Aiming to put aside three lopsided losses earlier this week, the Portland Trail Blazers avoided going under the .500 mark today by putting the smackdown on the lowly Nets Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, walking away with an easy 129-109 win and an 8-7 record. Most encouragingly, the win came from a balanced effort up and down the roster, including 58 points from the bench. The Blazers even played inspired defense at times.
A day of rest seemed to do wonders for a squad which looked energetic and opportunistic. Portland's offense got off to a good start with Damian Lillard making his way into the paint at will. The Nets had no defenders capable of preventing him from doing so. Lillard's 10 points helped carry Portland in the opening period.
But for whatever the Blazers did on the scoring end, they gave up almost equally on defense. Lillard would convert a crazy circus shot and the Nets would answer right back with standstill three from Brook Lopez. Each time beautiful ball movement and passing would set up C.J. McCollum for a wide open trey, a breakdown would lead to Trevor Booker sticking the same look. Lopez had 17 points in the half, scoring from all over the floor. For a while it looked again as though Portland would have no answer for another skilled 7-footer.
When the team was in need, the Blazers bench stepped up not only to sustain, but build upon the small, early lead created by the starters. Evan Turner scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half. Allen Crabbe provided a huge punch with Lopez off the floor. Portland didn't defend well by any means - giving up quarters of 29 and 35 points - but they managed to shoot well enough (8-16 from deep) to win both periods and hold onto a 6 point lead at halftime.
In the third, the D finally managed to catch up to its O and Portland started to pull away. McCollum briefly caught fire from beyond the arc, draining all four triples he attempted in the quarter. Crabbe and Meyers Leonard could't miss from downtown either. With just about everybody in black and red feeling it, the Nets got buried beneath a three-point barrage. Even Mason Plumlee got in the act, forcing a miss at one end before running the floor, corralling an easy bounce pass from McCollum and throwing down a reverse two-handed dunk which put the Blazers up by 14 with 5:37 left in the quarter.
After that, Brooklyn didn't threaten a comeback. Lillard rested for the entire fourth quarter as Portland's lead grew as large as 22. The Nets essentially conceded the entire final frame to garbage time, the once-mighty Lopez held to but four points in the final two quarters.
Portland's superb offense may have just been a simple product of guys making shots they've missed before. Shot selection wasn't that different than any other game and the Nets just aren't very good at playing defense. Still, credit where credit is due: the execution was markedly improved. Most attempts were clean, within the tempo and set up by good movement and passing, which is exactly what the Blazers want. Portland shot 58% from the field overall and 42% from beyond the arc on 15 makes. When you see numbers like that it's going to be in a win.
CJ McCollum's 33 points in this game were impressive, but Evan Turner was also a huge catalyst. He had his best game in a Portland uniform with 19 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 8-12 shooting, and providing the spark which transformed the bench from eye-roll status to a legitimate threat, at least for one game. With the Nets intent on overplaying the three-point line, Turner was left with all the real estate he could ask for in the mid-range. Brooklyn all but dared Turner to beat them and he obliged. This was as much a "where have you been all my life?" moment as you can think of, hopefully a sign of him turning the corner as a Blazer.
Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe had big games of their own. Leonard turned in a double-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and some good defense against Lopez, whom he helped shut down during the second half run. Crabbe added 14, including 4-7 from long range. They made the shots they were supposed to. This was the most cohesive effort from the team so far this season, a small reassurance that firepower resides on the bench.
McCollum and Damian Lillard combined for 51 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds. McCollum was feeling it from the opening horn and destroyed whichever unlucky Brooklyn defender tried to stop him. Putting Isaiah Whitehead against McCollum in isolation was a cruel rite of initiation; CJ showed no mercy. He finished the game 6-10 from the arc.
Tonight demonstrated that the Blazers can be successful when they play defense. Whether or not it signifies a breakthrough for the team or just a good half of basketball against a lousy team remains to be seen, but it's a step in the right direction.
Ed Davis got the start again in place of Al-Farouq Aminu and looked better than he did on Friday - 3 points, 6 boards 3 assists and 2 blocks in 19 minutes.
Damian Lillard didn't have to do much after first quarter and finished with a quiet but efficient 18 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds on 8-14 shooting. The big win here is he only played 28 minutes.
Meyers Leonard just seems to get up for games against formidable bigs - his last major contribution to the team came against DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 11. He found his stroke early and kept with it.
Mason Plumlee was all over the place and got the best of his former club (7 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and a steal).
Maurice Harkless didn't have any fireworks but turned in his usual workman-like statline (10 points, 4 rebounds).
Noah Vonleh played 15 minutes but didn't look for his shot much (2 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks).
Rookie Jake Layman was not part of the rotation after seeing minutes earlier in the road trip - he only saw the floor in garbage time.
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The Blazers will stay in NYC to take on the New York Knicks Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden - Early tip for the West Coast at 4:30 pm.