The Portland Trail Blazers have proven on numerous occasions this season that they’re able to overcome double-digit deficits to come away with victories. Oddly enough, what they haven’t shown an ability to do is put away teams after building double-digit leads.
That trend continued Sunday night in Los Angeles, as the Trail Blazers built a 17-point lead in the first quarter and a 20-point lead in the third quarter against the Lakers, only to have both leads evaporate before escaping with a 114-108 victory.
“Getting wins on the road are important and one of the things we really wanted to improve on this year,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “L.A. has been playing great basketball and no lead is safe with them. Obviously we showed that in both halves. But pulling out a win on the road is the most important thing.”
The Lakers missed their first 11 shots of the game, allowing the Trail Blazers to jump out to a 21-4 lead with a little over five minutes to play in the first quarter. But L.A. would make their first run of the game by outscoring Portland 20-11 to end the quarter to cut the lead to eight before the start of the second quarter.
“In the first half, (the Lakers) got some threes,” said Stotts. “They went small and they got in transition. Some of our turnovers led to some of their baskets. Then, in the fourth quarter, they had a lot of momentum. Xavier Henry did a great job of shooting and driving and getting to the free throw line, and obviously he had a career game. They were all feeding off that, the crowd got into it, and there was a lot of emotion in the game.”
The Lakers would cut the lead to three by the half thanks to six-point quarters from Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Robert Sacre. It looked like the Trail Blazers were once again going to cede momentum, much like they did in Wednesday night’s loss to the Suns.
“We have to find a way to stay consistent,” said Damian Lillard. “You know when things are going well we tend to kind of ease up and play a little bit looser instead of tightening up and putting teams away. Once teams get fired up and get back in the game our intensity rises again and we have to find a way to keep it at that high level like the best teams in the league do.”
The Trail Blazers would reassert themselves in the third quarter, outscoring the home team 41-24 thanks to 11 points in the quarter from Lillard and nine points from Wesley Matthews. Portland looked to be in complete control once again by time the quarter ended with a 94-74 lead.
Then the Trail Blazers would get a taste of their own medicine to start the fourth. Portland wouldn’t score their first field goal of the final quarter until Mo Williams hit a 13-foot jumper with 5:31 to play in the game. By then the lead was whittled down to ten. Two minutes later the Lakers would cut the lead to one with a Sacre jumper at the 3:14 mark of the third.
But the Trail Blazers would not be shaken. On the following play, Lillard would hit a three-pointer after a timeout to put the Trail Blazers up four.
“We run that play in practice, we’ve gone over it in practice a few times,” said Lillard of the play. “We’ve never actually gotten to the shot that we wanted to get until tonight. They had a miscommunication, it came at the perfect time in the game. We was able to get that lead up to four and hold on to it.”
Wesley Matthews would then score the next five points for Portland with two free throws and a three-pointer with 1:20 to play to extend the lead to seven. All the while, Portland showed a level of resilience that was not seen from this team last season.
“I think the guys at the end of the game have done this before,” said Stotts. “They’ve shown the composure as far as executing, making the extra pass, making clutch shots and then getting stops when we needed them.”
That composure would not be exclusive to Portland’s offense.
With 18 seconds to play and the Lakers trailing by four, Los Angeles ran an “elevator” play to get Jodie Meeks a look at a three-pointer, which would have cut the lead to one. But Lillard, armed with knowledge gained from film review, fought through the pick and was able to block Meeks’ attempt and corral the loose ball, effectively ending the game and giving the Trail Blazers their eighth road win of the season.
“I had saw the play that they ran on film before, when they tried to run through the gate an close me out and then he’d have a wide-open three at the top,” said Lillard. “But I stayed on his hip pretty good and got through and then it was pretty much one-on-one after that. Time was running out so he needed to get a shot up. I know he’s a shooter; he rose up with guys in his face a few times earlier in the game. Once he picked the ball up I sat on it and I was able to block it.”
Lillard finished the game with 26 points, nine assists, five rebounds, a block and a steal while committing just two turnovers in 37 minutes.
LaMarcus Aldridge shot 11 of 19 from the field to finish with a game-high tying 27 points to go along with nine rebounds and three assists. His fellow big man Robin Lopez logged the game’s only double double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, six coming on the offensive end, in 28 minutes.
Matthews would shoot four of nine from three and eight of nine from the free throw line to finish with 17 points while adding three assists, three steals and two rebounds. And Nicolas Batum would flirt with a triple double, though he came up short in all three categories with nine points, nine assists and nine rebounds in 36 minutes.
The Trail Blazers now return to Portland to host the Pacers, who defeated the Clippers in the matinee game at Staples Center Sunday afternoon to move to a league-best 16-1 on the season, Monday night. And though Indiana is one of the few teams in the NBA that has a better record than Portland, that doesn’t necessarily change the fact that it’s the Trail Blazers that now have a target on their backs.
“We’ve got to continue to get better, continue to understand that we’re hunted now,” said Matthews. “We’re number one in the West right now, we’re one of the top teams in the NBA. We’re going to get every team’s best shot, whereas last year, we were trying to give everybody our best shot.”