The Portland Trail Blazers played one of their best defensive games of the season on Friday night, defeating the Indiana Pacers 118-115. It was a team-wide victory, fueled by a small group of starters and one or two key contributions from the bench.
Jerami Grant led Portland with 37 points on 14-28 shooting, a performance made even more impressive by his opponent, debut All-Star forward Pascal Siakam. Siakam didn't guard Grant all night, but Jerami held his own when facing Indiana's new eyeball.
Deandre Ayton returned in this game for the Blazers after missing twelve games due to knee tendonitis and ice infractions. Anfernee Simons missed the action due to illness. Point guard Scoot Henderson left the game with a bruised nose after just 8 minutes of play.
If you missed the game…sorry! But our quarterly review will get you up to speed. After reading that, here are other key points from the evening.
From the start of the game, Portland played strong on the glass and dominated the Pacers in one of head coach Chauncey Billups' favorite categories. They were bolstered by an above-average starting lineup with the returning Ayton, Jabari Walker and Grant. Although Indiana was still slightly superior technically, the Blazers were not inferior.
The Pacers managed just three offensive rebounds in the first half, six for the game. Portland won the overall rebounding battle 47-37. Getting the basics right helped everything else go better for the home team.
The size difference for Portland became clear when Deandre Ayton took the floor to introduce the starting lineup, and the spot proved solid most of the evening. There is simply no replacement for a true 7-footer with a bit of experience and some scoring ability. Duop Reath's three-point championship is impressive. Ayton can't repeat it or eclipse it. But Ayton gave the Blazers an interior scoring target that they had lacked for a dozen games. He opened up a whole new third of the field as a scoring threat, leaving the Pacers defense either honest or beaten…sometimes both. Ayton may not be everything Blazers fans dreamed of when their team traded him, but he is better than anyone Portland currently has at the position. That counts.
Ayton finished the game with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 30 minutes of play.
Pacemaker at the Arc
The Pacers countered Portland's larger lineup by forcing the Blazers to defend the three-point arc. Indiana had 27 three-point attempts at halftime and finished the game with 47, hitting 42.6% of them.
To their credit, the Blazers did a good job of overcoming the Pacers' initial long-distance threat on most possessions. Portland didn't get off on the wrong foot. But let's face the facts. Ayton and Walker (and most of their backup players) won't move around the field as quickly as some of Portland's small-ball lineups.
The Blazers had a nice series of three-point defenses to end the first half. They didn't stop Indiana from shooting out there, but they did make them run plays multiple times and burn up time to get a clear look.
For much of the game, however, Portland doubled down on size, interior defense and rebounding and stayed close to the rim. As they were closing in on a Pacers shooter, a pass led to an open attempt. That's why Indiana turned off the lights. Thank God they didn't put out Portland's too.
The Malcolm Brogdon Effect
The way the season has gone, the Blazers might as well get matching “Next Man Up” tattoos on the other side of the locker room. With Anfernee Simons sick, Shaedon Sharpe out for a while and Scoot Henderson getting Marcia Brady's ball nose, Malcolm Brogdon provided the “up” for Portland tonight. His stats were impressive: 30 points on 9-18 shooting, 10-10 free throws, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, one steal and one block in 37 minutes of play. Beyond the box score, he was able to intelligently control the ball, shoot effectively and give Ayton good looks – occasionally for other teammates as well.
Brogdon has a poise and vision unmatched by any of his younger, bouncier courtmates. You can see it when he handles the ball at the top. He may not look as dynamic as Sharpe or Henderson, but he will probably be better overall. That this happens while his team constantly changes – and sometimes falls apart – around him is a huge testament to his skill.
Despite the size and lineup shakeup, the Blazers still ran into a fair number of inconsistencies against Indiana. The Pacers screened cleverly, forcing Portland to switch and leaving the bigs on the outside and Brogdon on Siakam or Walker on center Myles Turner. Credit to the Indiana coaching staff for preparing their players to maneuver the Blazers during periods of weakness, even on one of their best defensive nights of the year.
Guarding the Easyes
How good was the defense? The Blazers only allowed Indiana 26 points, and most of them came at halftime. To put this into perspective, the Pacers are averaging 57.2 points per game this season. Portland held them to 31 below their average. This is a shock for a team that regularly allows 31 points in the first 18 minutes of the game.
The Blazers cheated a little by providing shade on the inside, but who cares? It worked. Bravo for picking up the banner and letting it fly. If the Blazers could do that every night, the season would look a lot better.
PS: The Blazers scored 66 points themselves tonight. Wow.
Jabari Walker Late
The Portland coaching staff loves Jabari Walker for his motor, hard-nosed approach and willingness to get his hands dirty on defense and rebounding. Tonight he brought all of that while also playing another crucial role: the late-game savior.
When Indiana went on a run in the fourth quarter and cut Portland's 13-point lead to just five, Walker hit a series of inside shots to keep his team alive. He read the pitch, got into the gaps on the edge, received passes and converted efficiently. His positioning and demeanor at this point provided a counterpoint to an otherwise fractured and chaotic Blazers team. He also grabbed the game-winning rebound and immediately afterwards shot a free throw after a foul to seal Portland's scoring victory.
Walker finished the game with 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 13 points. As it turned out, it took everything Portland had to keep Indiana at bay.
The Blazers face the Los Angeles Lakers in LA on Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. in the Pacific.