April 4, 2018, 12:06 am
It might be time to start worrying about the Portland Trail Blazers’ recent shooting struggles. The lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks beat Portland 115-109 on Tuesday night, using a massive advantage from beyond the arc to play spoiler against a team hoping to lock down home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Damian Lillard had 29 points, five rebounds and eight assists, but padded his point total during the Blazers’ futile late-game run by attacking the rim with abandon – the kind some might consider reckless, actually, given his tweaked ankle with three minutes left – to finish 15-of-15 from the free throw line. C.J. McCollum needed 18 shots to score 16 points, while Al-Farouq Aminu took 13 shots en route to 10 points.
Portland went a dismal 10-of-40 on 3-pointers at American Airlines Center, good for 25 percent shooting. Those numbers would be even worse, too, if not for Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton combining to make six of their seven tries from deep. Lillard and Aminu both shot 2-for-10 on threes; McCollum was 0-for-5; Zach Collins misfired on all four of his attempts; and Evan Turner couldn’t connect on his only triple in a largely invisible 25 minutes of play.
Those widespread struggles from three were magnified by Dallas’ success in the same regard. The Mavericks shot 17-of-44 on 3-pointers, consistently getting open looks after creasing the paint via ball screens and hand-offs, finding the open man from there. Dirk Nowitzki went 3-of-10 from beyond the arc and scored 14 points on as many shots, but his offensive influence loomed far larger than those pedestrian numbers suggest. Portland never managed an answer on how to defend him in ball-screen situations, ultimately resorting to all-court switching – a strategy that mostly ended with a classic Nowitzki fadeaway, or a good shot elsewhere after the Blazers paid him extra attention to account for a mismatch.
Making this loss especially depressing for Portland is that Dallas intentionally opted against putting its best foot forward. Neither Nowitzki nor J.J. Barea, who tormented the Blazers for 15 points and five assists on 6-of-9 shooting in just 21 minutes, appeared in the fourth quarter, and Dennis Smith, Jr. wasn’t reinserted until the game clock read 2:58 and his team was up 104-94. The rookie capped an impressively refined 16-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance in style, grabbing a loose ball after a wild drive by McCollum and bouncing an alley-oop off the floor to himself for a slam.
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) April 4, 2018
Portland might not have been forced to win the fourth quarter if it had fed Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast lived up to that moniker against the Mavericks, making seven of his eight shots from the field, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds. He carved Dallas up as a roll man in the first quarter, and feasted on the block in the third when the Blazers finally made a concerted effort to find him in scoring positions. He was an afterthought more than anything else on Tuesday regardless.
In addition to made 3-pointers and touches for Nurkic, also sorely missing for the Blazers was the energy and athleticism provided by Moe Harkless and Ed Davis. On a night when Portland couldn’t sustain a rhythm offensively and failed to provide any consistent means of resistance on the other end, it hasn’t yet been more obvious that Terry Stotts’ team was missing two of its top eight players – both of whom routinely provide sparks in a manner none of their teammates are capable of duplicating.
It’s hardly time to panic. The Blazers have already punched their playoff ticket, still control their destiny for the three seed and are likely to have home-court advantage in the first round. But these shooting problems just won’t go away, and any prospective postseason opponent will force Portland to prove they’re an anomaly by keying on Lillard and McCollum, daring guys like Aminu, Turner and more to fire away from deep.
The Blazers showed on Tuesday they won’t stop shooting. And while that’s indeed the most prudent means of approach, it nevertheless led to a loss against an inferior foe, not to mention more cause for concern with the playoffs looming.