Heading into a daunting six-game road streak down multiple key players and with a very fragile defense, the Portland Trail Blazers have held themselves together.
In Houston to kick off the trip against the Rockets, they traded big advantages in the first two quarters. The Trail Blazers outscored them in the first, 32-17, 13 points behind from Damian Lillard. Meanwhile, Christian Wood led the Rockets to a 36-18 second quarter advantage with 14 points of his own. The score at halftime was 53-50, Rockets. The gap widened in the third, with Houston generating six more points of space, despite a trio of three-pointers by Gary Trent Jr. Portland would need to make up ground in the final 12 minutes and they would certainly try. Trent made four more three-pointers in the fourth, setting his game total to 23, but they still fell 101-104.
Lillard scored 13 points in his second consecutive opening quarter against the Chicago Bulls, but they were still down 32-34 at the end. They made up for it in the second, with the entire Trail Blazers roster missing just seven shots. Trent himself led the scoring with 10 on 3-3 shooting (and 2-2 from the free throw line). The halftime lead was 11 for Portland, but the Bulls weren’t done. The shooting was more inefficient for Portland in the third and Chicago managed to claw back four more points of their deficit. Lillard had 15 that quarter but at a mediocre 5-10 clip. The duo of Bothell resident Zach Lavine and the Finnish Lauri Markkanen fought tooth and nail, catching up to Portland and eventually taking over. The Rockets even held a four-point lead with a minute to play. The score transitioned from 117-113 to 120-117 to 122-120 before back-to-back Lillard three-pointers with under 10 seconds to go put them up 123-122. It was breathtaking and Lillard capped off a well-earned 44 point performance. On the other side, LaVine finished with 26 points on 9-12 shooting, continuing his development into a hometown hero for us in Washington State.
The matchup against the Bucks went about as poorly as you could have feared. Milwaukee dropped 46 points in the first, a season-high by any team in the entire league. The Bucks never looked back, outscoring Portland in every quarter since the last one and took a dominant 134-106 victory. Lillard only put up 17 points, but it was Nassir Little who was the real Portland star. His 11-18 shooting performance gave him a game-high 30 points with six rebounds (five offensive) and two blocks to complement it. What held them back was hilariously inefficient shooting across the board. Trent went 3-13, Robert Covington went 2-9, Enes Kanter went 5-12 as an inside threat, Anfernee Simons went 5-15 off the bench and Carmelo Anthony went 1-7. That’s always the fear surrounding this team, that they all go cold in a single game, but they’re fortunate that it doesn’t seem to happen as often as it could.
The rebound victory against the Wizards was just what they needed. Washington fell to 4-13 as a team after the 132-121 loss but a dominant offensive performance by Portland was a good sign if they wanted to at least prove that they were substantially better than a bottom team. The shooting still wasn’t incredibly efficient; they shot 46 percent as a team, but their advantages in the rebounds and turnovers columns meant they were constantly creating opportunities for themselves and capitalizing on them. All members of the starting five hit double-digit points for seemingly the first time this year, led by Lillard’s 32. Trent had 26, Covington had 19, Kanter had 14, Rodney Hood had 15 and Carmelo dropped 21 off the bench.
The Blazers might still be struggling defensively, but it seems like they’re finding a bit of an identity without CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Trent has established himself as a consistent threat this year to step in and produce larger and larger numbers. Kanter has continued to average both double-digit points and rebounds, and Simons off the bench seems to be settling in as well. It’s not going to make them an immediate championship contender, but it’s a start.
Now at 11-9, the Blazers will finish off the road trip at the 16-6 Philadelphia and 10-13 New York before coming home to face the 8-14 Orlando Magic.