Trail Blazers Finally 'Break Through,' Blow Out Mavericks at Home
Portland needed a good win in the worst way, and they got one.
PORTLAND, Ore. — After the Trail Blazers dropped Thursday's game against Cleveland, squandering another opportunity to end their losing skid, Chauncey Billups delivered this message in the locker room: They didn't get into this slump in one day, and they're not going to get out of it in one day, either.
Maybe what happened two nights later, a comfortable 136-119 win over the Mavericks at home in which they held Luka Doncic to 15 points on 7-of-19 shooting, isn't the end of the struggles. But it was the kind of get-right game they've needed in the worst way for a long time.
"We broke through," Billups said afterwards.
It's not just that they got the win. You can't be picky about what your wins look like when you're below .500 and on the outside looking in at the play-in race in the Western Conference, but some wins are better than others. This one was an unequivocally good win: they beat a good team, which they haven't done in well over a month (in my estimation, the last one was the overtime win against the Knicks on Nov. 25, unless you want to count Indiana without Tyrese Haliburton), and the crunch-time issues that have plagued them for weeks didn't come into play because they never let it get that close after pulling away in the second quarter.
Damian Lillard followed up his 50-point performance in the loss to Cleveland with a 36-point, 10-assist effort, but this one wasn't a one-man show: all five Blazers starters scored in double figures, as did Gary Payton II and Shaedon Sharpe off the bench.
The job the Blazers' defense did on Doncic was the biggest factor in the win. The Mavs have beaten the Blazers twice this season, both in Dallas. In the first one, he had a 42-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist triple-double; in the second one, he had 33 points and hit five three-pointers. Those games are footnotes in the season he's having, which has him firmly in the MVP discussion. Billups often talks about wanting to hold the truly great players to their season average, which in Doncic's case would be a league-leading 34.3 points. That they bothered him enough to hold him well below that, taking the ball out of his hands and forcing him to take largely bad shots when he did put it up, is a wild success.
That they were able to overcome Dallas' other players shooting the lights out—22-of-46 from three-point range, including 8-of-10 from Reggie Bullock, who was shooting 31.3 percent from deep on the season going into Saturday—makes it even more impressive.
"The first two times, Luka had great games and they beat us," Lillard said. "I think you've just got to get to the point where you say, 'If we lose tonight, it's not gonna be to him.' We're not going to let him just have his way. Tonight, they did hit a lot of threes. Every other possession, it seemed like we didn't get to a guy on the line and he hit a three. But we're also up by 20 points. If your goal is to win the game, you've got to say, if they're going to hit some shots and you're taking the ball out of his hands and he's not dominating the game and we win, that's what our ultimate goal is."
The turnover issues that have hounded the Blazers all season were a non-factor on Saturday. There were a couple more in garbage time, but when Billups pulled the starters with a little over five minutes to go, the Blazers had just seven on the night.
"We didn't think so much," Lillard said. "We played with good flow, good rhythm. We made the right plays and we made those plays on time. We played with good pace, so it wasn't like we were playing stuck and playing in crowds. I think the rhythm and flow to the game and the pace of the game was in our favor. The plays to be made were more clear. The openings were more clear. And when it's that way, it's easier to take care of the ball."
This was a game where Payton made his impact felt at both ends of the floor. He hounded Doncic (Billups called him a "little gnat") and in his first-quarter shift picked up four steals in four minutes. He also scored a season-high 10 points, making two three-pointers. Both times, he held his follow-through a second longer than usual and talked back to the Mavs' bench.
What Payton has brought in the short time he's been healthy goes beyond the box score. You can physically feel the team's defensive effort kick up several notches as soon as he steps on the floor, and he gives them another transition threat they've been sorely missing all season.
"He plays with a lot of joy," Lillard said. "It makes sense, coming from Golden State, they're like the ultimate example of a team that plays with joy. They play free. It's almost careless. Like, 'We might win, we might lose, whatever.' And he has that about him. I think that's why he fit right in in Golden State, and he brings that sort of joyous spirit to the team. You can feel that presence."
As of Saturday night, the Blazers are still in 11th place in the Western Conference standings. They're one game out of sixth. And the early word is that Doncic, as he's been doing for a while, may sit Sunday in the back-to-back.
Portland is far from out of the funk that's persisted for the last month. But just getting one win like this goes a long way.
"Sometimes, all it takes is one," Lillard said. "We got a good win against a good team, and there's still a lot of stuff that we could have done better."
What We Saw
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