PORTLAND -- Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard handed the Los Angeles Lakers a heartbreaking defeat on Thursday night that only got more painful with the loss of starting power forward Larry Nance Jr.
Lillard buried a clutch step-back 3-pointer over Brandon Ingram with 0.7 seconds remaining to give Portland a 113-110 win. And, as if the Lakers' 13th straight loss to the Blazers wasn't bad enough, Nance Jr. suffered a fractured left hand. He left the game in the third quarter and X-rays revealed the fractured second metacarpal in his left hand.
This loss was a tough one for the Lakers to swallow. They battled back from an 18-point deficit and played well enough to win in one of the toughest buildings in the NBA.
But Lillard (32 points, 5 assists) was too much at the end. Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball had his worst offensive game of the season, going scoreless with just four assists and three rebounds. But Brook Lopez had 27 points, and late first-round rookie power forward Kyle Kuzma came up big off the bench with 22 points. Kuzma missed at the buzzer on a potential game-tying 3.
The Lakers (3-5) have had stretches this season where they fall behind big, and this game was no different. The Blazers blitzed the Lakers in the first quarter, building a 41-23 lead just before the end of the first quarter.
Ball, who has had his best games when he was aggressively pushing the pace and looking for his shot, seemed out of sorts on offense in the first three quarters. He was engaged defensively, trying to challenge Lillard when he could. But offensively he didn't seem like himself.
Ball took just two shots in the first three quarters. One was a poor decision -- a blocked 3-pointer that came after fans booed him while he milked the clock toward the end of the first. Ball also didn't grab a rebound until the third quarter, which is uncharacteristic since he crashes the boards often.
Despite their rookie point guard struggling, the Lakers continued to do what they have done most of this early season -- they showed fight and mounted a comeback after falling behind big. After trailing 43-25 with 11:43 remaining in the second quarter, the Lakers outscored the Blazers 55-31 over the next 19:33, taking an 80-74 lead with 4:10 left in the third.
But the real reason the Lakers got back into this game was their defense. After finishing 30th in the league in defense the past two seasons, the Lakers came into training camp preaching defense and spent hours working on defensive details.
The Lakers have made strides this season, surrendering 106.6 points per game (tied for 16th best in the league entering Thursday) and ranking ninth in defensive efficiency. They contested shots against the Blazers, with Lopez and Nance Jr. making things difficult inside before Nance Jr. left the game for good.
Ball even blocked Lillard on a drive to the basket and deflected another pass for a turnover that led to a transition basket with his length. Lakers such as Corey Brewer and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope deflected passes that started fast breaks, but the Lakers got sloppy and wasted some of those transition opportunities.
The Blazers, who lost the night before in Utah in overtime, turned to Lillard. The star point guard scored 10 of his points in the third as Portland regained the lead.
While Ball struggled offensively, fellow rookie Kuzma was big in the fourth. He scored seven points early in the quarter as the Lakers opened a 98-93 lead. The two teams went back-and-forth to the end. Caldwell-Pope caught an inbounds pass and buried a 3 to tie the game at 110 with 15.5 seconds remaining.
Lillard, though, calmly brought the ball up court out of a timeout before drilling a lightning-quick step-back 3 over Ingram for the win.
The Lakers got to see what life is like when Lopez gets going. Lopez, who will be facing his old Nets team for the first time on Friday night in Los Angeles, had his best stretch as a Laker when he made 5 of 6 shots and scored 13 points in the second quarter. The game took a retro turn where both teams went inside to their respective 7-footers. Portland's Jusuf Nurkic scored 20 of his 28 points in the first half as he and Lopez went back-and-forth.