PHOENIX– After being statistically one of the best defense teams during the preseason, the Portland Trail Blazers began the regular season by allowing the Phoenix Suns shoot 52 percent from the field, leading to a 104-91 opening-night loss at US Airways Center.
“Well, the Phoenix Suns outplayed us,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “They were ready from the get-go, they got out and ran. All the things that we’ve been working on, we had a setback today. Transition defense, we were slow reacting to that. Their guards did a good job of penetrating; we gave up too many shots at the rim. We didn’t necessarily shoot the ball well in the first half, but we battled back. We were in a position to win the game with three minutes to go, it was a five-point game. They outplayed us.”
After spending the bulk of training camp focusing on defense, the Suns jumped out to a 30-16 first quarter lead thanks in large part to second-year center Miles Plumlee, who scored 10 of his 18 points in the first quarter while helping the Suns outscore Portland 18-4 in the paint. Phoenix would eventually finish the game with a 52-24 advantage on the paint.
“I thought Bledsoe and Dragic made some tough shots in the paint,” said Stotts. “Miles Plumlee, I would imagine that might have been a career game for him. They passed the ball well then they got to the paint, the finished well when they got there. They made some tough shots but I thought we could have done a better job as well.”
Phoenix shot 60 percent from the field and scored 11 fastbreak points in the first quarter to set an unfortunate precedent.
“I think we let them come out, punch us in the mouth a little bit,” said Robin Lopez, who finished with three points and two rebounds. “They came out as the aggressors. I don’t think we really reacted until some time in the second quarter. By then it was too late. I think they had 30 in the first, something like that, and that’s too many points in a quarter, let alone to start off a game.”
The Trail Blazers would rally at the end of the second quarter thanks to three-straight three-pointers by Damian Lillard to cut Phoenix’s lead to four going into the half, but the Suns would answer with a 12-0 run early in the third to reassert control.
“They made plays. We fought back and got back into it and they had guys that made plays tonight,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “Bledsoe played great, the big fella down low, Plumlee, played great. I thought they had guys that made plays tonight. We came out a little bit slow and they were home and it’s their opener and they have a bunch of new players, young players who are getting their first opportunity to play, to start. They just had more energy than us. We fought back but it just wasn’t enough.”
Portland would get to within five after a Lillard three-pointer and a Robin Lopez free throw with 3:15 to play, but Phoenix would score the last eight points to come away with a 13-point win.
“I got a little worried there when it got down to five, especially with a young team to see how they react,” said Suns first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek. “But they made a couple nice stops. That is the key for us. When we get stops, we are able to fast break. We had a pretty good transition. I think it was that one play that Eric ended up throwing it all the way down to Goran that really helped to separate at the end. Our guys played defense. I thought they did a great job together playing together.”
Damian Lillard lead all scorers with 32 points on 10-of-20 shooting. LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 28 points, four rebounds and two assists. No other Trail Blazer scored in double figures.
“We need more people that just Damian and LaMarcus scoring, but again, with our emphasis on defense we’re going to have nights where not everybody can score,” said Stotts. “It was deflating that the progress we had made in the preseason wasn’t there tonight.”
Nicolas Batum grabbed 13 rebounds in addition to seven points and four assists. Wesley Matthews finished with nine points, seven rebounds and four assists.
Suns guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe combined to score 48 points, while Plumlee and P.J. Tucker added 18 points apiece.
The Trail Blazers now travel to Denver for a Friday night game against the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 PM.
And we’re back. After the Trail Blazers defeated a shorthanded Clippers team 109-98 in Game Five at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in the first round series, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studios once again to deliver another playoff edition of the Rip City Report podcast. Please consider listening…
On this episode, Joe and I discuss the Trail Blazers being on the verge of winning just their second playoff series in the last 16 years, what we’re expecting to see during Game Six Friday in Portland, make our picks for the Trail Blazers’ MVP and most surprising during the first five games, how the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin change the narrative surrounding the series and answer some of your Twitter-submitted questions regarding Chris Kaman’s birthday, non-Moda Center places to watch Game Six, player playoff bonuses and give a few binge watching suggestions, not that you’d ever need to watch TV again with all these fine podcasts we’re providing for you.
After struggling in the first few games of their first round playoff series, the play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Games Three, Four and Five has been one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers hold a 3-2 advantage versus the Clippers. Mason Plumlee has arguably been Portland’s most valuable player, and both Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have delivered game-changing performances at times during the series, but the attention Lillard and McCollum draw from the Clippers’ defense has allowed for their teammates to have a chance to shine in the postseason. And despite L.A.’s defensive gameplan focusing almost exclusively on stopping Portland’s starting backcourt, Lillard and McCollum are combining to average just over 40 points a game during the 2016 playoffs.
Given that, and the fact that they even made the playoffs, let alone are a game away from winning Portland’s second playoff series in the last 15 years, TNT analyst Charles Barkley declared on last night’s edition of “Inside The NBA” that Portland’s backcourt is second only to Golden State’s, the team the Trail Blazers would face should they advance to the next round.
Damian Lillard was having one of his worst shooting nights of the season through the first three 36 minutes of Portland’s 108-98 victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of their first round playoff series Wednesday night at Staples Center. Though he no longer had to deal with being defended by guard Chris Paul, who is out of the series after breaking a bone in his right hand during Game Four, the Clippers continued their series-long tactic of throwing constant double teams and traps at Lillard, pestering the 6-3 point guard to go just 1-of-10 from the field through the first three quarters.
“It wasn’t even so much missing the shots that was bothering me, it was just I couldn’t get any attempts because they were so aggressive,” said Lillard. “They played a smaller lineup more often than they did the first couple games, but everything that I did, they were just as aggressive. It was obvious that they wanted me to get rid of the ball just like it was in the first four games.”
And for most of the night, the strategy worked. Despite being being without Paul and Blake Griffin, who is also out for the series with a left quad injury, the Clippers took a five-point lead into the intermission. Even when CJ McCollum got his shot going in the third quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, Los Angeles was still able to go into the fourth quarter tied at 71-71.
But even though Lillard was struggling, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts decided to leave his point guard in the game to start the fourth quarter. Stotts said after the game that he changed up that rotation in order to get McCollum some extra rest, though it ultimately had another benefit.
“I usually play the third and then I sit the first couple minutes of the fourth,” said Lillard. “But I hadn’t gotten it going, and Coach Stotts knew that it was a game that we needed to win. It was a huge game for us. I think he left me out there just so I could get it going.”
Which he did. Lillard made his first attempt of the fourth quarter, a 26-foot pullup three-pointer, after just 15 seconds had elapsed in the fourth. Less than two minutes later, he made another pullup three. He stripped Clippers guard Pablo Prigioni on the ensuing possession and then converted the turnover into a fastbreak dunk, which gave Lillard eight points roughly two minutes.
“I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed it,” said Lillard. “All my teammates throughout the game, they just kept saying, keep shooting, stay with it, stay aggressive, keep your mind right. I would have been doing that all along, but it felt good to have that encouragement and that support, especially with them trapping so high out. I had to trust the right play, hitting the guy in the middle and allowing him to make the next play to the weak side. I just had to be patient.”
But Lillard wasn’t done just yet. He left the game with just over nine minutes to play in order to get the rest that he’d usually get at the start of the quarter before returning at the 6:25 mark to presumably play the remainder of regulation.
And from there, it was Lillard Time.
He’s go on to make a 16-foot jumper and two three-pointers over the course of a two-minute span that saw the Trail Blazers extend their lead from 10 to 17 while effectively putting the game out of reach with 3:38 to play. By time Lillard subbed out with just under a minute to play, he had put up 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three in eight and a half fourth-quarter minutes, helping Portland take a 3-2 series lead with what could be a deciding Game Six scheduled for Friday at the Moda Center.
Some players might have chosen, either subconsciously or otherwise, to defer exclusively to his teammates or find reasons not to shoot after struggling through the first three quarters like Lillard did. But that’s not how he got to where he’s at, and it certainly wouldn’t get the Trail Blazers to where they want to go. Regardless of how the game starts, Lillard is always out to finish thanks to a firm belief that the next shot, and the one after that, and the one after that, is going to find the bottom of the net.
“Regardless of how I play in the first three quarters, always in my mind I tell myself, ‘You going to come up big,’” said Lillard. “Even if it comes down to one possession, if I’ve got one point and there’s one possession left in the game, I always tell myself, ‘You’re going to come up big.’ So I was counting on that. That was it. It’s just the mindset, confidence.”