The Trail Blazers, down perhaps their two most impactful players, put forth one of their best performances of the month against the LA Clippers. Due in part to the make-or-miss nature of jump-shooting, though, Portland's solid effort fell just short.
The Blazers lost to the Clippers 113-112 on Tuesday at Moda Center, narrowly missing buzzer-beating victory when C.J. McCollum's last-second jumper amid a tangle of arms clanged off the back iron. The loss pushes Portland to 32-25, a game-and-half up on the Dallas Mavericks for sixth in the Western Conference. As things currently stand, the Blazers and Clippers would meet in the first round of the playoffs.
Exciting as this game was, it was still hardly an indication of what's to come should these teams face-off come the postseason. Not only did Lillard and Nurkic sit out, but Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley were also sidelined. Both Terry Stotts and Tyron Lue rolled out lineups on Tuesday neither side will deploy when their teams are fully healthy, and the games really matter.
But for Portland, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's standout play as a small-ball center – no surprise here, by the way – may prove telling as Stotts searches for answers in the rotation. He played 24 minutes off the bench on Tuesday, including the game's last 15 minutes until Enes Kanter came in for screening purposes on its final possession.
Hollis-Jefferson finished with five points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocks, numbers that don't do his influence justice. Even when the Blazers are healthy, expect Stotts to take another extended look at lineups with Hollis-Jefferson at the 5. Portland looked that much better, especially on defense, with him occupying that role.
McCollum, impressive running the show offensively, led the Blazers with 28 points, but still needed 26 shots to get there as LA sold out to keep him in check. Norman Powell had 23 points on 10-of-20 shooting, slowing down a bit offensively after an outstanding first half. This was the rare game Carmelo Anthony's ugly shooting, 5-of-18, actually fails to convey the manner of his performance. 'Melo, like Anfernee Simons (16 points) and Nassir Little, played a key role in the relative defensive success of Portland's downsized lineups.
Paul George more than compensated for Leonard's absence, dropping 33 points and 11 rebounds, frustrating the many defenders the Blazers threw at him. Marcus Morris added 16 points for the Clippers, while Nicolas Batum and DeMarcus Cousins each scored 11 points off the bench.
Portland's available personnel on Tuesday, to be clear, was probably better than LA's. Purely from a talent perspective, this loss is almost disappointing. But the Blazers played with intensity, activity and togetherness they've often lacked of late, and Hollis-Jefferson's performance provides another glimmer of hope.
Is a "professional" loss enough to dig Portland out of its physical and mental hole? Maybe not. Given the Blazers' dispiriting recent performance, though, it's at least somewhat encouraging nonetheless.