The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Chicago Bulls on Friday night with a starting five of Ryan Archidiacono, Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Trendon Watford, and Drew Eubanks. Naming the Blazers not on that list would probably make for a decent trivia question. Naming the Blazers on it, blind, would be a near-impossible one.
Given the circumstances, just showing up was an achievement for Portland. They did a little better than that, weathering an early barrage of points from Zach LaVine and rebounds from Nikola Vucevic to hold tight through most of the first half of play. Forced turnovers and running attempts provided offense when sheer talent couldn’t.
But the Bulls closed the door as the second half began, slowing down the punchless Portland lineup, forcing them to play honest, halfcourt basketball. At that point, the Blazers fizzled and Chicago leaped to a semi-expected 124-96 victory.
LaVine finished the game with 33 points. Sharpe led the Blazers with 24. Trendon Watford added 15 and Jabari Walker 14 in the loss.
With a starting five that exactly zero people had ever envisioned before tip-off, the Blazers were going to struggle to find continuity on either end. Shaedon Sharpe hit a three to start the game. Possessions that went elsewhere ended up empty. Meanwhile the Bulls got anything they wanted on the other end. They just had the courtesy, or misfortune, to miss almost all of them.
Sharpe’’s scoring made the Blazers look decent for a minute, but Zach LaVine still suits up for the Bulls. After LaVine had seen enough of the foolishness, he simply picked a Portland defender and went into isolation. Nobody on the court could bother him.
With Chicago sitting on a never-ending font of points, it didn’t take long for them to earn a separation of 7...small enough in the abstract, but fairly significant when extrapolated and multiplied by four quarters. The onus was on Portland’s starters to make up the gap before the reserves checked in. Somebody had to hold the line if the team was to have any chance.
Just when they needed it, Portland’s defense stiffened. (Which is another way of saying the Bulls went away from LaVine.) They held Chicago to one side of the floor on a given play, allowing defenders to bother dribble penetration. With the Bulls not hitting many threes, that kept the scoring down. As long as Chicago didn’t get offensive rebounds, Portland could cope.
Scoring remained an issue, however. The Blazers didn’t field playmakers or wings who could beat opponents off the dribble. Cam Reddish had a drive or two, but he was a gamble. Everyone else was at a total loss. When they attempted shots off of drives, the Blazers got blocked. (The Bulls had 4 caps in the first 6 minutes of play.) Not being able to convert left Portland tossing bail-out passes to players who had the exact same problem. Offensive possessions turned into four different players running five seconds off the clock each to little effect, before somebody inevitably had to shoot. The Blazers succeeded on the rare play where Chicago’s zone didn’t rotate to the arc quickly enough, or when they outran the Bulls down the floor. Other than that, it was hard times.
Reading the game—and having few options—Head Coach Chauncey Billups went with small, athletic players as the quarter closed. Kevin Knox played center, Nassir Little power forward. Portland depended on grabbing boards and running. Failing that, they tried to move the Bulls’ halfcourt defense around, opening lanes for layups when they couldn’t get threes. Hustling for offensive rebounds also helped. Chicago started to look slow and flat-footed. They weren’t committed enough to their big-man game on offense to make Portland pay.
As a result, Portland pulled through. Sharpe had 9 at the end of the first, LaVine 13, but the extra energy from Portland kept the scoreboard even at 26 apiece.
Chicago woke up at the start of the second as Portland’s defense lost the plot and their offense got buried under it. Ayo Dosunmu hit an open three, then Coby White and Derrick Jones, Jr. (twice) converted nearly-unopposed layups. A 9-0 run for the Bulls caused Billups to call an, “Uh oh!” timeout as his charges gave away in 142 seconds what the team had fought the entire first quarter to preserve.
Portland came out of the timeout with curl-screen-and-roll action between Thybulle and Drew Eubanks, resulting in an alley-oop dunk. They forced a 24-second violation the from Chicago on the next possession. Then Sharpe fed Eubanks for another layup. Even with the thread to victory looking thin. the young guys were trying.
A couple of shots from Nikola Vucevic set things right again for Chicago. Whenever Portland bubbled upwards, the Bulls shifted the ground under them. LaVine did the job in the first period, Vucevic in the second.
Bot gosh, Portland stayed active and energetic making defensive plays. Forced turnovers gave Portland life that their halfcourt offense couldn’t. A Sharpe dunk off of an Arcidiacano steal and toss with 6:30 remaining in the second brought the Blazers back within five, 39-34.
LaVine returned to the scoring column with a three after that. Sharpe answered with his own, but Vucevic hit one beyond the arc as well. Between that, the Bulls salted in a couple of turnover conversions. Suddenly, Portland found themselves down 10. They were still playing with energy, but every possession was like calculus.
The Blazers kept the interior passing alive in the halfcourt offense, drawing a surprising number of layups and dunks against a Chicago defense that was in motion, but not nearly quickly enough. But once the Bulls started stroking threes, the margin kept going the other way no matter how many points Portland produced. A LaVine three at the buzzer gave him 23. At intermission, Chicago led by 16, 61-45.
Chicago did a great job of slowing down the game at the start of the third. They understood that the only way the Blazers could score was fast. They curbed the turnovers, slowed down the offense, and barely took a shot that wasn’t a three or at the rim. They let LaVine and Vucevic operate in the halfcourt. They also ran back hard on defense.
That’s pretty much all they needed to do to extend their margin to nearly-unreachable levels. Trendon Watford scored inside for Portland, but those possessions were hard-fought. Watford isn’t going to carry the team anyway, and Chicago knew it. Eubanks and Thybulle added buckets too. Sharpe’s name was missing from that list, along with any active guards. That tells you everything you need to know about Chicago’s approach. “Let’s all settle down and play this out nicely and everybody gets home safe.”
Before four minutes had elapsed, the Bulls’ lead was 20. It yo-yo’ed around that margin through the middle minutes of the period. Then the Bulls started hitting threes in earnest. White and LaVine both hit a pair late, and the Bulls said bye-bye, pushing the lead close to 30.
Portland rallied in the final two minutes as they broke loose on the run again for a moment, but the Bulls still led 94-72 with just twelve minutes left.
Portland’s bigger reserves tried to make a dent in Chicago’s margin with inside scoring in the fourth. Even though it was efficient, none of it came quickly enough to make a difference. A couple breakaways for the Bulls, with maybe a triple salted in, were enough to keep Chicago comfortably ahead. Portland had to settle for isolated highlights and keeping the edge south of 30. They got both, for what it was worth.
Stay tuned for analysis coming soon!
The Blazers will welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Moda Center on Sunday afternoon with a 4:00 PM, Pacific start.