LOS ANGELES-There are just a couple of games that separate the pack of teams in the NBA’s Western Conference. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers are two of those teams maneuvering for space in the top tier of the conference.
In their meeting at Staples Center on Monday, Dec. 17, the Clippers and the Trail Blazers put up a slugfest that initially looked like would be a cakewalk for Portland early in the second half.
After hotshot guard Damian Lillard torched them for them for 22 points in the third quarter to give Portland a comfortable 12-point lead going into the fourth period, the Clippers finally woke up and got to playing ball. Well, it would take a couple of minutes.
As Los Angeles was awakening from Lillard’s scoring onslaught in the third quarter and Portland’s 42-point outburst in the period, the Clippers still found themselves down by 18 with just 10 minutes to play in the ballgame. The light switch then came on and the Clippers whittled away that huge double-digit deficit down to just one point with 18 ticks on the clock.
Los Angeles, however, would get no cigar for their comeback as Portland held off the home team to hand the Clippers a 131-127 defeat. It was the fourth straight loss for the Clippers.
“It’s been tough for us, but it’s a stretch that we’ve got to help ourselves get out of,” said forward Tobias Harris, who finished the game with 39 points for the Clippers. “We have to start at the defensive end, picking up our physicality and let that fuel our offense. That’s something that we did when we made that first run and it worked. We just have to a little bit more locked in and it also does help when we get to be better starts offensively to really get that feel and get ourselves that confidence.”
Lillard matched the output of Harris with 39 points of his own. But it was his third-quarter run that swung the game in Portland’s favor.
“The way everybody played in the first half, it kind of left things open,” Lillard said. “We got a few stops to start the third and we came down the floor and [Jusuf Nurkic] set some good screens up high and I was able to get downhill.”
Portland came out of the gate, firing on the offense, scoring 37 points in the first period. With 12 minutes of the contest already evaporated, the Clippers found themselves looking up at an eight-point hole (37-29). The Trail Blazers rode their first and their quarters scoring runs to their 17th (17-13) victory of the season, good enough to move into a fifth-place tie in the Western Conference with the Clippers.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the game was essentially won and lost in the opening salvo of the first and second halves.
“The game was lost in the first quarter, and in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “We started out the game poorly in both halves, and then we fought back. So, that’s where the game was lost, I guess.”
The Clippers rebounded from their early deficit to outscore Portland 31-21 in the second quarter to take a 60-58 lead into halftime. Then came Lillard’s scoring eruption in the third quarter where he made seven of nine shots (5 of 6 from 3-point range) to help stake the Trail Blazers to their big lead. If not for Harris dropping 13 points in the period, the Clippers’ deficit would have been a lot bigger.
Lillard capped off his big night with 10 more points in the fourth quarter. CJ McCollum, Lillard’s coveted running mate, added 27 points in Portland’s road win. This dynamic duo gives the entire NBA fits, and they accounted for 66 of their team’s point total against the Clippers.
“Well, we didn’t do anything tonight,” Rivers said. “We’ve had some pretty good games against them defensively. They got the better of us tonight for sure. [Damian Lillard] had that third quarter to where he was close to unguardable. We didn’t want to open up the ball movement for them by trapping, on second thought maybe we should have.”
Backing the work that Harris put in for the Clippers was rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who poured in 24 points.
“Yeah, Shai [Gilgeous-Alexander] played well,” Rivers said. “He was aggressive early on, which we wanted him to be because if [Damian Lillard] or [CJ McCollum] is going to guard him, we felt like we needed him to be aggressive. We wanted them to play defense on the other end. So, that part of it was really good.”