Damian Lillard, in his first game since being named a Western Conference All-Star for the first time in his career, hit a running go-ahead floater off the glass with 11.8 seconds to play to help lift the Trail Blazers to a 106-103 victory over the Raptors Saturday night at the Moda Center.
“I came up off a down screen and we went right into a mid pick and roll,” said Lillard of Portland’s final play on offense. “My first thought was to just try to turn the corner and attack as fast as I could so we could try to see if I could score or we’d have to foul and try to get another possession. I was able to get a pretty good look and make the floater.”
Despite Lillard’s heroics, the game would not be decided until the final seconds, with the Raptors having two chances to take the lead in their final possession.
Wesley Matthews, who struggled early with foul trouble, tied up DeMar DeRozan for a jump ball with less than eight seconds to play. The Raptors would control the tip and called a timeout with five seconds to play to set up what would have been a game-winner. But Matthews once again hounded DeRozan, poking away the ball with less than a second to play.
“The early foul trouble kind of set me back, took away some of my physical play on the defensive end,” said Matthews. “I was kind of holding on to that. At that point I just said, ‘Forget it. If I foul out, I foul out.’ We stepped up to the occasion.”
Nicolas Batum would grab the loose ball and was fouled with 0.1 seconds to play to effectively end the game.
“Those last two possessions, to get the jump ball, he stayed after it and then the last possession, he kept his left arm up and I thought he did a nice job of staying in front of him without fouling,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I think he was disappointed that DeRozan had gotten it going but he stepped up when we needed him.”
In the early going it didn’t look as though the Trail Blazers would need such heroics to come away with the victory. After suffering through slow starts in losses to the Grizzlies and Warriors, a well-rested Trail Blazers squad scored the game’s first seven points and led by as many as 13 in the first quarter while holding the Raptors, a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, to just 33 percent shooting.
Portland would finish the quarter with a 31-19 lead thanks in large part to the play of LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge came to play early in his first game since being named to the Western Conference All-Star roster, putting up a first quarter double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds. The 11 rebounds are a new career-high for Aldridge in a quarter and one short of the franchise record.
“I felt fresh in the first quarter,” said Aldridge. “I had energy, I was trying to run the floor, I was trying to be active. My teammates just found me for open shots and things like that.”
He would go on to finish the game with 27 points on eight of 22 shooting, 15 rebounds, two steals and one steals in 36 minutes.
Lillard, also playing for the first time since being named a Western Conference All-Star, albeit for the first time, picked up where Aldridge left off in the second quarter. The 6-3 point guard out of Weber State, whose shot has been inconsistent over the last 10 games, put up 12 of his 21 points in the second quarter on six of nine
“I did a lot of things similar tonight that I have been,” said Lillard when asked if being named an All-Star help break his slump. “I figured if I played well that would be what it would seem like. I’m just happy that I felt in more of a rhythm out there tonight.”
Lillard would finish eight of 15 from the field with, seven assists and six rebounds in 37 minutes. He is now 10 for 17 from the field this season in the final two minutes of games with the score within three points.
While Portland could seemingly do no wrong in the first half, they were far from perfect in the second half. They had a stretch from the 8:12 mark in the third quarter to the 0:33 mark in which they failed to make a shot from the field.
Led by 16 third quarter points from DeRozan, who finished with 36 points, 12 assists and was also named an All-Star for the first time in his career Thursday night, Toronto cut the lead to five while Portland struggled from the field. But back-to-back three-pointers from Lillard and Matthews late in the third gave the home team an 83-74 lead going into the fourth despite being outscored 34-26.
“When you don’t get stops, it takes a little bit of the flow out of the game,” said Stotts. “We’re better when we’re able to mix in our halfcourt offense and just kind of flowing, but you’ve got to get stops to do that.”
While the Trail Blazers would overcome a tough shooting stretch in the third by going 11 of 13 from the foul like, they would find no such luxury in the fourth. Portland went scoreless from the 5:01 mark of the fourth until Lillard’s go-ahead runner with 11 seconds to play. The Raptors would take a one-point lead in the process, only to have their comeback scuttled Lillard’s shot and Matthews’s defense.
“DeRozan is a hell of a player,” said Matthews, who finished with 21 points and three assists in 34 minutes. “He made tough plays, the rest of the team made tough plays, (Patrick) Patterson was making shots, (Kyle) Lowry was making shots. We just got the timely stops that we needed.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers begin a four-game road trip in our Nation’s Capitol against the Wizards. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 PM.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe, one of the best journalists covering the NBA, if not the best, posted a story today laying out almost the entirety of the Trail Blazers’ offseason moves. Lowe seems somewhat optimistic about the deals Portland made this summer (though he notes they also have the potential to be “disastrous”), while stating the cold fact that a franchise which has shown no ability to draw big name free agents doesn’t have a whole lot of options when trying to build a winner. It’s easily the best retelling of the plan Neil Olshey executed this summer that you’re going to find, so I recommend reading it from start to finish.
But let’s pull look at some of the more interesting tidbits, of which there are many. First, the true target…
They wanted Hassan Whiteside, a sneering rim-runner just a year older than Damian Lillard with the potential to plug every hole in a squishy defense that ranked 21st in points allowed per possession last season.
When Whiteside spurned them, the Blazers faced a choice: hoard cap room, pursue a lesser center (Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi), or go whole hog in a fit of irrational exuberance with a team that barely cracked .500.
They chose the latter. Lowe points out that in order to keep any real cap space for next season, the Blazers would have had to part ways with many of the players from last year’s team and delayed CJ McCollum’s extension. And even then, it wouldn’t be enough space to sign a max player, assuming one could be lured to Portland anyway, which has never been the case.
On the much-discussed topic of who plays what position, Lowe reports that Al-Farouq Aminu will start at power forward, a move that both Olshey and Terry Stotts have signaled this offseason, though he takes it one step further…
Young teams grow with watering, and the Blazers, expert nurturers, aimed their win-now splurge mostly at young-ish wing players well-suited to a league trending smaller and faster; there is no Tyson Chandler mid-30s appendage here. Portland will start Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, carrying over a late-season adjustment that jump-started them, and play Aminu there almost exclusively, Stotts said. (Uh oh, Noah Vonleh.)
It’s one thing to use Aminu at power forward for spurts, something the Trail Blazers did often last year, particularly late in the season, but another for him to play there “almost exclusively.” According SportVU player tracking, as provided by Nylon Calculus, Aminu played 56 percent of his minutes at small forward last season while playing power forward 44 percent of the time. Granted, these numbers are imperfect, and positions in the NBA have never been more fluid, but going from roughly splitting time between small and power forward to playing almost entirely at the four is a fairly drastic change.
Then there’s the topic of Dwight Howard, who the Trail Blazers were rumored to be pursuing during the July moratorium. According to Lowe, those rumors might have been a bit overblown…
Pivoting from Whiteside to a Hawks-level offer for Dwight Howard would have been interesting; there’s some chance Howard rediscovers his All-Star form, and a connected chance that a rejuvenated Howard catapults Portland into a 55-win team. But Howard is 30, and the Blazers — like most teams — wanted no part of a long-term commitment to him.
This is just a guess, but this might be what Olshey was referring to when he mentioned “unfounded” speculation and that “a lot of names on lists that were never viable that we never had any interest in” during the press conference to introduce Festus Ezeli. Of course, there’s no lack of speculation during free agency, so it could very well be in reference to someone else.
There’s a whole lot more in there, particularly if you’re interested in how Stotts might utilize Evan Turner, which is very much worth your time.
Greetings podcast enthusiasts. Between CJ McCollum getting an extension and Moe Harkless signing a new deal, Portland’s roster for the start of the 2016-17 regular season is all but finalized. So it seemed like a good time to hit the studio with Joe Freeman of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com to record yet another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we discuss the near-max extension for McCollum and the four-year, roughly $40 million contract for Harkless, which directions Terry Stotts might go in terms of starting lineups and minutes allocations, the news that both Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli will forego playing for Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics, give a quick rundown of the preseason schedule and answer your Twitter-submitted questions.
Last weekend, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and his older brother, Errick, were guests on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss, amongst other things, The Basketball Tournament, which is billed as a “open application, 5-on-5, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament” in which the winning team takes home $2 million in prize money. Errick’s team, Overseas Elite, won the tournament last year and are in the finals, which airs Tuesday at 4 PM Pacific on ESPN, again this year.
But the tournament wasn’t the only topic of conversation, as any time you get two brothers together, you’re contractually obligated to ask them which is mom’s favorite. One one had, CJ still lives with his mom, so you might assume he’s the got the No. 1 son ranking sewn up, but it sounds like Errick was the much better behaved child and mom’s tend to have long memories, so it sounds like it’s a bit of a tossup.
“CJ, he was a good kid,” said Errick, “he just liked to get into things. He was really physical. She couldn’t take him around any other kids or he would, like, get into little altercations with them because he just played too rough.”
Sounds about right.