Portland Trail Blazers: 3 takeaways from tight loss to LA Clippers

The Portland Trail Blazers fell just short to the Clippers last night, 107-101. Here are three takeaways from the marginal loss.

Following the embarrassing loss to Golden State, the Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t have been given a tougher next game. The Clippers have are an elite defensive team, and have a certain superstar small forward; Kawhi Leonard and co showed how difficult they are to beat tonight.

Portland shot just 31 percent in an ugly first half, but the Clippers weren’t much better, and only led by seven. Hassan Whiteside in particular struggled in the opening 24 minutes, and got the TNT treatment, as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal cracked plenty of jokes at the uninspiring centers expense.

The Blazers picked it up in the second, with CJ McCollum finally looking like his old self, he had 12 points in the first half of the third quarter alone. Ball movement and defensive energy led to 36 points in the third, and a lead heading into the final 12 minutes.

But in the end, the Clippers defense proved too strong. Aside from getting stops, the trio of Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell simply dominated Portland, they had no answer. Anfernee Simons got Blazer fans off their feet in the fourth quarter, but Portland fell just short.

Here are my key takeaways from the loss.

Damian Lillard continues to set the standard

Damian Lillard behaves like a superstar 24/7, and in the first half tonight, he was head and shoulders above the rest. And I’m not talking about his ability.

Heading into the home of one of the best teams in the league, whilst also riding a two game losing streak, the Blazers needed to come out of the gates quickly and aggressively. But in that first half, I only saw one player who seemed to really ‘want’ it. He came out aggressive on the offensive end, and intense on the defensive end. He recorded a couple of steals, forced turnovers, but his body language was one of a player who understood his team needed a win.

The rest of the team needs to start mimicking Lillard’s effort level, because that first half was not good enough. Dame looked frustrated at times, as his teammates weren’t picking up the slack; Portland were lucky the Clippers were poor as well, otherwise it could’ve turned ugly.

I assume Dame (and Stotts) gave everyone a rocket at halftime, because, to the teams credit, they came out locked in for the second half. But it shouldn’t need that first 24 minutes to work out the energy. Last season, every single player on the roster looked ready to die for the team, and I’m not getting the same energy from the majority of the roster. This is something that will develop over time, but they don’t need to look far for the perfect example. Dame is setting the standard, and his teammates need to catch up.

The Hassan Whiteside question

Hassan Whiteside got absolutely GRILLED on the TNT halftime show, and rightly so.

At times in the first half, it looked like he wasn’t even trying. His opponent for the night, Ivica Zubac, had 11 and 9 at the half, and was completely dominating Portland’s center. Whiteside had no energy, wasn’t rolling off screens, wasn’t rebounding with any sort of intensity, and offered absolutely nothing offensively. He’s got perhaps the best pick and roll guard in the league, and is not even trying to use him. HELP DAME!

The first half was an incredibly frustrating watch. But over the break, Whiteside must have either got yelled at, or tuned into TNT (my preferred theory), because he came out firing on all cylinders. Whiteside had 10 points, 12 rebounds and a block in the third quarter alone, and led the Blazers charge. He was engaged on defense, and energized on the glass, and even started giving Lillard help in pick and roll action.

In the 4th, he had a great sequence; a dunk straight out of a pick and roll with Dame, followed a converted and one play over Kawhi. The Blazers fell short at the end, but Whiteside was much improved, and showed off just how much he can actually do.

This is why the center is so frustrating. At times, he looks horrible- I was ready to trade him after that first half. But 10 points and 12 rebounds in one quarter? This sounds like a guy you want to keep around. The Blazers were aware of his issues in Miami, but seemed convinced that their culture could get the best out of him. This is still possible, we are only eight games in, and Whiteside is clearly a work in progress.

He’d do well in taking a leaf out of Montrezl Harrell‘s book; there’s a guy who understands his role, and energizes the team. That’s what Whiteside needs to be for Portland, even more so when Nurkic is back. We got a look of all of Whiteside’s layers tonight, and it confirmed what we already knew. The bad is very bad, but the good is very good.

Anfernee Simons isn’t afraid

What a fourth quarter from Anfernee Simons! He is fast becoming a fan favourite. I can’t lie, his obvious youthfulness and extreme likability to Lillard is hard to dislike.

After a relatively quiet game, Simons came out in the fourth and simply got it going. The sophomore had 16 (16!) points in the final 12 minutes, and provided some highlight plays to accompany this. Simons can shoot off the dribble as well as the catch and shoot, and he looked smooth once again from three tonight. But the play I really loved was one from inside the paint. Out of a pick and roll, Simons hit a quick crossover, leapt inside, and hit a high runner off the glass. He promptly followed this with two threes.

It’s difficult not to compare him to Lillard, but there are genuinely a lot of similarities. The quick release is the obvious one, but the way he finishes inside evokes the same toughness and grittiness that Dame’s do. Simons has clearly got a deep bag, and Stotts is trusting him with the minutes to show this off.

He did show off his inexperience tonight however, an extremely nervy looking free throw just barely made it to the rim with under a minute to go. The moment seemed to get to him a little, but he’s clearly a huge talent, and the more times he’s put into that situation, the better. His shot vs Philly proved he can handle the moment, it’s now just about consistent output for him.

With the Blazers in a rough patch right now, Simons has been a bright spot, and I think we’ll see Stotts trusting him more and more in crunch time down the line.

Next: Trail Blazers: Can Nassir Little and Gary Trent Jr. help this team?