So they watch the opponent’s offensive rebounding rate tick skyward even as their transition buckets accumulate. Tonight the Celtics had 18 offensive boards, many during the exact stretch during the mid-first half in which they built their margin, the same stretch in which the Blazers were trying to push tempo.
Adding to the fast-break follies, but also ultimately costing Portland the game, were a plethora of turnovers on both ends. The Blazers rotated fast—probably not smartly, but fast—and got their hands busy when their feet put them in position. They generated 12 steals, led by 3 apiece from Trendon Watford and Cam Reddish.
The dozen picks anchored 18 forced turnovers for Portland, a fantastic number.
Sadly, the Celtics also generated 12 steals—3 from Tatum and 4 from Marcus Smart—and forced 19 turnovers from Portland. Lillard committed 7, forced to pass around and/or plow past Boston’s defensive attention.
We’ll finish the analysis where we started it: defense. Among the most disturbing late-season trends has been Portland’s propensity to allow more free passes than a Vegas cocktail club. Assists per field goal has not been a friendly stat for the Blazers lately. This was actually a strength early in the season, but that might as well have been another world.
By the end of the third period—when the insurmountable lead was well established—Boston had hit 31 field goals off of 23 assists. There’s no better indicator of how helpless Portland’s defense is right now.
At several points in the game, the Blazers went on near-perfect scoring sprees, generating points at fantastic rates. At each juncture, you’d look at the scoreboard only to find that the torrent of points had cut the margin by one, or zero, or that they’d actually lost ground. Even though the offense is still formidable, it’s like the Blazers are sprinting hard on a treadmill that’s still going just a bit faster than their feet. They can flail and hold onto the handrails, but eventually they’re going to be ejected off the back end just the same.
The Blazers welcome the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday evening with a 6:00 PM, Pacific start.