Lillard gets locked up, but 'Chief' to the rescue
There was little mystery to Bostons game plan Thursday night in the Moda Center.
The Celtics were going to smother Portland guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and make their teammates provide the offense.
Al-Farouq Chief Aminu was up to the task, scoring a career-high 28 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking three shots in the Trail Blazers 116-109 victory.
Chief turned the game around for us, said Lillard, held to 14 points on 3-for-16 shooting.
Not just because of the shots he made, but defensively. He was coming from the weak side, blocking shots, deflecting passes.
He hadnt been shooting the ball great, but tonight when we needed him, he rose up and knocked em down. He was our MVP.
Aminu also notched career highs in field goals made (11), field goals attempted (19) and 3-point shots made (6 for 11). The 6-8 small forward, in his first season with Portland, was so good that Coach Terry Stotts used him the full 24 minutes the second half. The six-year veteran had 20 points and six rebounds after intermission, sinking 8 of 15 shots from the field, including 4 of 9 from beyond the arc.
It was good to see him have a breakout game, Stotts said. I was surprised hes been in the league as long as he has and 20 was his (previous) career high. He had a good rhythm shooting the 3 and made some great defensive plays. If not the best, its one of the best games hes had as a Blazer.
Aminu entered the game as Portlands No. 4 scorer at 9.9 points a game, with a decent 3-point percentage of .345, averaging about 1 1/2 makes per contest from beyond the arc.
His 3-point percentage is pretty good, but its the volume plus percentage that you look at, Boston coach Brad Stevens said. If hes going to shoot 11 3s and Lillard is going to go 3 for 16, you hope you have a better chance to win.
Boston used defensive specialist Avery Bradley on Lillard, putting All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas on McCollum. McCollum struggled with his shot, too, finishing with 17 points and eight assists but making only 8 of 19 shots from the field. McCollum and Lillard combined for 31 points, 15 shy of their average.
It was hard, Lillard said, the same as the first time we played them (a 116-93 win at Boston on March 2). (The Celtics) gave me and CJ a lot of attention on pick-and-rolls; when I tried to put myself on the weak side, they werent helping as much off me.
They were ready. They played great team defense. And the shots I should have made when I did get a good look, I didnt make them.
Fortunately for the Blazers, Aminu had his A game ready.
Everybody knows how efficient (Lillard and McCollum)I are when they come off pick-and-rolls, Aminu said. (Bostons) game plan was to make sure they had two defenders on them at all times. They made the right reads, but that left me open a lot. It just felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do.
Portland (40-36) also got terrific play off the bench from Gerald Henderson, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, sinking 4 of 5 shots from the field.
He gave us a spark, Lillard said. In almost every game thats close, hes a guy who gets about six tough points in a row for us. Tonight was the same situation.
Boston (43-32) led 58-54 at halftime lead and stoked the difference to 73-61 midway through the third quarter. The Blazers used a 10-0 run to tie it at 81-81 late in the quarter, then built a 102-89 advantage with eight minutes to go. Boston responded with an 8-0 run to close to within 102-97, and it was a battle to the finish.
Jae Crowders 3 gave Boston a 109-108 lead with 1:08 to play. But McCollum sank a fadeaway, then set up Aminu on a breakaway dunk to push the Blazers ahead 112-109 with 49.2 seconds on the clock. Lillard went 4 for 4 at the line in the closing seconds to wrap things up for Portland.
It was a game with plenty on the line for both teams, who are battling for playoff positioning. The Celtics, who continue their four-game road swing Friday night at Golden State, fell to sixth place in the Eastern Conference, 1 1/2 games behind No. 3 Atlanta, with seven games to play.
Portland, meanwhile, drew within 1 1/2 games of No. 5 Memphis (41-34) in the tight Western Conference race. The Grizzlies, decimated by injuries, have lost four straight and have a rough schedule the rest of the way, including home-and-away games against Golden State, a road game against the L.A. Clippers and a home date with Toronto.
The Blazers will have the tie-breaker with Memphis, so if the teams are tied at the end of the regular season, Portland gets the No. 5 seed.
It was important to get this one, Stotts said. Weve done a good job protecting homecourt the second half of the season. For what we want to accomplish this season, we needed to win.
NOTES: Portlands next action is Saturday night at home against Miami. With six regular-season games left, the Blazers magic number to clinch a playoff berth is four any combination of four Portland wins and Houston losses. Thomas led Boston with 22 points but made only 6 of 21 shots from the field and had five turnovers. Bradley added 20 points Lillard sought out Bradley after the game. I told him hes the best perimeter defender in the league, Lillard said. Hes quick and strong, has good anticipation. A lot of guys look like good defenders on some possessions, but thats what he does every possession. hes tough. The Blazers have won three straight games overall and six in a row at home, where they are 15-2 over the last 17 games. The Celtics had won six of their previous 10 games at Portland. Portland is now 3-15 this season when trailing at halftime.
Boston went into the game leading the league in opponents turnovers (16.4) and 3-point field goal percentage (.328) and second in steals (9.2). Stevens had high praise for McCollum before the game. Ive been watching CJ since he was at Lehigh and I was at Butler, Stevens said. I paid attention to him because he grew up in Canton, Ohio, where my parents are from. He has a real knack for getting shots and making shots. Hes a bright guy, a hard worker in the gym. Nobody was surprised (Lillard and McCollum) are such a good backcourt. The numbers CJ is putting up are unbelievable, but its no shock if you really paid attention to what he looked like the first two years when he got his opportunities.