PORTLAND –– To say the Portland Trail Blazers feed off their home crowd doesn’t do justice to the frenetic energy inside the Moda Center on Saturday night. Fans everywhere expected their team — particularly its two stars, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum — to be much more competitive as the series shifted to Portland for a pivotal Game 3. They weren’t disappointed.
After being hounded into wildly-inconsistent shooting through the first two games, Lillard and McCollum came out firing, scoring 33 of the Blazers’ 49 first-half points. Lillard finished with a game-high 32, while McCollum chipped in 27, both on 50 percent shooting from the floor en route to a gritty 96-88 win that helped them avoid an all-but-insurmountable 3-0 series deficit.
Each was spectacular in his own right, finally getting hot from the three-point line, but more importantly attacking defenders on dribble drives and finishing at the iron regardless of whether or not DeAndre Jordan was in the paint.
“The start they got off to, I think it lifted everybody up,” Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts said of his guards. “[Lillard] didn’t shoot the ball well in the first two games. The fact that he got us going I think just encouraged everybody, like, we’re going to be okay. As far as the other things, his leadership. I’ve spoken about this before. His leadership in the huddles. Not letting up. Encouraging guys when he wasn’t in the game. Allowing C.J. to have the game that he had. There are just a lot of different things that you need from your best player.”
Stotts has historically never been one to panic or dramatically alter his game plan. In fact, he’s been criticized in the past for his Ahab-like insistence on staying the course, despite at times disastrous results. The idea that Lillard and McCollum simply needed to be more aggressive for things to work themselves out is an eerily-familiar mantra that he’s been repeating throughout the series and one that he circled back to after Game 3.
“I thought we competed in the first two games. We just didn’t necessarily play well,” Stotts said. “We were a determined team tonight. It helps to be at home. I wasn’t disappointed in our effort and our demeanor in L.A. We just didn’t necessarily play that well.”
But a few key tweaks and minor adjustments are undoubtedly what helped the Blazers unlock some hidden doors against the Clippers Saturday night.
One of the main reasons the Blazers’ backcourt duo was rendered so inefficient through the first two games was L.A.’s tactic of aggressively trapping and blitzing the ball handlers before they could comfortably initiate half-court sets. The Blazers were able to mitigate that Saturday by playing more through Mason Plumlee and allowing him to be a passer and playmaker early in the shot clock.
Plumlee, arguably, has been the most consistent player for Portland this series. He had 17 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and a pair of steals in the Game 2 loss. He followed that up on Saturday with another eye-popping performance that included 21 rebounds, nine assists…and six points.
“Probably an awkward stat line,” Plumlee said. “I think the guys on the bench were giving me a hard time for not getting 10 points, but, you know, the game is different through adjustments and stuff. They leave certain things open, and they take other things away. Really, they put me in a good position by them trapping our guards. I have an advantage every time I catch the ball, and it’s just making the right play.
“Stotts is putting me in a position to make a lot of those passes and in the position to make a lot of decisions. His offense lends itself to a lot of movement and a lot of guys cutting off the ball, so he’s really given me a major opportunity here.”
His team-high nine assists speak for themselves. It’s also telling that the Blazers’ starting guards combined for just four. Plumlee may have only had six points, but two of those came on one of the better highlights of the night when he skied in for this monster, two-handed, reverse putback jam to give his team an eight-point lead midway through the third quarter.
But despite everything that went right for the Blazers Saturday night, it was anything but a decisive win. They essentially had no answer for Chris Paul, who finished with 26 points, nine assists, and three steals, and made big shot after big shot to keep the game close late, including this beautiful step-back jumper over Maurice Harkless.
Stotts deployed a combination of Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu on Paul early in an effort to bother him with their formidable length, but essentially to no avail. Portland got a feel-good win regardless, but it took a 15-3 run late in the game to send it home. The Blazers were aided along by DeAndre Jordan missing four straight free throws during that period, and what’s truly shocking-slash-refreshing about that is they came on legitimate fouls, as opposed to those of the Hack-a-Jordan variety Stotts hasn’t been shy about in the past.
It was also a lackluster outing for Blake Griffin (12 points on 5-of-16 shooting) after he was beginning to regain his old form in Games 1 and 2. Still, it took clutch play after clutch play from Harkless, McCollum, and Lillard down the stretch to seal it.
When all was said and done it was enough to make you go…
The Blazers will likely face nothing but uphill battles as the series moves along, especially if they can’t get more production out of their role players. Aminu continued his nightmarish shooting slump on Saturday, being held to just nine points on 4-of-12 from the floor, including 1-of-5 from downtown. After averaging better than 36 percent from behind the arc during the regular season and emerging as a key cog in Portland’s plans, Aminu is shooting a ghastly 20 percent from three against the Clippers in the opening round and has been a virtual nonentity.
At this point, it’s difficult to imagine him breaking out of that funk and becoming a difference-maker. Doc Rivers has elected simply not to guard him out on the perimeter, a development that has clearly been a big blow to his confidence and gunked up the Blazers’ spacing. You can only clang so many three-point attempts before you lose trust in your shot; not everyone can be Vernon Maxwell or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant.
Portland also got nothing out of Allen Crabbe, who’s been a spark-plug off the bench all season long for this team. Going into Game 3, he was averaging just three points on 25 percent shooting after putting up 10 points on 46 percent during the regular season. He finished with zero points in 20 minutes Saturday night after going 0-of-4 from the field overall. Gerald Henderson, likewise, was essentially no help at all, scoring just two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
Signs of life from their two star players in Lillard and McCollum – along with some key contributions from Plumlee – are a good start. But the Blazers are going to need a lot more than that if they want to turn this series from suddenly interesting to legitimately competitive.
McCollum’s resurgence was perhaps hastened by receiving his Most Improved Player award prior to tipoff of Game 3.
If it’s surprising that, against all logic, Chris Kaman somehow continues to earn playing time for the Blazers during their opening-round series, it’s not at all surprising that he apparently is no fan of Taylor Swift’s music.
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No Clippers game would be complete without a little Lob City action, and the ones that include big-to-big alley-oops out of the high-low misdirection plays like this are among the most entertaining kind.