November 15, 2018, 2:14 am
Luke Walton is as casual and low-key as NBA coaches come. Still, after watching LeBron James dominate on both ends to propel his young team to a double-digit lead over the Portland Trail Blazers entering the fourth quarter, one thought the Los Angeles Lakers would have admitted this was the best game James had played in a purple-and-gold uniform. Not so.
“He’s been good,” Walton told ESPN of James between the third and fourth quarters, “but he’s always good.”
Yes, but the Blazers learned all too well at Staples Center that James, more prone to coasting than ever so far this season, was playing at different level on Wednesday night. The four-time MVP scored 41 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and dished nine assists on just 18 shots attempts in the Lakers’ 126-117 victory over the Blazers. He also connected on a season-high five three-pointers, draining each of his first five tries, and highlighted an awe-inspiring third quarter performance with this epic two-way sequence.
LEBRON WITH THE SWAT AND SCORE 😤 pic.twitter.com/NULtR10zrp
— ESPN (@espn) November 15, 2018
Oh yeah. The King passed Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the league’s all-time scoring list, too.
For awhile, it seemed as if the Blazers would begin their six-game road trip by reeling off their fifth straight victory. Portland led 33-26 after an entertaining first quarter, and extended its lead to double-digits midway through the second after some typically strong play from the bench. But James took over from there, setting an aggressive two-way tone by pushing the pace offensively and smothering the Blazers inside.
When the best player in the world decides to play at the top of his game, there’s just nothing a team like Portland can do. Damian Lillard tried his best to keep pace with James, finishing with 31 points, eight rebounds, and 11 assists. But he shot just 8-of-23 from the field, frustrated by stellar on-ball defense from Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, and did most of his damage after James had already made clear this game belonged to him.
The near future doesn’t get much easier for the Blazers. Their next five games are away from home, and the final two come against the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors – two of the three best teams in basketball a month into the season. What none of those foes have, though, even the two-time defending champs, is a player who can so casually dissect the opposition like James did on Wednesday night.
This was his best game in a Lakers uniform, by far, and serves as a harbinger of things to come should James find his team’s back against the wall as Los Angeles fights for the playoffs. The next time Portland sees him? April 9th, in the penultimate game of the regular season. For the Blazers’ sake, then, let’s hope they have a postseason berth already secured. Otherwise, James is almost sure to duplicate this epic performance when it matters far more.
- Seth Curry didn’t play in the second half after suffering a knee injury in the second quarter. He went scoreless in eight minutes of play. Though it wasn’t entirely clear when Curry was injured, he first came up noticeably limp after hedging on a pick-and-roll between James and Hart with just over six minutes left before halftime.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) November 15, 2018
- Lillard had seven dimes in the first quarter alone, slicing up the Lakers’ lackluster defense by both creasing the paint and kicking out to open shooters and with simple, quick ball reversals. He didn’t have his best night shooting the basketball, but Lillard was still in complete control in the halfcourt for a majority of this game. Portland’s offensive rating was 112.2 on Wednesday night; offense wasn’t the problem, despite Lillard’s relative labors as a scorer himself. This is a star at the peak of his powers, and it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.
- The Blazers’ all-bench units have been shockingly effective so far this season, and that mostly proved the case on Wednesday night. The lineup of Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Evan Turner, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard opened the second quarter, and extended Portland’s lead from seven to 10 before Stotts began bringing his starters back around the seven-minute mark. Still, given the Lakers’ small-ball lineup of five reserves, it would have been most prudent to leave Leonard – who was serviceable on both ends, by the way – on the bench, bring in another wing or guard and slide Collins down to the five. There’s just no reason why Portland should ever play Collins and Leonard together when the opposition downsizes, especially without its best offensive players on the floor. One reason why Stotts went the opposite direction? Moe Harkless wasn’t available due to nagging knee pain. He also quickly subbed in Aminu for Leonard once Luke Walton called a timeout to bring James back in the game.
- Speaking of Portland’s quintet of bench players, one fourth-quarter sequence was highly indicative of just how tenuous that unit’s grasp on effective offense can be. On one possession, the Blazers, thinking mismatch, went to Leonard on the left block while he was being guarded by Josh Hart. The result, a missed turnaround jumper toward the baseline, was hardly surprising to anyone who knows Leonard’s inability to play up to his size and Hart’s ability to play well above his own. On the next trip down, Collins, checked by JaVale McGee, caught just outside the left elbow off a baseline out-of-bounds play, and eventually settled for a bricked long two after Los Angeles’ ball denial rendered other schemed options unavailable. The Lakers capitalized immediately after on a triple by Hart, pushing their ballooning lead to 105-89 and prompting a timeout by Stotts. Portland, even with Lillard and C.J. McCollum on the bench, is too well-coached to fall back on low-efficient tries like those, especially as it’s in the midst of a game-changing run by an opponent on the road.
- McGee scored 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting in just 24 minutes of play, feasting on a steady diet of feeds from James. Jusuf Nurkic wasn’t the problem on Wednesday; he finished with an impressive line of 21 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three steals, helping the Blazers to an early lead with relentless activity on defense. As the game went on, however, Nurkic too often found himself in no-man’s land during pick-and-roll coverage, failing to commit to the ball or the roller, leading to easy layups and dunks for James and McGee. Defending James in ball-screen action with a high-flying finisher is an almost impossible task. But Nurkic has taken many strides in terms of defensive positioning since coming to Portland, and was exploited time and again in that regard on Wednesday night. For Portland to continue ranking as an upper-echelon defensive team, he needs to be far more sound for 48 minutes.
- McCollum ended the game with 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting, surprisingly substandard efficiency considering he seemed to have it going at multiple points throughout this game. That’s the rub with a player of his basic profile, though. Jumpers always come and go, and McCollum isn’t big enough or explosive enough to consistently manufacture the high-quality shots normally reserved for stars – especially with a long-armed wing like Ingram chasing him around the floor.
- Jake Layman played a season-high 24 minutes, nailing both of his 3-point attempts, collecting four rebounds and notching a team-high +14 plus-minus. Not bad, right? But both of those makes came early in the first quarter, and Layman simply doesn’t offer enough elsewhere to make up for his troubles getting off good looks. Two shots just isn’t enough for a wing defender with limited switchability who received so much playing time. It would be one thing if Layman was scheme consistent defensively, able to help cover for his teammates with all-out hustle and early rotations. Instead, he might be more prone to lapses of understanding and concentration away from the ball than any of his teammates.
- Evan Turner is so much more impactful as a lead ball handler for an offense that prioritizes space and pace. He routinely pushed the ball up the floor on Wednesday night, getting the Blazers into their offense early and attacking when opportunities presented themselves. Turner isn’t a scorer. He’s at his best playing for others, taking advantage of his size, advanced handle and passing instincts to draw defenders and find easy shots for others. How many 6-foot-7 players in basketball are capable of dropping a dime like this?
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) November 15, 2018
- Collins, as Blazers fans should know by now, is an elite rim-protector – truly one of the best in the league. With James coming at him unencumbered after an early-clock ball screen, though, Collins, like pretty much every other player in basketball, is at the three-time champ’s mercy. He was laughably overpowered on a lefty and-1 in the fourth quarter, first fooled by a Eurostep and then helpless once James got into his body while airborne. All Collins could do was sink his head and meekly put up his hand, acknowledging his role in the futility of trying to protect the basket with a freight train coming full speed. It was an especially stark contrast to seconds earlier, when Collins easily swatted away a layup attempt by Lonzo Ball, who had a similarly clear runway to the rim. The sophomore big man will normally come up on the winning end of those exchanges, but not against James – to no great surprise, obviously.
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