The game started off well for Portland, with Damian Lillard playing possibly the best 12 minutes of his NBA career. By the end of the first quarter the future Rookie of the Year had tallied an impressive 17 points and 7 assists. Those are the kind of stats that good players finish games with. Until the Lakers figured out how to stop him, he was simply scoring at will.
Lillard’s stat line: 38 points, 9 assists, 1 rebound, 3 steals, and 2 turnovers
This was the most aggressive Damian Lillard has been in some time. Tonight, I saw in Lillard’s eyes a sight all too familiar from just one Portland season ago; frustration. But the true mark of greatness is the ability to convert disappointment into tenacity. He spent as much time hitting the deck as he did hitting shots, with a perfect 9/9 from the free throw line to show for his efforts.
Interestingly enough, the only player to outperform Lillard, Kobe Bryant (47 points), was a perfect 18/18 from the line. Black Mamba made as many free throws as all of the Blazers combined. Far be it from me to say he didn’t take some hits, but I’d say they were about 50/50 with phantom contact. Even the level-headed Lillard lost his cool, receiving his first career technical for proclaiming one particular 2nd quarter call to be, “bull****!”
Nevertheless, Portland carried on and led by as many as 12 points over the course of the game. It was only in the 3rd quarter that the Los Angeles Lakers were able to take their first lead, although the game would belong predominantly to Portland well into the 4th. So what caused the breakdown? The Lakers were supposed to be playing on tired legs during this 2nd game of a back-to-back, so why were the Blazers losing ground?
- The short answer is injuries and absences, but let’s not let the Blazers off the hook. The biggest riddle Portland couldn’t solve in the 4th quarter was rebounding. Eric Maynor, I’m looking at you. Just because you’re 6’3” doesn’t mean you have a free pass to watch the ball flirt at your fingertips. If it’s in your space, grab it! The Lakers were able capitalized on 2nd chances that should never have come their way. When you’re tied with 6 minutes left, that can’t happen.
- The Blazers were unable to stop Pau Gasol. The Spaniard had 11 of the Lakers’ 25 fourth quarter points. He just backed into the paint and layed it in, time after time. Well, that’s not entirely true. He mixed in a couple of open jumpers. When he wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard he was dropping pocket passes to Dwight Howard, who also took joy in abusing Portland’s thin frontcourt. It comes as no surprise that interior defense was Portland’s undoing when they needed it most.
- The Lakers completely removed Damian Lillard from the game. I have to hand it to them; it was effective. Lillard scored just 4 of his 38 points in the final frame. He was stuck with the double, and with a limited supply of healthy talent to help him out, the Blazers succumbed to the well executed defense of the Lakers. Though, I might add, if Lillard saw as many freebies as one Kobe Bryant, this might be a different story.
All in all, I’m quite proud of Portland. They started four rookies against a team of all stars and nearly came away with a victory. The lack of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews on defense saw Kobe Bryant to a season high 47 points and the Blazers still only lost by 7 in the conclusive minutes. With only 8 active players Portland pulled together the way I hoped they could. Though perhaps unequally, everyone did their part. Heck, even Luke Babbitt performed well (4/5 from the arc)! I’ll gladly eat crow on that one. After the final buzzer Kobe and Damian shared a warm hand shake and congratulated each other on a game well played. It gave me chills to see the most transcendent player in the game share a moment with the best up-and-comer. The win belonged to Los Angeles, but the night belonged to Lillard.
Blazers 106, Lakers 113