Game Recap: Blazers 108, Sixers 105

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

The increasingly short-handed 76ers (9-64) saved their best for last, but a late rally wasn’t enough.  Portland’s prolific backcourt duo delivered key plays in the final minutes of Saturday’s match-up at Moda Center, as the Trail Blazers (38-36) snuck out a narrow 108-105 victory.

Trailing by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Sixers got themselves going by  locking down on defense, and taking advantage of a small-ball line-up.  Jerami Grant and Robert Covington strung together a series of driving lay-ups to lay the foundations for an explosive, inspired push, while Hollis Thompson kept the spurt going by nailing tying and go-ahead three-pointers on back-to-back possessions.  Bursting for 13 straight points, the Sixers suddenly held a 100-97 edge with three minutes, 15 seconds left in regulation.

Third-year guard C.J. McCollum led Portland’s response, with his and-1 leveling the tilt 20 seconds later.  The Lehigh product then pried away steal to set-up a Damian Lillard triple that shot the Trail Blazers back in front, 103-100.  

With 23 seconds to go, Ish Smith, who turned in arguably the most well-rounded showing of his six-year career, delivered a step-back foul line jumper to even the game at 105-105.  On Portland’s  next trip down the court, McCollum was able to wriggle out of a halfcourt trap, and drive to the basket for another traditional three-point play.  This one proved to be the difference in a competitive pairing that featured five ties and seven lead changes.

Down to just 10 available players by the end of the evening on account of a mounting list of injuries, the Sixers received quality contributions from the members of their roster that were left.  Ish Smith nearly came away with the first triple-double of his career.  He tallied 17 points (8-14 fg), a career-high 14 rebounds, and nine assists.  Hollis Thompson, who produced a dozen points in the second half, and Robert Covington each finished with 17 points as well.  

McCollum and Lillard were the standouts for Portland, as they have been throughout the season.  McCollum paced all players with 25 points (9-22 fg, 1-3 3fg, 6-6 ft).  Although he netted 16 points, Lillard did not score at his typical rate of efficiency.  A 42.5 percent shooter, the Sixers kept the All-Star check, as he connected on just six of his 20 attempts from the field.   Al-Farouq Aminu made his presence felt with 20 points (6-12 fg) and eight rebounds.

The Sixers were without Nerlens Noel, who was ruled out before the start of Saturday’s game with a right knee contusion.  Richaun Holmes exited the contest in the second quarter with a right achilles strain.  Sonny Weems didn’t return after halftime with a right quad strain.  T.J. McConnell dislocated the pointer finger of his left hand in the second half, but managed to return.

Brett Brown Said - On the Sixers’ performance in their 108-105 setback to the Portland Trail Blazers:
“You walk away feeling like we could’ve stolen a win on the road.  I’m thrilled with their effort.”

Top Moment:
Ish Smith proved to be a versatile, valuable presence throughout Saturday’s game.  In the third quarter, the six-foot tall point guard even managed to get up for his fifth dunk of the season, and 11th of his career. 

Notes and Quotes:
Noel Hopes to Return Soon
Saturday marked the second straight game that Nerlens Noel missed due to a right knee contusion.  Prior to tip off, Brett Brown also confirmed that the second-year center will be held out of Sunday’s tilt with the Golden State Warriors. 

Noel said he didn’t think the “achy soreness” in his knee was anything “too crazy,” and that it should heal up “day-to-day.”  He attempted to go through Saturday morning’s shootaround at Moda Center, but the discomfort he felt in his knee was substantial enough to keep him from taking the floor against Portland.

Brown acknowledged that with the Sixers’ season winding down, only nine games remained following Saturday’s loss to Portland, the team would take a measured, cautious approach to managing Noel’s injury.

“I hope we do a great job throughout the year,” said Brown, referring to the Sixers’ philosophy of dealing with player health.  “At the end of the year, you’re a little more aware.  We want to put our players always in a position where we take care.  It’s our responsibility, it’s my responsibility to play them accordingly.”  

“Like [Saturday], we have Richaun [Holmes] on a minutes restriction, and you have to manage a game, you have to sub a game with that in mind.  Even when we’re short-handed.  So there’s a little bit of a trick on how you use your most athletic five-man.  I think with Nerlens, it is just trying to be smart with it and patient with it.”

As Brown said, going into Saturday’s contest, Holmes represented one of the few frontcourt options the Sixers had available off the bench, with Carl Landry starting in place of Noel.  Holmes, however, reaggravated the strained right achilles he originally sustained on March 11th.  Saturday was just his second game back.    

In terms of when Noel might be able to return from his right knee bruise, he said on Saturday his hope is to be ready by Tuesday, when the Sixers host the Charlotte Hornets at The Center.  

“I’m competitive,” said Noel.  “If I can play, I’m going to play.  I was just being smart with that, obviously. If I was able to play, I’d definitely play.”

Lillard, Blazers Admired by Brown
Over the summer, Portland lost four starters from a team that won 51 games and reached the post-season last year.  LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Wes Matthews represented the Rip City exodus.  

Damian Lillard, however, made a long-term commitment to the organization by signing a max contract in July.  The All-Star point guard has been pivotal to keeping the Trail Blazers in the running for a third consecutive post-season berth.  He drew praise from Brett Brown prior to Saturday’s tip-off.

I love the way he plays,” said the Sixers third-year head coach.   “You start scheming and strategizing and trying to find weaknesses on do you send him left, do you send him right, do you try to make him a driver, and he’s really hard to pinpoint a way that you think you’re going to have your best shot.”

Lillard entered Saturday evening fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.7 ppg), third in three-point field goals (207), and eighth in assists (6.9).  In the first meeting between his Blazers and the Sixers, Lillard was limited to 14 points, managing to hit just four of his 18 field goal attempts, and one of his six three-point tries.  

“We do feel like the last time we played them, our defense was pretty good,” Brown said.  “But when you look at the body of work that he has produced in taking this team that not many would say at the start of the year would be in the position the position that they are in at the end of the year, and I credit him, I credit [head coach] Terry [Stotts], their surrounding cast has bought into roles.  And they really in many, many ways I think have overachieved, and they’re a team I respect.”

Sixers Dealing with All-Star Guards in Back-to-Back
After facing a point guard in Damian Lillard who ranks fifth in the NBA in points per game and third in total triples on Saturday night, the Sixers will turn around and go up against a point guard who tops the league in both scoring average and three-pointers on Sunday, when they visit Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.  

Given the style with which both Lillard and Curry play, Brett Brown actually feels that confronting Lillard first will better prepare the Sixers for Curry.

“In many ways, it’s similar in that your pick up points are immediate,” explained Brown on Saturday.   “You got to find them early, and it’s got to be identified with a team.  Pick up points, we call it P.U.P., your pick up points have to be high.  We have to identify those two early.  Anything that has a tiny window of separation, you’re rolling the dice, because they don’t need much to get their shot off.”

His first time facing the Sixers on January 30th at The Center, Curry generated 23 points (9-19 fg, 5-11 3fg), and eight assists.  He did, however, commit eight turnovers in Golden State’s 108-105 triumph.  

Next Up:
The Sixers’ four-game road trip culminates Sunday with a visit to Oracle Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors (65-7).  Last year’s NBA champions and already holding a 2016 playoff berth, Golden State continues its push towards the top regular season record in league history.  With 10 games remaining on their schedule, the Warriors need just eight more victories to surpass the 72-10 mark compiled by the Chicago Bulls during the 1995-1996 campaign.  Golden State is three victories away from exceeding its franchise record total from a year ago.  The Warriors have clinched the Pacific Division title for a second consecutive season, and are three games removed from their most recent loss, an 87-79 setback to the San Antonio Spurs, the Western Conference’s second seed, on March 19th.  Steph Curry, with an NBA-best 30.2 points per game average, remains on pace for the first scoring crown of his seven-year career.  Andre Iguodala has missed eight consecutive games due to a left ankle sprain.  Golden State has racked up 51 regular season home wins in a row, the longest such streak in NBA history.  



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