November 29, 2018, 1:39 am
Damian Lillard weaved his way through a sea of blue jerseys, finding just enough daylight to get off a one-legged floater before the Orlando Magic converged on him yet again. Short. Rather than mope about a questionable no-call with his team staving off a late-game comeback, though, the Portland Trail Blazers superstar sprinted up the floor in hopes of stymying a numbers game from behind. Just as Evan Fournier passed to the wing for a would-be wide-open triple, Lillard closed the gap, easily picking off the pass and giving him a chance to redeem himself on the other end. Buckets.
Behind 41 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, a franchise-record 10 threes, and some typical crunch-time heroics from Lillard, the Blazers held on to beat the persistent Magic 115-112. Orlando led 63-55 at intermission, carving up Portland in the half court to create good looks from three and at the rim. But Terry Stotts’ team regrouped defensively in the second half, helped along by the Magic regressing to the mean from deep and some terrible late-game execution as Portland failed to put them away by missing eight of its final 10 attempts from the free throw line.
Even Lillard wasn’t immune to those struggles at the charity stripe, spitting four freebies as Orlando was forced to play the foul game with under a minute remaining. It was the only noticeable blemish in an otherwise brilliant offensive performance, one the Blazers sorely needed to end a three-game losing streak with everyone else but Nik Stauskas laboring. Stauskas’ second-quarter explosion, during which he hit four of his five triples, seemed like it might end up being the highlight of a night Portland would soon rather forget. Lillard had other plans. He drained seven threes in the third quarter alone, outscoring the Magic 23-21 all by himself and pushing the Blazers to an 11-point lead entering the fourth quarter – and they needed every bit of it.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) November 29, 2018
A win is a win, and Orlando is one of the most improved teams in basketball this season under Steve Clifford, but Stotts won’t be too pleased after watching his team nearly relinquish a double-digit fourth-quarter lead at home. Portland was picked apart on defense early, and consistently failed to produce efficient offense down the stretch as the Magic slowly chipped away at an advantage that it was easy to assume insurmountable. When Lillard and C.J. McCollum don’t have it going or are being marginalized by extra defensive attention, the Blazers still must find a way to score. They didn’t on Wednesday, absent Stauskas’ second-quarter splurge, but it didn’t end up mattering.
“It should have been a 10-point win with free throws, but that’s…s*** happens,” Stotts said after the game.
This is a historic win for Portland. Lillard set multiple personal and franchise records, and Stotts earned his 400th win as an NBA coach. After the travails of a six-game road trip and ensuing loss at home to the Los Angeles Clippers, that should be enough for the Blazers. Every victory is crucial in a Western Conference marked by an incredible 14 of 15 teams fighting for a playoff spot.
But remember when Portland was all alone at the top of the conference, less than two weeks ago? Everyone rational knew that standing would be fleeting. Still, such a short time later, it’s hard not to be frustrated by the Blazers, with an epic game from Lillard, barely squeaking by a team that may not make the playoffs in the East.
- The Magic aren’t a great three-point shooting team, but most all NBA players can make triples when left something close to wide open. That’s what transpired in the first half, as the Blazers’ over-aggressive help defense from the weak side led to three after three without a defender in sight. Indeed, there’s real value in defenders taking an extra step or two away from players without reliable shooting range in hopes of mucking up the primary action. But Orlando seemed prepared for Portland’s defensive approach, rarely wasting dribbles and holding the ball, instead consistently pinging the ball all over the floor to find the open man. Jonathan Isaac, Jonathon Simmons, Mo Bamba, Jerian Grant, and Jarell Martin won’t combine for seven threes every night. But there’s a thin line between goading a marginal shooter into taking jumpers and outright over-helping, and the Blazers toed it too often on Wednesday.
- Players like Vucevic pose an existential threat to all opposing defenses, but especially one like the Blazers’. Portland’s ultra-conservative ball-screen coverage calls for big men staying within 15 feet of the rim as guards fight over the top of the pick, hoping to goad ball handlers into pull-up two-pointers as they’re accosted with rear-view contests. The most efficient antidote to that strategy is a screen-setter who can pop to the arc and drain catch-and-shoot jumpers, and Nikola Vucevic, who scored a team-high 20 points, fits that bill to a tee. His first triple, for instance, came as Lillard and Nurkic executed an “ice,” forcing the ball to the sideline and away from the pick, leaving the screener wide open from beyond the three-point line. Vucevic is an effective roller, too, with a keen sense of timing and angles to go along with his broad shoulders, nimble footwork, and guard-like touch. Nurkic will always be overmatched when confronted with a player possessing those traits, which is why Stotts perhaps should have tried going with Zach Collins at center, hoping his quickness could mitigate the sweeping advantages presented by Vucevic. Maybe next time.
- Stauskas is playing the best basketball of his career right now, and three-point shooting is hardly the only reason why. He was a major factor making plays with the ball in his hands for the second straight game, attacking close-outs with equal parts speed and control to draw help defenders and find his teammates for layups and open jump shots. He finished with only two assists, but that total doesn’t come close to indicating Stauskas’ quality as a playmaker against Orlando. If he keeps this up, it will be very hard for Stotts to not make him a permanent, meaningful part of the rotation.
- Isaac, starting in place of Aaron Gordon, out with a minor back injury, finished with 16 points, seven rebounds, and two assists on 5-of-9 overall and 2-of-4 from beyond the arc. He was excellent defensively, using his length and quickness to both challenge shots at the rim and wreak subtle havoc as a help defender digging down from the weak side. If Isaac develops into a reliable three-point shooter, he’s already good enough defensively to emerge as a quality starter. Should he consistently flash the floor game he did against the Blazers, though? The Magic, finally, could have the star they’ve long lacked since trading Dwight Howard. Isaac has a long ways to go to get there, but this was another very encouraging performance for the sophomore forward.