It’s impossible not to notice the differences between a standard NBA regular season game and games played in the Orlando “bubble” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All the games are held in one of three gyms, teams stay in one place the entire time rather than bouncing from city to city and hotel to hotel, there are no fans in attendance and even those who are allowed to attend have to wear masks and do their best to social distance.
But even in a time of significant upheaval, some things really do stay the same.
The Trail Blazers got down by as much as 24 in the first half and trailed by 20 with under six minutes to play in the third before going on a three-point powered rally to take the lead in the fourth quarter. But despite that comeback, they’d eventually fall 128-124 to the Boston Celtics in the second game of their eight-game restart schedule at Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando.
“We dug ourselves a deep hole against a really good team,” said Damian Lillard. “Any time you do that, your chance to win is going to be pretty slim. I think we showed that we here for business about how we responded and how we gave ourselves a chance to win. At this point, that’s all we can ask for. We didn’t play a very good first half, we could have easily folded and laid down and just said it’s a bad day, and we didn’t do that.”
Portland’s loss coupled with a San Antonio victory drops the Trail Blazers to ninth in the Western Conference standings with six games to play. However, the team San Antonio beat was Memphis, currently in eighth, so despite the loss, Portland remains 2.5 games back for the final playoff spot in the West.
After pulling off a spirited overtime victory versus the Grizzlies in their first game of the Orlando restart, the Trail Blazers seemed to come out flat Sunday afternoon versus the Celtics. Though when your opponent shoots 60 percent from the field and a blistering 7-of-11 from three in the first quarter, as was the case for the Blazers, it can be tough to generate enthusiasm.
With the Celtics hitting early and often from three -- the scored 33 points on three-point shots in the first half -- and only Jusuf Nurkić and Gary Trent Jr. managing to pose any kind of scoring threat, the Blazers found themselves down 58-34 after a Semi Ojeleye three-pointer with just under four minutes to play in the first half. At that point, one was left to wonder just how long Terry Stotts would play his regular rotation, already shortened to eight players, if the the tide didn’t soon turn.
It would take a while, well into the third quarter in fact, but that tide did eventually turn.
After making little headway in the first six minutes of the third, Portland went on a 10-2 run, helped along by four Nurkić free throws and a Trent Jr. three, to cut the lead to 12 with 3:51 to play in the quarter. Back-to-back threes from Trent Jr. and Damian Lillard, who went 2-of-3 from three in the third after missing all three of his attempts in the first half, got the lead down to single digits going into the fourth.
The Blazers took just their second lead of the game early in the fourth thanks to five combined three-pointers from Lillard and CJ McCollum in the first three minutes of the quarter. After Portland held a slim lead for much of the quarter, Boston scored five-straight to take a 114-109 lead with four minutes to play.
Portland retook the lead at 119-118 after another Trent Jr. three with just under two minutes to play, but Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward scored the next seven points to give Boston a 125-119 lead with 32 seconds to play.
Carmelo Anthony’s three with 27 seconds to play cut Boston’s advantage to three, and with the Celtics turning the ball over on the next possession, the Blazers had a chance to tie the game.
But after a loose ball foul, the Blazers had only 6.8 seconds to tie the game. Lillard received the inbound pass, and with the Celtics knowing his proclivity to hit game-winning shots, they surrounded the 6-3 guard. Lillard passed to Nurkic, who was open for an easy layup.
“The play was CJ was going to the strong-side corner, double pin for me to come up and get the ball, I think it was like 6.8 seconds left,” said Lillard. “In my mind, I was like ‘I’m gonna catch it and fire as soon as I get space.’ I knew we didn’t have no timeouts and I caught it and I was going to shoot it, I saw Nurk come wide open as soon as I caught it. I think I just overthought it. I threw it to Nurk, he got a quick layup and in my mind I was thinking if we cut it to one it would be four seconds, maybe a little bit over four seconds, we foul and that’s enough time for me to get up, get the ball up court and get in range to get a shot off, even if they make both free throws. It turned out to not work in our favor.
“Looking back at it, it would have been a tough shot to get up, but I probably would have just rose up and shot it as soon as I caught it.”
With just 3.4 seconds to play and no timeouts, they’d need to get lucky in order to even tie the game.
That luck would not come.
Hayward made both free throws after being immediately fouled on the inbound to give the Celtics a three-point lead and Nurkić cross court pass sailed out of bounds before touching anyone, giving the ball and the game to Boston.
Nurkic led the Trail Blazers with 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals snd a block in 32. minutes. Lillard also finished with 30 after an abysmal first half, going 8-of-20 from the field, 5-of-14 from three and 9-of-9 from the line while handing out a career-high 16 assists in 44 minutes.
Trent Jr. continued his strong play in Orlando, going 7-of-11 from three for 21 points in nearly 34 minutes.
“(Trent Jr.) shooting, he’s in a real rhythm,” said Stotts. “He’s shooting with confidence. For him to be out there and space the floor, not only does it create opportunities for him but it opens it up for other people. With Gary, and I’ve said this all year, he’s really made a step defensively. He takes a lot of pride in his defense, we put him on tough matchups, he accepts that challenge. He’s got a toughness.”
CJ McCollum scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half while also grabbing eight rebounds and handing out four assists in 41 minutes. Carmelo Anthony rounded out Portland’s double-digit scorers with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to score 64 of Boston’s 128 points. Gordon Hayward finished with 22 and Kemba Walker added 14 in 22 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers face the Houston Rockets on Tuesday, August 4 in the third game of their eight-game restart.
“With the urgency of playing six more games, I don’t think we’ll have a hangover,” said Stotts. “I think if anything, we’ll take away that we played extremely well in the second half, which showed what we’re capable of doing against a really good team. We know what’s at stake, and honestly, we know we don’t have time to have any hangover after a loss.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.