• The Portland Trail Blazers have lost three games in a row for the first time this season. Even more frustrating for the team and its fans, though, is that Sunday’s loss in many ways mirrored the postseason struggles Portland pledged to overcome in 2018-19.

    The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Blazers 104-100, erasing a 13-point halftime deficit to assume first place in the Western Conference standings – an enviable, surprising position the Blazers found themselves in just a few days ago. Tobias Harris matched his career-high with 34 points and also grabbed 11 rebounds, further staking his claim for an All-Star spot no one saw coming. True to form, though, the Clippers’ come-from-behind victory was a team effort. Montrezl Harrell continued his aggressive, impactful play, finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks, while Danilo Gallinari capped his strong all-around performance by breaking a tie with a leaning jumper as the game clock ticked below one minute left to play.

    This loss would have been worse for Portland if not for typical heroics from Damian Lillard. Seven of his team-high 30 points came on back-to-back triples late in the fourth quarter, erasing a Clippers lead in the blink of an eye that seemed increasingly insurmountable as the Blazers tossed up brick after brick from the perimeter.

    Portland shot just 8-of-38 from beyond the arc on Sunday, good for ugly 21.1 percent shooting. Lillard was just 3-of-13; Al-Farouq Aminu missed all five of his long-range tries, most of which were wide open; and Moe Harkless and Evan Turner combined to go 0-of-6. Terry Stotts’ team has shot worse than 28 percent on threes in four of its last five losses.

    The Blazers weren’t shooting all that well in the first half, but the issue was exacerbated after intermission, when Doc Rivers changed up his team’s pick-and-roll coverage. Just like the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Clippers forced the ball from Lillard’s hands early, blitzing ball-screen action at times all the way up to half court to ensure anyone but Portland’s best player would beat them. Mission accomplished.

    Other factors contributed to the Blazers’ collapse, too. Jusuf Nurkic spent the second half in the locker room after suffering a right shoulder injury during the second quarter. Los Angeles outscored Portland 23 to eight from the free throw line. The Clippers, fifth in turnover rate coming into Sunday’s action, also committed just four turnovers, their fewest amount of the season.

    The standings mean little with respect to championship hopes right now, but there’s no denying that Los Angeles, 9-2 in its last 11 games, is a playoff-caliber team. The Blazers are, too. But on a night when jumpers weren’t falling and one of its most important players was forced to leave the game, Portland just didn’t bring enough consistent energy to keep the Clippers at bay. More damning? They reminded the league of a simple blueprint to beat the Blazers that proved so effective last spring.

    NOTES

    • Nurkic’s injury was barely noticed until he wasn’t on the floor to begin the third quarter. He left the locker room before speaking to reporters after the game, and Stotts didn’t have an update on his status at the post-game podium, either.

    • Harkless received his first start of the season after returning last Wednesday from a three-week absence related to ongoing knee soreness. Jake Layman, on the other hand, was left on the bench for the game’s entirety. It’s no surprise that Harkless was earmarked as a regular starter despite his early-season injury, nor that Layman seems to have fallen out of the rotation now that the Blazers are healthy. The former gives Portland two-way dynamism no other potential starter could match, as was obvious during an encouraging first half that portended a blowout win for the home team. On one multi-possession sequence, Harkless abused Shae Gilgeous-Alexander in the post, raced down the floor for a dunk, and orchestrated three successful switches with Aminu on the same trip down. Harkless isn’t 100 percent quite yet, and is still playing on a minutes limit. If he knocks down jumpers like he did last season, though, his addition could provide the Blazers with a major boost.

    • Meyers Leonard‘s shot-blocking and rim-protecting woes are well-documented by now, but it was still jarring to watch Milos Teodosic – a genius pick-and-roll operator, to be fair – score on him at the rim. Most seven-footers would have no problem managing an effective contest on a double-pumped finger roll from a player of Teodosic’s physical profile, but Leonard proved the exception in the second quarter. His lack of length, anticipation and timing as the last line of defense can still be something to behold, even during a season in which he’s been a bit stingier at the rim than expected. Leonard played well on Sunday. His career-high 15 rebounds are evidence enough of that reality, and he also kept the ball humming in an impressive stint by Portland’s all-bench unit early in the second quarter. Still, his limitations were hard to ignore.

     

    • Nik Stauskas didn’t play in the second half, which wasn’t only odd because the Blazers needed shooting in the worst way once the Clippers adjusted their pick-and-roll defense after halftime. He also flashed in the first half, on multiple occasions creasing the paint and attacking close-outs to draw help and create efficient looks elsewhere. Stauskas’ utility to Portland doubles if he’s operating as more than a shooting specialist, and he certainly was doing just that before intermission, chipping in four points and two assists in seven minutes of play.

     

    • Zach Collins fouled out despite registering only 19 minutes of court time, an especially troubling development considering his foul rate as a rookie, but made plays all over the floor before being disqualified. He had nine points, three rebounds, two assists, and three blocks, showing off the touch, athleticism, and shot-blocking instincts that make him such a crucial part of the Blazers’ future. It’s not often that Harrell, one of the league’s most powerful high-fliers, gets rejected at the rim, but Collins did just that on this key sequence early in the fourth quarter.

    • Speaking of the fourth quarter, both Lillard and McCollum were on the floor to open the final stanza – a major departure from Stotts’ early-season rotation. Circumstances of time and score called for that change, obviously, and also informed the players Stotts put next to them: Seth Curry, Turner, and Collins. That’s a flammable offensive unit, with multiple shooters and ball handlers, and one containing just enough defensive backbone to make the inevitable offense-defense tradeoff worth it. One issue: Turner spent a portion of the time that lineup was on the floor playing off the ball, which seemed directly contradictory to the role he should have played given his skill set and how the Clippers were defending Lillard. Regardless, look for this quintet to appear again when Portland needs points.
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