August 11: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Dallas Mavericks 131
I mean, is this the best sport in the world or is it not? Because I can’t see an argument for anything else after that.
Per Inpredictable.com, one of my favorite sites, this currently ranks as just the sixth-most exciting game of the bubble and its third-highest level of tension. Neither team led the game by more than ten, and in the fourth quarter, the gap either way never exceeded six points. The game was within two possessions for the entirety of its most tense quarter, and within one possession for all of the final five minutes. It is everything you could possibly want from a basketball game that meant a lot to both teams.
It obviously means more to Portland, who just wants to be in the playoffs. A loss here meant that the Phoenix Suns would leapfrog them in the standings, and considering teams are happily lining up to get the Suns in (Grizzlies fans, don’t tweet these things), this was a do-or-die fixture. Phoenix can’t win a tie-breaker with Memphis, but they don’t play the same number of games as Portland. Any loss could be a season-ender, which would be wild for a team that started the playoffs three games ahead of Phoenix and went 5-3.
Dallas, with a win, would’ve jumped to just half-a-game back of 6 seed Utah with one more to play. Not that this is exactly a shocking take, mind you, but literally every team in the NBA would rather play Denver in the first round instead of the Clippers. Fairly simple brain logic.
Anyway, the game. As seen above, it was one of the most exciting and tense games played all season. Neither team is good at all on defense (we’ll get to this, promise), so it predictably meant an offensive explosion. You got 265 points, including a combined 97 from each team’s top scorer. It was a fantastic basketball game filled with fun moments. However, years from now, only one thing will be remembered: Damian Lillard, and his 61-point show.
In one of the best individual performances of the season, Dame single-handedly dragged a Portland roster completely uninterested in defending Dallas for large portions of the game to the finish line. The team around him combined to score 73 points on the other 68 possessions; had Dame himself scored at that rate, the Blazers would’ve lost by 17 points. However, Dame Time is a real thing, and his effect on this team’s postseason fortunes cannot possibly be understated. It was a night-long highlight reel for Dame, capped with that above insane three-pointer. Dallas had no one that could stop him from getting to the rim:
Had no one that could cover him from three:
And even when he wasn’t shooting, they had no one that could stop passes like these because of all the attention he draws:
Make no mistake: Damian Lillard is the Portland Trail Blazers. There is no other player capable of carrying this team, or even somewhat assisting them to the finish line. Not Jusuf Nurkic, who had a rough go of it offensively. Not C.J. McCollum, who shot 2-for-14 and was completely lost on defense. Not Hassan Whiteside. Not Gary Trent, Jr., their, uh, “best” perimeter defender, who had a couple of steals but also missed five of six threes. Not even Carmelo Anthony (26 points), the only other player on the team to top 11 points, who shows up once every 25 possessions or so on defense.
None of those guys are enough, and that goes back to Portland’s offseason roster construction. The Blazers’ front office let Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu go. Both players were fairly frustrating offensive cases, to be certain, but they also happened to be Portland’s two best defenders. They were the only players on the roster that could hang with opponents on the perimeter. As much as I like Jusuf Nurkic, he’s too slow and clumsy outside of the paint to be that replacement. Same for Zach Collins. Carmelo, as nice as the nostalgia hits can be, is not a player you’re counting on to get a stop. When Mario Hezonja grades out as one of your best team defenders, you’re in serious trouble. That’s how Portland came into the bubble 3.5 games back of the 8 seed.
Even in the bubble, their defense has been recklessly embarrassing. Dallas scored 1.248 points per possession in this one, and on the whole, Portland has allowed almost 1.2 PPP in their seven bubble games. They’ve played the second-worst defense of anyone in the bubble, and Denver’s lower rating is at least partially because they still haven’t played a game with their normal starting lineup. Whenever I hear “Portland is going to be a serious threat to the Lakers!”, my first reaction is to laugh, because no defense this bad is taking anything from a championship contender.
And yet: Dame.
Damian Lillard is dragging this bloated, old, overpaid roster to the playoffs. The fact it took all 61 of his points to get Portland to win a game by three should be alarming, not encouraging. This roster is Dame, and Dame is Portland. We are the chaos, and defense is meaningless when you have a player that can score 112 points in two games. No one can stop this man right now; not even Instagram.
This is why, despite knowing the series would go five games at most, I really do want a Blazers/Lakers first-round matchup. Lillard has every right to take 30+ shots, maybe even 40+, in each game. There is no other way these bloated Blazers can pick one off of Los Angeles. It will take heroic efforts from Dame every single night, and that is what we best describe as “must-watch television.” The Dame Show can’t stop now, because you don’t stop the show in the middle of your greatest hits.
Flipping the switch to talk Dallas: the Mavericks were eliminated from the 6 seed last night. They will be the 7, play the Clippers, and it will be what it be. What’s funny, though, is that despite giving up 61 points to one player, I thought the Mavs looked fairly solid. They had a great offensive night marked by three 24+ point performances. They got all sorts of good shots. They generally contained most non-Melo/Dame players on the Blazers. They forced McCollum into a 2-for-14 shooting performance. It wasn’t all bad! They had a lot of good! And yet: Dame.
Anyway, the story here with a Mavericks win would’ve correctly been about Kristaps Porzingis’ rise in the bubble.
It’s not like he faced even a mediocre defense, but who cares? A 7’3″, 240-pound forward should not be allowed to shoot 7-for-9 from three. It should not be comprehensible. However, Kristaps’ mere existence in this form is beyond comprehension. We are not supposed to have guys like this; the “Unicorn” title, mostly overused, is apt in this specific moment. Thank God that he got out of New York, and thank God we get to see him pair up with Luka and this super-fun Mavs offense.
There were two other good-to-very-good outings: Luka, of course, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Luka got to 25 despite a few bad pull-ups from downtown along the way. Simply put, he just isn’t all that elite at threes yet. That’ll come in the next Luka Patch. He remains elite at scoring at the rim, though, which is an asset that sets him ahead of nearly every other guard out there.
Less expected was the Tim Hardaway, Jr. 24-point night. In the bubble, Dallas has seemed to get one surprising performance from a non-Luka/KP cast member in each important game. It’s been Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith, Boban, and now it’s Hardaway’s turn. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as this was his best season yet (40% from three), but he hasn’t had a game like this in the bubble where he was as important to the game as Luka/KP.
If he’s able to have a game like this in the playoffs, it won’t matter how weak the Dallas defense is. If all three of these guys are on, it really will take a heroic individual effort from their opponent to stop them.
Lastly, aside from Dame, you can blame turnovers for this loss. Dallas committed 17 to Portland’s 8, which is strange as Portland’s defense is not one to force many turnovers. Gary Trent, Jr. had active hands as usual, but it was plays like this from Melo that helped put Portland over the top:
What a game. If only we had six more of these to go.