December 1, 2018, 4:04 pm
If Friday’s game against the Denver Nuggets was a litmus test for the Portland Trail Blazers, a measure of how Damian Lillard and company stack up with another team hoping to break into the Western Conference elite, it’s still somewhat unclear if they passed. The Nuggets beat the Blazers 113-112 at Moda Center, a fifth consecutive victory that brings Michael Malone’s team within half a game of the upstart Los Angeles Clippers for first place in one of the strongest top-to-bottom conferences the NBA has ever seen. Every win matters out West, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be gleaned from a loss.
Does that apply to Portland after Friday’s game at Moda Center? Yes and no, for reasons positive and negative. The Blazers indeed deserve credit for climbing all the way out of an early 17-point hole. For a long period in the second half, as Portland slowly chipped away at Denver’s lead, it seemed as if the home team would never get closer than two or three possessions from a tie. Every time the Blazers threatened and the Moda Center crowd livened, the Nuggets had an answer to quell that measure of momentum. Even Damian Lillard‘s pull-up 28 footer to pull Portland within three was met by a splashed half-court heave from Trey Lyles as the third-quarter buzzer expired.
But Portland was undeterred. Terry Stotts opened the fourth quarter with Lillard alongside four reserves, a change from his normal rotation, then brought in C.J. McCollum to briefly spell Lillard before going back to his preferred closing lineup. Behind McCollum’s brilliance and spirited play from Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers were within a point midway through the fourth quarter, then had multiple chances to win in the final minute as the Nuggets struggled inbounding the ball and the officials provided additional drama to a nail-biting game with several questionable calls in crunch time.
McCollum, in perhaps his finest game of the season, scored 33 points, 15 of which came in the final stanza, on 14-of-21 shooting without connecting on a single three-pointer. He shot 4-of-6 on mid-range jumpers, and a perfect 3-of-3 from floater range. This is a shot Portland will always be happy to get with the game hanging in the balance, but especially when McCollum is cooking with the type of skill, touch, and creativity only a select few others in the league can match.
There’s a thin line between winning and losing in the NBA, a league where any team is talented enough to best a superior foe. Sometimes, even adequate effort and execution isn’t enough for a favorite to come away with a victory. But if the Blazers were considered the likeliest winners of Friday’s game, that’s only because it was being played in the pacific northwest. Denver, as expected, has simply been better than Portland this season, which makes it all the more confusing why Stotts’ team again required the wakeup call of a sizable halftime deficit to summon the urgency and engagement to win at the highest level.
“I think we have to be more aggressive and more locked in defensively,” Stotts said. “We can’t feel out the game.”
The Nuggets scored 68 points in the first half. They shot 52.1 percent from the field, 9-of-15 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. They racked up 17 assists, carving up Portland with dribble penetration, backdoor cuts, and quick-hitting ball movement. Denver’s offensive rating before intermission was a ridiculous 136.0, its second-highest in any half this season behind only the first 24 minutes of a 45-point win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks.
Before 2018-19 tipped off, we wondered whether the Blazers would be able to sustain the surprisingly strong defensive play that propelled hem to the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs last season. It’s early yet, but the returns thus far are hardly encouraging. Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Portland’s 109.4 defensive rating ranks 18th in the league. That substandard number has been steadily rising since the team’s hot start was cooled by a recent six-game road trip, too. The Blazers own the third-worst defensive rating in basketball since the middle of last month. Related: They’re 3-6 over that timeframe, with narrow, high-scoring victories over the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.
It’s hardly time to panic. Portland’s defense, in reality, probably sits closer to middle of the pack league-wide than the bottom. Opponents are still being forced into more mid-range jumpers and fewer three-point attempts and shots at the rim than average, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re shooting 37.8 percent from deep against the Blazers, too, a problematically high number that’s ripe for regression given the fickle nature of three-pointers.
One thing’s for sure, though: The Blazers just aren’t good enough, on either end of the floor, to consistently win games if their intensity and focus on defense leaves much to be desired immediately following the opening tip. That debilitating tendency almost cost them a win against the Orlando Magic earlier this week, and did just that versus the Nuggets on Friday night.
“We’re going to have to defend a lot better,” McCollum said, “so we don’t have to depend on somebody stepping out of bounds with five seconds left to win a game.”
May 21, 2019, 12:02 amDamian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard had his best game this series in Monday's 117-119 Game 4 loss to the Warriors with 28 points and 12 assists to go with four rebounds and four 3-pointers.
Lillard went 11-for-24 from the field and hit a signature logo 3-pointer, but in the end he couldn't convert on his layup or his 3-pointer in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's been playing through a rib injury which explains why he's been a bit off on offense. Tonight he brought it all in an attempt to survive, but it just wasn't enough against the juggernaut Warriors.
May 21, 2019, 12:00 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum scored 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting with two rebounds, seven assists, a steal, two blocks and five 3-pointers in Monday's Game 4 against the Warriors.
McCollum has been the Blazers' most consistent threat on offense in this series, but he was unable to convert on some tough shots late in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's improved upon last postseason, but this year ended the same as the Blazers were swept.
May 20, 2019, 11:59 pmMeyers Leonard - F/C - Trail Blazers
Meyers Leonard had a career-high 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting with 12 rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and five 3-pointers in Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Warriors.
Leonard had 25 points in the first half thanks to his 5-for-6 shooting from deep and both of those numbers already set new career-highs. Thanks to his hot hand, the Warriors had to respect him out on the 3-point line which freed up space for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to operate on the perimeter.
May 20, 2019, 11:58 pmAl-Farouq Aminu - F - Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu scored zero points on 0-of-2 shooting with a rebound and a block in Monday's Game 4.
Aminu stunk it up again, but the Blazers didn't get much help from their bench either. Rodney Hood (40 minutes, seven points on 3-of-11 shooting with two rebounds, two assists, two steals and a 3-pointer) and Evan Turner (six points on 3-of-4 shooting with two rebounds and a steal) didn't do much, showing that coach Stotts didn't have many options to choose from.
May 20, 2019, 11:56 pmStephen Curry - G - Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry led the Warriors to a 119-117 OT Game 4 on Monday with 37 points on 11-of-25 shooting with 13 rebounds, 11 assists, a steal and seven 3-pointers.
Curry put on an off-ball clinic tonight, running circles around the Blazers to get open even though he drew consistent triple-teams. Steve Kerr wanted to end this series tonight so Curry played the entire second half including OT and the move paid off. There shouldn’t be any more noise about Curry’s ability to perform in the playoffs as he destroyed the Blazers in every coverage they threw at him. It’ll be all eyes on Curry again in the Finals as they look to three-peat.
May 20, 2019, 11:54 pmDraymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green notched a 18-14-11 triple-double to go with three steals, two blocks and a 3-pointer in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers.
Green has proven over the past two games that he still has the ability to kick it into high gear. His defensive tenacity and anticipation might be the best in the league as he’s a one-man wrecking crew on that end of the floor. His only triple was a big one late in OT and his ability to ignite the Warriors on a big run thanks to his defense and passing were huge reasons why the Warriors swept the Blazers.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell started in Monday's Game 4 against the Blazers and scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting with two assists and a steal.
Bell drew his first career playoff start after Damian Jones (DNP-CD) looked overwhelmed in his Game 3 start, but ceded the closing minutes to Kevon Looney (29 minutes, 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with 14 rebounds, a steal and a block) who played the best out of all the Warriors' centers. Looney's timing and offensive rebounding have been huge for Golden State and his ability to switch on to perimeter players has also been a huge reason as to why he sees the floor more than the other bigs.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmKlay Thompson - G - Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson struggled in Monday's Game 4 win over the Blazers with 17 points on 7-of-21 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block and three 3-pointers.
Thompson has been forced to put the ball on the floor more with the Warriors lacking playmakers and you can clearly see him out of his comfort zone. His defense was stifling tonight in crunch time as he perfectly contested both of Damian Lillard's shot attempts at the end of OT.
May 20, 2019, 11:49 pmAlfonzo McKinnie - F - Golden State Warriors
Alfonzo McKinnie started in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers and scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting with two rebounds and a 3-pointer.
McKinnie drew the start in place of Andre Iguodala (calf strain) and had the worst plus-minus out of all the starters but came up with some big offensive rebounds in OT. He can’t space the floor any better than Shaun Livingston (22 minutes, eight points on 4-of-4 shooting with a rebound, an assist, a steal and a block) who plays much better with the Warriors’ starters so the starting job is just in name.
May 20, 2019, 9:02 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell will start at center in Monday's Game 4 for the Warriors.
Bell has played between 11 and 15 minutes in the three conference finals games, and he's unlikely to play too much more than that tonight. Look for Kevon Looney to continue to get more minutes than Bell tonight.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter