On Saturday night, the Portland Trail Blazers recorded a defensive effort against the Boston Celtics so bad it is called a felony in 46 states and several U.S. territories. Boston beat a relatively lifeless Portland team 145-117, dropping the Blazers’ record to 11-13 this season.
If you missed the game, well, count yourself lucky. But you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. If you’re wondering how everything went or what the team is like without franchise superstar Damian Lillard, here are some takeaways from the night.
« D »-bacle
It’s hard to describe how well the Blazers started this game defensively. Their effort was less than zero. The Celtics missed more percentage shots in the pre-game shootout than in the opening 9 minutes of the game. That’s right… NO defense was actually better than what Portland was playing. At one point in the period, Boston was shooting 93.3 percent from the field. It takes a math student to figure out how many attempts they made at 93.3% versus 50 or 75. (Hint: 14 out of 15.) The three, the dunks, and everything in between fell for them.
You can’t even call what the Blazers were doing “defense.” Rather, it’s standing there to see if the other guy is missing. When they didn’t like… NEVER… Portland was 20 points behind in the first.
Incredibly, the Blazers repeated the fiasco in third, after struggling throughout the second period to approach a reasonable distance. It was better hidden because Portland scored more and Boston wasn’t that hot, but it was there. Even if you apologize for the performance of the first period due to the difficulty entering the game, Portland’s third quarter was a big chunk.
Second unit of energy
The only thing that positively set this game apart was the effort from Portland’s second chain players in the second quarter. With the injuries of Damian Lillard and Nassir Little, some of them are third string players. They were also the only Blazers to participate in this game.
Cody Zeller created big screens. His guards used them. (Unlike the Portland starting goalies with plenty of Jusuf Nurkic picks.) Zeller and Larry Nance, Jr. were able to cover the lane and bounce the ball back. Ben McLemore didn’t look great, but at least he moved. The bench forced turnovers and picked up the pace. They surrounded CJ McCollum, absorbed his loopholes, and allowed his arguments to matter.
When the starters checked in for their end-of-half quarter, the game was over. They regained their energy and finished the second period much stronger than they had started the first.
As detailed in the defense section just above, the momentum didn’t last. But that shouldn’t make us forget that the bench players have at least tried. That’s more than what you can say for most of the first unit right now.
Portland’s starting goaltenders looked good tonight in the absence of Damian Lillard if you just look at the points total. CJ McCollum had 24, Dennis Smith had 21. Both had 6 assists, which was something. But McCollum only shot 8-21, 3-9 from a distance. Meanwhile, Marcus Smart went 6-10 for 17 points in 23 minutes. Dennis Schroder posted his second best game of the season with 31 points in 32 minutes, shooting 10-16 from the field. Payton Pritchard scored 19 in 18 minutes, shooting 6-12, but it was 6-9 until he missed three threes in the last minute of the game.
At the end of the year, Portland’s numbers will blend into mulch throughout the season and they will look productive. At the moment, they really are not.
Do not stop anything
Portland can’t seem to find a single way to make a defensive impact on the game that matters. The Celtics shot a heinous 31-37, 56.8%, from the arc. The marked 50 in the paint. They had 29 free throw attempts compared to 32 for the Blazers. Other than a few forced turnovers in the second quarter, nothing from the Blazers mattered.
145 points scored by the opponent – a regular season record in Portland – tells the story in itself, but even that takes context. It was not an aberration. It was not a surprise or a product of hot shots by the Celtics. The Blazers defended at 145 points.
Without Damian Lillard, opponents attack CJ McCollum. They know he’s going to hit riders, but they’ve been vicious in stopping his penetration attempts, often crushing his layups in the 200 section. It has been effective. McCollum eats so much good – and takes so much dribbling – to get his points, the rest of the offense struggles to flourish around him.
The lack of driving and flatbed opportunities hurts particularly. Portland doesn’t get good three-point looks on CJ readers. He marks or gets swallowed. Ultimately, either way ends up stopping the flow of the offense.
Robert Covington not being able to fill the role of the team’s defensive stopper is one thing. We knew last season that he was an auxiliary defender, not a one-on-one impresario. Shooting 1-6 on mostly open three-point shots is quite another. A few times the Blazers have played the right game, catching the Celtics in slow spins Covington couldn’t get them to pay. It is a serious problem. If the defense does not help enough and the attack is not excellent (4-11, 9 points, 2 turnovers in 22 minutes), it becomes more and more difficult to justify him to continue to start.
Who is here?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Blazers can be split into two, possibly unintentional, camps: those who buy into the system and play hard for head coach Chauncey Billups, and those who go through the moves or do their own thing. The players off the bench – the signings of minimum contracts, the young guys getting their first real opportunities and recent acquisitions from other teams – mostly fall into the old camp. They jostle each other and at least try to put on plays. The starters could drift towards the latter. Jusuf Nurkic is a pretty big exception, but he needs co-op to run his game, and even he has moments. Norman Powell looks good and generally plays loud. There is a feeling of despondency after McCollum, Covington and sometimes other players the team can’t seem to shake.
It’s more than shakedown cruise woes. When it comes to injuries, players who rally to fill in the gaps have a funny way of showing it. It’s hard to avoid feeling like the team have already fallen off the cliff and just don’t know it yet. They better release a gravity-defying mojo soon.
The score of the box
Things don’t get any easier. The Blazers face the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night at 7:00 p.m. Pacific before shooting the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.