The Portland Trail Blazers ran into a legitimate championship contending Boston Celtics team at home on Wednesday, and the Celtics defended home court with a 115-93 win.
The Blazers dropped to a staggering 14-20 on the road and 31-35 overall, quickly descending from the No. 10 seed that they had a brief hold on for mere hours. Damian Lillard finished with 27 points — the only Blazer to cross the 20-point threshold — on 7-16 shooting from the field and 2-8 shooting from three-point range in 30 minutes of action. The game was effectively over with over nine minutes to go in regulation, and none of Lillard’s teammates provided sufficient support to make it a close one.
Boston played great team basketball, led by 30 points on 11-17 shooting from Jayson Tatum and 20 points to go along with seven assists from Derrick White. Statistically, the Celtics did not dominate in any category on paper, yet moved the ball well and exploited weaknesses in the Blazer defense.
Read our instant recap from Joe Moore for play-by-play breakdown and analysis from tonight’s game action. Here were several key aspects of tonight’s matchup to be learned from moving forward:
Different Day, Same Mistakes
The Celtics may have won the three-point battle by a margin of 18-11, but the numbers did not tell the story. All season long, Portland’s poor outside defense has been harped on incessantly. Granted, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups and his coaching staff don’t read our prognosis of every game (or so we think), but they must be seeing what we see on film.
To begin the game, the defense was actually serviceable. Boston was making tough outside shots. Jayson Tatum and Al Horford both had highly difficult long bombs that went through in the first. Then, as time progressed, the defense unfolded.
Portland was in man defense all night, and made few adjustments to make life difficult for Boston. Particularly, the right corner was heavily exploited in the first half. Horford got going early, and once his defenders got wind of his capabilities, he utilized the pump fake to get them in the air or off balance before cutting baseline for dunk and dump-off opportunities.
Soon, everyone else in green got in on the fun. Sam Hauser connected on 3-9 three-pointers and was a +21 on the night — tied with Tatum for the highest plus/minus on either team. Grant Williams had ample opportunity to launch seven threes in 12 minutes — yes, 12 minutes. The Celtics fed off of Jayson Tatum’s six triples on 10 attempts, and employed the trifecta as their weapon of choice to subdue Rip City.
Reddish and Thybulle
The two marquee additions for the Trail Blazers — Cam Reddish and Matisse Thybulle — both got the starting nod tonight. Both players have been solid for Rip City in their brief tenures. Tonight showed where they can improve, and also gave revelations to coach Billups and viewers alike on what changes may need to be made to make good on an end-of-season push.
The 6-7 Reddish was aggressive and dynamic on offense. However, his decision making offset both. He was hesitant at times, putting the ball down for a dribble instead of authoritatively swinging the ball to the corner for the extra pass, or failing to make his defenders pay for getting the step on them heading to the rim. He played decently on defense. Nonetheless, if he wants to be the player that we all know he can be, Reddish must capitalize on all of his opportunities, and have conviction, even if it leads to the occasional turnover.
On the other hand, Thybulle showed us something that cannot be glossed over. For all of his incredible defensive abilities, he could not hit an open shot from anywhere outside of the paint in this one. He went 0-4 from distance, and 1-6 for the night. At one point, he missed three three-pointers in a single stretch. All were uncontested.
Coach Billups may need to make the decision to start Nassir Little now and when Anfernee Simons returns. He has the greatest combination of size and speed compared to all three forwards, and can complement the starters on both ends without leaving much to be desired. While he only finished with three points on 1-5 shooting overall, he may be the best option available.
Shaedon Sharpe Maturing
It’s not so much what Shaedon Sharpe did tonight, but how he did it. Sharpe was patient with the basketball. He strayed away from many of the rookie mistakes he’s made throughout the season. He shot when the time was right, passed when it was expedient, crashed the boards and showcased a progressing basketball IQ.
Of every Blazer that took more than two shots on the night, Sharpe was the only one to shoot 50 percent or better from the field. He also made 3-6 three pointers. He had an offensive rebound and put-back that should have not been called for an over-the-back foul, and displayed his freakish athleticism yet again.
Any Bright Spots?
If you’re asking the same question, the answer is yes. There was one noticeable bright spot. Drew Eubanks looked like the second coming of Tyson Chandler in his 14 minutes of action. The official box score credited him with three offensive rebounds, but that is erroneous. He got his hands on a great amount of shots that came off the rim on offense, and created many second-chance opportunities for himself and his teammates.
The Celtics have had the Eastern Conference on notice since opening night, so this win against a Blazers team without Simons did not dish out nerves to the other teams at the top of the standings. It did, however, keep them within 2.5 games of the No. 1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who have gone 20-2 in their last 22 games while terrorizing the league.
Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla kept his troops in motion, encouraged them to swing the ball, and picked apart the Blazers defense. Their two alphas — Tatum and Jaylen Brown — made haste to bring out the fancy dribble moves, crossing up their defenders and going to hesitation dribbles to find highways to the rim.
On defense, they cheated heavily on their weak side assignments to close off driving lanes and entice Blazers ball handlers to try cross-court passes. Blake Griffin gave them excellent energy off the bench as well.
The road does not get easier for the Trail Blazers moving forward, as they have their next game against the Philadelphia 76ers in Philly on Friday. The Sixers are 7-3 in their last 10 games with a current three-game winning streak, and have defended their home court tooth-and-nail with the fourth-fewest losses in the East (10).
Afterwards, Portland will see the New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, the Celtics once more, and Los Angeles Clippers — five teams with varying degrees of championship expectations, but credible championship hopes nonetheless.