Trail Blazers Respond To The Challenge In Dallas

DALLAS -- On a day intended to celebrate love, the Portland Trail Blazers, for a myriad or reasons, were angry heading into the half of Sunday night’s game versus the Mavericks at American Airlines Center. But rather than compounding that frustration, they managed to use it to their advantage.

After leading by double digits in the first quarter, only to go into the intermission down three, the Trail Blazers outscored the Mavericks by 15 in the third quarter, allowing the road team to eventually come away with a 121-118 victory in front of a crowd of 2,211 on a snowy Valentine’s Day in Dallas.

“Everybody is contributing and doing what they do well, whether scoring, defending,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I think there’s a trust, I think there’s a confidence at the offensive end... I just think everybody is doing there part.”

With the win, the Trail Blazers are 16-10 overall and 8-5 on the road this season. Portland has won four-straight for the second through their first 26 games and are winners of six of their last seven.

Between shooting 58 percent from the field and 55 percent from three and holding the Mavericks to 40 percent shooting from the field and 0-of-8 shooting from three, the Trail Blazers built an 11-point lead by late in the first quarter. The Mavericks would trim that to nine by the start of the second quarter, but Portland still had the game well in control.

Though there was one issue that would catch up with Portland: free throw shooting, or to be more specific, a lack thereof. The Trail Blazers didn’t attempt a single free throw in the first quarter, which you can handle when you’re making over half of your three-point attempts while your opponent misses every one of theirs.

But that wouldn’t keep up in the second quarter. Luka Doncic made all three of his attempts from three in the second quarter, Maxi Kleber went 2-of-2 from beyond the arc and both Dorian Finney-Smith and Trey Burke contributed triples. Meanwhile, Portland went just 2-of-7 from deep in the second quarter and shot just three free throws through the first half, with Enes Kanter being awarded all three (he made two of them).

And with Dallas more than double Portland’s free throw attempts for the game in the second quarter alone with seven -- all of which they made -- Dallas outscored Portland by 12 in the quarter to take a 61-58 advantage into the half.

“We just felt like it was a really unfortunate first half for us,” said Damian Lillard. “We came out playing well to start the game but then it just seemed like we just couldn’t do anything right. Everything was foul here, foul there. And then we going down and we felt like we weren’t getting the whistle. It was like ‘Alright, now what?’”

The answer to that question was two-part. First, the Trail Blazers decided that they weren’t going to get twisted up over officiating. They might not have felt like they were getting their fair share of calls, but they weren’t going to let that be the reason they lost Sunday night.

“So we came out the locker room and it was like, we’re not going to complain, we not gonna come out here and act like something is being taken away from us,” said Lillard. “If we’re gonna win this game we’ve got to go take it. I think that was the energy that we had to start the second half and that ultimately what changed the game and won us the game.”

Lillard, who one could argue plays his best when he feels slighted, went out and took seven shots in the third quarter, making five from the field and three from three for 16 points. And after shooting no free throws in the first half, he made all three of his attempts from the line in the third quarter. Portland as a team would go 7-of-8 from the line in the third quarter, almost tripling their number of attempts in the first half.

The second thing the Blazers did was turn their defensive intensity up a notch, particularly on Doncic. After the Slovenian point guard finished the first half with 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting, Trail Blazers forward Robert Covington, charged with defending Doncic for most of the night, was challenged by a member of the coaching staff to do better in the second half.

“Our defensive intensity is what played a major factor,” said Covington. “I had a conversation with with Coach (Osbourne) and he gave me a challenge. Luka scored, I think, 10 points in that quarter after having a 24-point first half. I took that challenge on very personal. I just wanted to put ourselves in the best position because we had to make somebody else beat us.”

While Doncic still went 3-of-3 for 10 points in the third, Covington negated his scoring by putting up 10 points of his own in the quarter, while also grabbing three steals, one of which came at the expense of Doncic.

“(Doncic) had a lot of easy buckets, and of course he made a lot of tough shots, but finishing out that second quarter, he had three or four threes, what he usually do, that stepback three,” said Covington. “I wasn’t allowing him to get that same rhythm in the third quarter. It was my intensity that set the tone and everybody else followed.”

Between Covington setting the standard for the team on defense, Lillard knifing his way through Dallas’ defenders and the rest of the starting lineup combining to shooting 9-of-9 from the field, Portland scored 45 points in the third to take a 103-91 lead into the fourth.

“That’s the reason why I was brought here, for me to come in and use my versatility,” said Covington. “That third quarter was very good and I got to show exactly what I’m capable of. I took that challenge on personal, I just wanted to put us in best position to win.”

The game flipped again in the fourth, with Dallas playing the part of the aggressor on both ends -- they shot 56 percent from the field and held Portland scoreless from the 6:50 mark of the fourth to the 1:55 mark, a span of nearly five minutes. The Mavericks made steady progress at the lead, but never managed to overtake the visitors. Dorian Finney-Smith tied the game with a three-pointer with 49.5 seconds to play, though Lillard would take the lead back with his patented shot -- a deep, straight away stepback -- on the next possession.

Doncic completed a layup on the next possession to get the deficit to one, though Carmelo Anthony would find Derrick Jones Jr. open uncovered with a spectacular pass to push it back to three. Dallas called time to advance the ball to halfcourt, and despite Portland’s defense knowing exactly whose hands the ball would end up in, Doncic still got a relatively open look from three to potentially tie the game with five seconds to play.

But unlike in previous seasons -- Doncic made a buzzer-beater in Portland during his rookie season that would send a game to overtime -- the shot missed the mark, the Blazers got the rebound and the game.

Portland was led by Lillard, who finished with 34 points, 11 assists and three rebounds in 36 minutes. Gary Trent Jr. added 17 points, a rebound and a steal in 35 minutes.

Covington added four steals and fives rebounds to his 15-point scoring effort. Kanter didn’t get his standard double-double but missed just one of his seven attempts to finish with 14 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes. Anthony had another strong game off the bench, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes. Anfernee Simons went 4-of-6 from three for 2 points.

Doncic led all scorers with 44 points whole also tallying nine assists and seven rebounds in 36 minutes. Kristaps Porzingis finished with 18 points, eight rebounds.

Next up, the three-game trip heads to Oklahoma for a Tuesday night tilt versus the Thunder in the first game of a back-to-back. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.