February 5, 2018, 9:27 pm
Make it a winless road trip for the Portland Trail Blazers, in about the most depressing fashion possible. Portland closed its journey back east with a 111-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Monday, easily the most discouraging performance of a three-game stint that included a hopeless loss to the Toronto Raptors and last-second defeat to the Kyrie Irving-less Boston Celtics.
Somehow, though, this game was even more discouraging than the final score indicated. The Blazers were careless on both ends from the opening tip, and didn’t shoot the ball well enough to make up for that lack of two-way engagement. The Pistons, to their credit, did well to make life hard on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, meeting them on the other side of screens and sometimes opting for an aggressive trap on the ball that clearly frustrated both guards. With Portland’s stars bottled up for the most part, it fell on the team’s role players to produce offensively, and they consistently failed to meet that challenge.
It might not have mattered even if Al-Farouq Aminu, Shabazz Napier and Zach Collins had managed much better than combined 22.5 percent shooting on 31 field goal attempts. The Pistons had six players score at least 12 points in this game, led by Blake Griffin‘s 21. Detroit shot 50.6 percent from the field, connected on 15-of-30 from beyond the arc and doled out a season-high 35 assists. The Blazers struggled defending Griffin-Drummond ball screens from the outset, and Ish Smith torched Jusuf Nurkic in pick-and-roll play during a telling third quarter that extended Detroit’s lead to 12 heading into the fourth.
The jolt Portland needed to overcome a double-digit deficit in the final stanza never came. The Blazers continued having trouble staying attached to the Pistons’ guards, and reserve stretch big Anthony Tolliver had 13 points in the fourth quarter alone. His dunk with 4:10 left, after blowing by Al-Farouq Aminu as Portland was jogging back on defense, was arguably the lowest point in a game that contained almost no high ones for the Blazers.
Some nights in the NBA, one team just doesn’t have it. That was Portland on Monday, playing the second half of a difficult back-to-back against a team that seems rejuvenated by the addition of Griffin. Once Reggie Jackson comes back, the Pistons, toggling between eighth and ninth place with the Philadelphia 76ers, could see themselves vault up the standings.
If only the Blazers had a similar fix coming. Barring a major trade by Thursday’s deadline, though, this team is what it is. Rediscovering the form that recently made Portland winners of seven games in eight tries is the only way for Lillard, McCollum and the rest to improve. It better happen quickly, or the Blazers, now just one and-a-half games ahead of the ninth-place Los Angeles Clippers, could find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.
- For a very brief stint in the third quarter, Stotts devolved from his normal rotation and inserted Zach Collins for Nurkic, effectively playing the rookie at center nxt to Aminu. Score and personnel dictated that change more than anything else, probably. Portland was suddenly down double-digits and bleeding points, while Detroit went small up front with Tolliver next to Griffin. It didn’t last long – just 52 seconds before another five Pistons points forced a timeout by the Blazers. It’s instructive that Stotts would feel inclined to go with Collins over Ed Davis when his team needs a spark offensively. Collins didn’t provide it tonight, but has the raw skill set to do so going forward – if not later this season, certainly later in his career.
- The Blazers have attributed much of their defensive success this season to night-by-night continuity. The confidence fostered on that end by one player knowing exactly what the other four players on the floor are doing has clearly been instrumental to this team’s play on that side of the ball. Some teams, though, present a strength or weakness that calls for a single-game adjustment, and Detroit is one of them. There’s just no reason for defenders to treat Smith and Stanley Johnson like normal perimeter players; they’re both ineffective and mostly unwilling 3-point shooters. Portland, however, opted against cheating off them an extra step to make Griffin see extra color on post-ups, or get an extra body in the mix when Drummond attacks on the roll. Why? Only Stotts knows for sure, but the Blazers’ ceaseless commitment to scheme – which, again, has paid off this season – seems the most obvious justification. Tweaks like that are often avoided during the regular season, and Portland will surely adjust to account for opponent-specific deficiencies in the playoffs – should it get there. This team needed a win, though, and treating Smith and Johnson like the non-shooters they are off the ball throughout the game would have mucked up Griffin’s growing comfort level with his new team at the very least. Missed opportunity.
- Drummond played the type of game defensively that makes you think he should be a true force on that end of the floor. He had multiple blocks from the weak side, but was especially impressive as a pick-and-roll defender. Most behemoths are helpless when meeting Lillard and McCollum at the level of the screener, but not Drummond. He was rarely beaten off the bounce, and created multiple turnovers by swiping at dribbles as Portland ball handlers came around a pick and tried to split traps. If Drummond was this engaged on a nightly basis, it’s hard to believe the Pistons wouldn’t be a top-five defense almost on his broad, hairy shoulders alone. He’s that much of a game-changer when engaged on a possession-by-possession basis.