Deep Clippers Survive Portland
The Rose Garden crowd was back in the game, as the Trail Blazers came to life in the third quarter on Thursday. A huge come-from-behind effort led by Nicolas Batum and Meyers Leonard brought the Blazers to within four points after they had trailed by as many as 25. But, the big, long comeback finally took its toll on the home team, as they simply ran out of gas and fell to the talented Clippers 103-90.
As we often say after games like this, you simply can't dig yourself a huge hole like this, against a team as good as this, and expect to survive. The comeback was impressive, as no one can doubt their internal fight, but you can't play from that far back and live to tell about it.
The Clippers, who embarrassed the previously-unbeaten San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, are a very good and a very deep team. Even with Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill in street clothes behind the bench, the Clips got plenty from their second unit, and that was the difference. More specifically actually, Jamal Crawford was the difference.
Crawford, who heard a scattering of boos from Blazer fans when he entered the game in the first quarter, was exactly the player Portland thought it was getting last year in this game. He went for 25 points in 28 minutes, and seemed to answer every Blazer threat with a huge basket.
The Blazers owed their comeback not only to a much improved effort, but to one single coaching move that changed the entire game. After being outscored 31-17 in the second quarter, and trailing 60-39 at halftime, Terry Stotts put Batum in charge of defending Chris Paul in the third. The Clipper offense sputtered with Batum denying Paul the ball, and the Blazers outscored them 32-17 in the quarter.
As we've seen before, when Batum gets that lock-down mentality on defense, something magical starts to happen with his offense. Batum put his team on his back, and got the Blazers to within four points, at 86-82, after delivering a perfect lob pass to Leonard on a fast break. But, soon after, it was more Crawford, and more Clippers, as they charged back with a 14-3 run that put the game away.
Batum ended the game with 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and three steals. Leonard, who has put together very solid back-to-back performances, had eight points and six rebounds, most of which came during Portland's big run.
While the defense was terrific in the third quarter, it just wasn't there in the first half, when the Clippers did most of their damage. The Blazers gave up 62 percent shooting to Dallas on Monday, and then watched the Clippers shoot 53 percent in this game. Consistently allowing percentages like that, when you've already got a razor-thin margin of error offensively yourself, makes things too difficult against solid teams in this league.
The other big topic as of late, the bench, was another issue for the Blazers in this game. They did get a great effort from Leonard, and got pretty solid play from Ronnie Price, but just don't have enough punch in that second unit to hang with some of the quality reserve units in the west. We're going to see a lot of games like this during the season, when Coach Stotts demands huge minutes from the starters, but that is going to take its toll. Fortunately, as mentioned above, we saw progress from the bench. In the future, it just has to come before the team is down 25 points.
The convenient part of all of this is that we've easily identified what needs to improve, and I'm not trying to be cute by saying that. It's no secret, but Portland's starters, most nights, are going to be good enough to win their time on the floor, and now just need help from the reserves. One solution, that would give the bench a proven scorer, would be perhaps moving Leonard into the starting rotation and bringing Hickson off the bench. I've mentioned this before, and it could be a logical solution down the road. We'll watch and see.
The Blazer offense shot just 43 percent, and even though the effort and intensity was there, it's going to be difficult to beat the elite teams in the west with an average like that. LaMarcus Aldridge had 14 points, but was 7 for 17. Wesley Matthews was all over the place defensively, but shot just 4 for 12, and even Batum, who had a fantastic second half, ended 6 of 18. Damian Lillard, who had his hands full with Paul, had a solid 16 points, four assists, and three steals.
A fun comeback, and credit should certainly be given to the Blazers for battling back, but familiar issues were to blame in this loss. The Clippers are good enough to know how to take advantage, even in the Rose Garden, where they've had very little success in their history.
It's another learning experience for the young Blazers, who will have another practice to make adjustments before another, and perhaps more difficult test arrives. San Antonio visits the Rose Garden on Saturday.