It was supposed to be offense versus defense when the 10-2 Blazers took on the 6-4 Bulls in Portland after sweeping a 4-game East road swing. The Blazers had an 8-game winning streak, and the Bulls just had their 5-game streak snapped the night before in Denver on the first game of a 6-game road trip.
If either team was going to be exhausted, you’d think it would be the one playing the back-to-back on the road and not the home team off a few days’ rest.
So what happened?
The Bulls decided they were a well-rested offensive team after all. They went to Boozer. They went to Rose. They went to Deng. They didn’t even need to go to Noah. They found themselves up 10 after one quarter. Meanwhile, the Blazers had forgotten how to pass and figured endless dribbling was a decent substitute for moving without the ball. They blinked, and looked up at a 21-point deficit just halfway through the 2nd quarter. Ouch.
This might be useful for the Blazers to remember for tonight’s game against the Golden State Warriors: it doesn’t matter if the Blazers are now the ones on the back-to-back, or that they’re playing away, or even that they’ve been pretty unsuccessful playing Golden State in their arena in recent years. If the Blazers can do what the Bulls did and flip the “energy and hustle” switch early, it will do them a world of good, not least of which because they’re not going to have the crowd behind them this time.
Near the end of the second quarter of the Bulls game, even as the Blazers tried to battle back, it was like trying to run in sand. Up a hill. Into a headwind. With a rope pulling them backwards.
They “cut” Chicago’s lead to 15, only to let the Bulls get a comically uncontested offensive board, then another. After that, the Blazers saw Batum hit 3 free throws and Matthews hit a 3, and at the end of the half had pulled within… um… 15.
Hopefully you can get a sense for how frustrating this was: even the Blazers’ runs were only enough to trade baskets.
To be fair, Portland was playing without their two best players, as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard went a combined 2-17 in the first half and just as well could have been holograms as real flesh-and-blood players. It was frightening.
Through the very worst of the Bulls game, Robin Lopez was doing his damndest to provide a paint presence, getting his hands on endless offensive board opportunities. They all seemed to bounce Chicago’s way, but finally in the third quarter he corralled one that led to a Lillard three. Chicago called timeout up 9, their lead and their dominance feeling legitimately threatened for the first time all game, with Lopez already having earned a double-double.
Nicolas Batum proved even more disruptive, keeping his hands active and throwing Chicago’s unconscionably good offense some sorely-needed reality checks. Suddenly the entire Blazers squad had defensive energy, and the momentum had rolled back out to Portland like the tide. Off a high-energy finish by Matthews, the Bulls called timeout, their 21-point lead whittled to just four.
The crowd was into it. Chicago looked confused. The Blazers looked pissed. And through it all, they refused to give up.
Lopez ripped away rebounds, the Blazers were fast breaking, moving the ball, and Williams nailed a three to give Portland an improbable 4-point lead with 3 minutes left in the 3rd. It was as if head coach Terry Stotts politely pointed out that Chicago was playing the second of a back-to-back on the road, and maybe, just maybe it would benefit Portland to play faster.
Portland CONTINUED to push. They forced a 24-second violation, they played harder defense, and they found themselves with the ball out of bounds, stacked with three point shooters, with 4 seconds left in the 3rd. So what do they do? How about give to Matthews for the slicing drive and easy layin? The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. I went nuts. And the Blazers posted an absolutely ridiculous +22 for the quarter to flip a 15-point deficit into a 7-point lead in just 12 minutes. Incredible.
In all my years of watching professional basketball, the biggest quarter-to-quarter swing I’ve ever seen while watching live was 20 points, and that was years ago. That the Blazers got a +22 is insane.
But if the Blazers could tap ANY part of last night’s third quarter tonight against the Warriors, this one might turn into an unexpected laugher. That’s tough, though: usually the motivation to turn your dial to 11 only comes with playoff basketball, or by trying to dig yourself out of a 20-point first half hole. But the Blazers know that have that gear in them now. If they can switch to it, even for a few minutes at a time, this team will be deadly.
Against Golden State, the Blazers will be facing a team that may (literally this time) be without two of their best players: Steph Curry is still recovering from a concussion that has him day-to-day, and Andre Iguodala “felt a pop” in his hamstring last night that left him “unable to walk.” It’s officially being called a strain, and he’s listed as doubtful. Add on top of that the loss of Jermaine O’Neal, and the healthy (!!!) Blazers are facing a depleted Golden State squad.
They can’t take that for granted. While the Blazers had the luxury of watching the shadows of LaMarcus and Dame slowly reanimate into living, breathing players that helped them down the stretch, the Warriors will have no such luck. The Blazers have to contain Golden State’s remaining threats (like the sharp-shooting Klay Thompson, the up-and-coming Harrison Barnes, and the some-people-still-think-I’m-better-than-LaMarcus-Aldridge David Lee) and realize that, outside that core, they don’t have a lot going for them.
The keys to tonight’s game will be containing Golden State’s threats, taking advantage of their thin lineup, and refusing to settle for anything other than dunks or open shots created by good ball movement.
The wild card: they are playing in Oakland. That can cut two ways. The first is that the Blazers have stunk there lately. The second, which is a chapter that’s just begun being written, is that Damian Lillard will be playing in front of his home city. He’s going to want this game, and he’s going to want it bad. If there’s any time for him to put together a bruising 48-minute performance, it’s tonight. While the Blazers have found dominance in spurts this season, it has mostly escaped Dame. But he has it within him. If tonight provides a good reason to start letting it loose… look out.