In a Tuesday post at the very good blog Gothic Ginobili, Aaron McGuire shared a handful of observations about weird and interesting things from the first two weeks of the season. Among them? While he'd put up strong overall numbers (21.1 points, 5.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game) and was scorching the nets from long range (45.5 percent from 3-point land) in leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a 5-2 start to the season, reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard was really struggling at finishing near the basket — he was shooting just 42.3 percent inside the restricted area through seven games, down 10 percent from his already-middling first-year mark, and had made just one of his 11 other attempts in the paint, according to NBA.com's stat tool.
It seemed unlikely that he was going to get off the up-close schneid against a Phoenix Suns team with a much-better-than-expected defense that entered play Wednesday giving up the league's third-lowest shooting percentage on restricted area attempts. True to their surprising top-five defensive efficiency mark, the Suns largely kept Lillard in check, holding him to a 3 for 9 mark in the paint, and 2 for 6 in the restricted area, through the game's first 47 minutes and 49 seconds. Unfortunately for the Suns, NBA games are 11 seconds longer than that.
As Nicolas Batum triggers the inbound, the Blazers break their stack at the free-throw line, with guards Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams fanning out along the 3-point line on the right side, Batum sliding to the left corner, Lillard racing toward midcourt to grab the ball and LaMarcus Aldridge setting up for a high screen-and-roll. The presence of legitimate 3-point threats on the wings means the Suns' defenders have to stay at home, but after Channing Frye so summarily botches the pick-and-roll coverage — his hedge is not only late, but essentially non-existent to the point that he just winds up serving as a second screener on on-ball defender Eric Bledsoe — somebody has to rotate to stop the ball.
Instead, P.J. Tucker, left flat-footed by the voice in his head that says "Don't leave Wes Matthews," just waves his left arm at Lillard, who blows right past him. Similarly, Marcus Morris — who's already sagged far enough off Batum in the left corner that he might as well just come the whole way — just stunts toward the basket, waits until Lillard's already in the air, and doesn't contest the shot at all. The result, as ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin put it, was about as easy a late-game look as you're likely to see, and it gave the Blazers a one-point lead with 6.5 seconds remaining.
After the game, Lillard — who finished with 11 points on 4 for 13 shooting, eight assists, two steals and two turnovers in 35 minutes — downplayed and simplified the moment, according to Erik Gunderson of the Columbian:
“I mean, it’s one play,” [Lillard] said. “One play to win or lose the game. I came off it fast. I attacked hard and I picked the ball up and knew I was going to have to explode. That’s just what it was. When the game is on the line, you have to be able to step up. You have to take everything up a notch.”
Phoenix still had time and an opportunity to steal the road win, but Bledsoe's attempted answer and point-blank tip-in tries by Tucker and Markieff Morris came up short. The seconds ticked off, and Portland escaped with a 90-89 win.
After the loss — the finish of which reminded more than one viewer of the the Minnesota Timberwolves' last-second loss to the Los Angeles Clippers two nights earlier — the Suns couldn't believe they'd let the chance to steal a road win and improve to a stunning 6-2 slip through their fingers, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:
“It was right there, man, right there,” [Markieff] Morris said. “I was trying to do the time in my head. Should I bring it down? Should I tip it? It was point blank. I gave it the time-running-out tip. Unbelievable. That was a layup. That’s hard to swallow.” [...]
“In my mind, when I got it, it was game,” Tucker said. “I timed it right. I tapped it just enough and it was still strong. When Keef’s went off, it was too unbelievable. I think that was one of the hardest losses in a long time.”
Especially, you'd figure, considering how easily they gave those final two points.
Video via Pinwheel Empire.
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