The clock was ticking down toward :00 in the fourth quarter Monday night in Moda Center and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam had just received an inbound pass at the left side of the lane with his team trailing the Trail Blazers 112-111.
There were nine seconds to go in the game when he caught the ball and he dribbled careful into the lane, back to the basket. CJ McCollum had just given the Trail Blazers their one-point lead, hitting a pull-up jumper from 16 feet with 9.9 seconds left.
But this game would be decided at Portland’s defensive end. And over the last several seasons, that usually has not been the place the Trail Blazers have wanted to be with a game on the line.
This time, though, Robert Covington was right behind Siakam, meeting the Raptors’ leading scorer with force. As Siakam, with the clock almost drained of digits, rolled to his right hand in the lane, Covington went up with him.
The shot missed
And the Blazers had captured a game they may not have deserved to win. They trailed by 17 in the first half and were behind most of the night.
But perhaps there was some meaning there at the end. This game was decided on defense. And by a serious defensive player. And a team that's trying to improve its defense.
“He was guarding Siakam, and you know I would be remiss right now if I didn't say what an excellent job Robert did on Siakam in the second half,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said. “You know, Siakam came out with 10 in the first quarter and ‘RoCo’ got two quick fouls. But I thought the defensive job he did on him, particularly in the fourth quarter, but in general, for the second half was a key to the win.”
Damian Lillard stunted toward Siakam once, sort of bluffing a double-team, which backed the Raptor up a bit. But after that, it was all Covington.
“We didn't want to put ourselves in a position to overhelp,” Lillard said, “and to give up a wide open look for the game. And actually on the weak side, Melo actually yelled to me, ‘I got your back. Go help.’ And I actually did. He started his initial move and I just ran at him. And he sort of backed it out and then I ran back to my man and it took maybe two or three seconds off the clock.
“He was a little bit more sped up after that. So we actually did help, we just didn't sell out and stay there. And, you know, RoCo took it personal. He knew Siakam had a really good first half, and I think he had like four points in the second half.
“And that's the type of mentality that we’ve got to have. We’ve got to be willing to take that challenge. It came down to one possession and we were able to get the stop.”
Toronto came into town on the second of back-to-back games and gave Portland all it could handle.
The home team won in spite of making only 33 percent of its three-point shots while Toronto was sinking five more than Portland -- which very often these days decides NBA games.
But the Trail Blazers won their third straight and pulled this one out with a determined effort after trailing by as many as 14 in the final quarter and by seven with 5:37 to go.
With Jusuf Nurkic in the locker room with a thigh contusion, Portland went with small lineups often and relied on Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony down the stretch.
McCollum hit the game winner, pulling up in an open-court situation to drain the shot from one of his familiar spots, near the right elbow.
It’s a situation McCollum has relished since his high school days. He wants to be the one taking the big shot.
“When I have the basketball, I’m at peace on the basketball court,” he said after his 30-point game. “I feel very comfortable in all situations -- with the ball or without the ball.
“Historically, throughout my career, I live in the boxes and elbows when I need to. Growing up, you always know where home is. And I think that’s where I’ve made my living up to this point, so I felt very comfortable.”
He did what came naturally after all the years and hours of practice.
“Get his hips moving,” McCollum said of his defender. “And then, as my brother would say, ‘Baby food. Baby out the street. Finish him off, now go home. Tuck your wife in, tuck your dog in.”
Anthony came up big down the stretch, too. Inside the final five minutes he had eight points, two rebounds and a blocked shot.
And in the end, this defensive-oriented game was won on defense -- by the Trail Blazers.