How was that for playoff intensity? With both teams jockeying for better seeding in their respective conferences, the Portland Trail Blazers and Boston Celtics went all out for last night’s contest. Both teams played hard, my man.
Great offense, better defense, role players stepping up huge, a fiery crowd, rebounding, steals, three-pointers—this game hit every single cornerstone of post-season basketball, and it was an absolute delight to watch. After toppling the sad sack Kings and 76ers in their previous two games, the Blazers finally had a worthy opponent.
And thanks to a career showing from Al-Farouq Aminu on both ends of the floor, the Blazers are now just a game and a half behind the Grizzlies for the fifth seed in the Western Conference. On a familiar night where another close loss seemed all but inevitable, Portland managed to close things out and picked up one of their most impressive wins of the season.
The night didn’t start so well. Boston was keyed in on stopping both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and Portland’s offense sputtered with their two playmakers facing consistent double teams. The extra help left someone on Portland unguarded, and with Boston daring anyone else to beat them, Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson, and Aminu all picked up early threes to help keep things afloat. The score after one was 31-30 in favor of the Celtics. Despite the feel of a defensive battle, this was still a barn burner.
When Boston applied some serious pressure early in the second quarter, they forced some turnovers and ripped off an 8-0 run that broke things open. Thankfully, Noah Vonleh had one of his best shifts of the season, hitting a three and playing some stellar defense of his own. His activity (plus a solid timeout from Coach Stotts) helped Portland keep the game from turning into a total runaway. But as soon as the Blazers were able to get things close once again, Boston jumped out in front with another 11-0 run behind some timely free throws and offensive rebounding. Punch, counter-punch, punch—these two teams were getting after it.
With both Dame and CJ struggling, Mason Plumlee did a masterful job running the offense from the foul line extended. He was in the Draymond Green role, playing 4 on 5 after Boston doubled to get the ball out of Lillard or CJ’s hands, and time and time again he made the right pass/play from his position. Portland scored on some easy dunks and narrowed the free throw gap, and just like that were down just one at the half.
Al-Farouq exploded out of the break. With Boston still leaving him alone on the perimeter, Aminu looked for his shot aggressively and accounted for Portland’s first ten points of the second half. Unfortunately his outburst was not quite enough, and the Celtics quickly grew their lead to twelve points. Avery Bradley couldn't miss, Isaiah Thomas water bugged around, and Boston had the game at their tempo.
But, oh, Chief was not done. Farouq Assault was the catalyst for a Portland run late in the third with a huge block on the wily Thomas on one end and a highlight dunk in transition on the other. Fired up from there, the Blazers played lockdown defense and started forcing turnovers. Both Crabbe and Dame sunk threes. A giant putback from Ed Davis tied things up at 81.
And Aminu kept going. He started the fourth with two triples while the home crowd exploded. Aminu finished with twenty-eight points and six threes on the night, shattering his previous career-highs. And once the Boston defense finally put a body on him, Gerald Henderson took advantage and hit three straight jumpers. The Celtics were scuffling under some heightened defensive pressure and found themselves down thirteen.
But if Texas A&M taught us anything, it’s that when all else fails, try a full-court press. Avery Bradley picked up two steals, and when the Blazers weren’t turning it over they still couldn’t get anything going in their half-court sets. Just like that, another 8-0 run from Boston. Enter that playoff intensity.
Isaiah Thomas drew a bogus shooting foul on Ed Davis, Ed’s sixth. Thomas made the first but missed the second, and the long rebound found its way to Boston hands. Thomas retreated to the corner and stepped back for three. That simple foul turned into a four-point play and capped a 13-2 Boston run. Portland’s lead was down to just two.
Aminu missed a gimme at the rim after a clutch offensive rebound, but he made up for it by emphatically rejecting a Thomas layup on the other end. Unfortunately, the blocked shot bounced directly into the hands of Jae Crowder as he stood behind the three-point line. Of course he knocked down the triple to give the Celtics a 109-108 lead with just 1:08 left. Once again, the Blazers looked primed to give another one away late.
Nope. CJ hit quickly from the baseline, Allen Crabbe poked away a Thomas crossover that led to a transition dunk from Aminu, and just like that Portland was back up three with :50 left. Bradley missed a couple of threes, Crabbe locked down Isaiah Thomas, and Dame hit all his free throws down the stretch. Ballgame, 116-109 Blazers.
This one had all the makings of a loss. This was exactly the kind of game the Blazers dropped earlier in the season, and closing out games has not been a strong suit as of late. With their stars struggling and Boston playing damn hard, Portland found a way to win. The playoffs still aren’t guaranteed, but more wins like that and the Blazers have a legitimate shot and jumping into that fifth spot. Not too bad for a team that was projected to win around 26 games this season.