The Portland Trail Blazers didn’t make things easy for themselves - a complete absence of effort in the first half allowed the Denver Nuggets to dominate the paint on both ends of the court during tonight’s game at the Moda Center. Denver led by as many as 17 before the Blazers cranked up their intensity, started hitting jump shots, and smashed the Nuggets 36-15 in the third quarter on the way to a 109-102 victory.
Damian Lillard continued his scalding hot start to the season, finishing with 32 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals, and only a single turnover. Danilo Gallinari finished with 19 points and 7 rebounds for the Nuggets, while teammate Kenneth Faried pitched in 18 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks.
The Nuggets opened the night by pounding their way into the paint on offense and forcing the Blazers out of the paint on defense. Unsurprisingly, Faried feasted on Portland’s pastry-soft interior, on his way to 15 points and 7 rebounds in the first frame. The Blazers were lucky to be trailing only 28-20 heading into the second, thanks in large part to Lillard’s 12 points.
Annoyingly, Faried’s stellar stat line was the result of little more than a disparity in work ethic - as in, Faried had a lot and the Blazer big men had none. During a timeout, Head Coach Terry Stotts lamented to CSN’s Brooke Olzendam, “Faried is playing his butt off and we’re just watching. He’s not doing anything special. He’s just playing hard.”
Faried and Lillard both checked out as the reserves took the floor for both sides to start the second quarter. Initially the teams played to a sloppy standstill, but eventually the Nuggets hustle began to assert itself again and the lead ballooned to 44-29. At that point Lillard checked back into the game and his aggressiveness proved contagious. The Blazers earned their first foul shots (the Nuggets had 14 at that point ...ouch) and pulled down seven offensive rebounds. An ensuing 15-4 run cut into the lead and Portland was down only 57-50 at the half.
Contrary to season-long trends, the third quarter belonged to Portland tonight. Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and CJ McCollum began hitting jump shots to force Denver out of the lane and Evan Turner started creating transition opportunities. The Nuggets, who lost last night to the Pistons, began settling for flat-looking jump shots and all-of-the-sudden the Blazers had a 36-15 advantage in the quarter and an 86-72 lead heading into the fourth.
Ed Davis symbolically iced the game about three minutes into the final frame by grabbing back-to-back offensive rebounds before finding McCollum for a three-pointer to give Portland a 96-82 lead. Jamal Murray made a flurry of late shots to keep the score deceivingly close, but ultimately the Blazers prevailed 112-105.
Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd repeated several times during the fourth quarter that tonight’s game was “weird.” And they were right - the Blazers put together one of the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde acts of the young NBA season.
First the good news: The Blazers played their best ball of the season in the third quarter tonight. In the halfcourt they routinely ran the offense to completion resulting in open shots. This was the result of a flurry of McCollum attacks into the mid-range that left opposing players off-balance and confused for one of the first times all year. Too often this season the Blazers have relied on isolation and overdribbling as the offense stalls, which does little to put the defense on its heels, but tonight decisive cuts and strong attacks in the second half led to open jumpers even as Denver did their best to patrol the paint.
Stotts also found several defensive lineups that worked later in the game. Turner’s defensive range allowed him to cover Gallinari while also switching over to a guard, as necessary, while Lillard found rare defensive utility as a foil to Chandler’s physical post game. Throw in some Harkless intensity, and Ed Davis’ best all-around game to help counter Denver’s bruising front line and suddenly the Blazers looked passable defensively. The result was many bricked jumpers for the tired and subpar Denver shooters.
Now the bad news: All of the negative on-court storylines that have swirled around this season’s Blazer team came together during the first 18 minutes. Mannequin challenge impersonation on defense? Check. Getting worked on the boards? Check. Lack of offensive continuity, forcing Lillard to shoulder the entire load? Check. Playing down to a lesser opponent? Check.
The Blazers did win this game, but falling behind 45-33 on the boards and giving up 14 free throws before a first trip to the line against an inferior team on the second night of a back-to-back is not a winning formula in the long term.
Concerningly, tonight is not an exception. A lack of motivation and mental toughness has become a defining element of the 2016-17 Blazers. They have gone out of their way to let Denver, Sacramento, and Phoenix hang around in “should have won easily” contests. And they have flat-out surrendered when punched in the face by squads they aspire to be (i.e. the Clippers and Warriors).
What’s especially offputting about this trend is that last year’s team faced similar mental struggles against lesser opponents. The 2015-16 Blazers spent most of the season raging against a #they machine, but frequently underwhelmed when the underdog label was removed. Absent the us against #they mentality, it feels like the Lillard-led Blazers lack an identity and are going out of their way to create hardship to persevere against.
Optimists will point out the team’s 7-4 record and argue that critiques of Portland’s performance are premature at best and concern-trolling at worst. But the numbers belie that response: a team that sits at no. 14 in offensive rating and no. 24 in defensive rating isn’t good enough to rely on halftime speeches to “flip a switch” on a nightly basis. If the Blazers don’t clean up their bad habits as the schedule toughens in coming weeks, there’s a very real risk that, much like Dr. Jekyll’s ultimate fate, their negative traits will become their defining traits.
Damian Lillard did everything on offense again tonight, and even played an occasional role on defense. The entire city of Portland would be wise to pray that Lillard can stay completely healthy through the grind of the entire season.
CJ McCollum had some rough moments but eventually settled into a nice in-the-offense attack. He’s struggled to work within Stotts’ flow this year so it was promising to see him creating for teammates. He finished with 21 points.
Don’t let Evan Turner’s 5-17 shooting line fool you - this was his best night as a Blazer. He was super aggressive, creating and completing on multiple transition opportunities, and was one of the first to challenge Denver’s dominance on the boards. Calabro pointed out that Turner still doesn’t know the offense instinctively, but he found other ways to be a key contributor tonight.
Allen Crabbe only shoot 2-8, but he was regularly in the right place at the right time and the shots just didn’t fall. The Blazers need him to contribute more but, at the very least, he wasn’t a disruptive element tonight.
Ed Davis had his best game of the season. It was the first time he looked like the “Ed Davis” of last season.
Moe Harkless finished with 17 points and 6 rebounds and was, again, a key defensive element. As Turner, Crabbe, and Noah Vonleh have struggled to assert themselves, Harkless is quietly becoming indispensible to the Blazers’ success.
Speaking of Noah Vonleh, he was overwhelmed tonight and played only five minutes.
Meyers Leonard did this:
Jake Layman played four minutes and didn’t stick out too badly on either end. He failed to make a shot, but did have a nice block at the rim. A successful night for a player who was not expected to play meaningful minutes this season.
Denver Stiffs is wishing tonight’s game was more Treasure Island and less Jekyll and Hyde.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado