The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2017-18 regular season like a cement mixer full of fireworks tonight, obliterating not just the Phoenix Suns, but the entire solar system in a 124-76 tour de force. In the process Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and company exhibited every positive quality they hoped to bring into the new campaign, including and especially defense. Whether it’s sustainable against better teams remains to be seen, but for one night at least, the Blazers looked untouchable...the perfect way to start the year.
There aren’t enough synonyms for “destruction” to support a blow-by-blow recounting of this contest, so we’ll abbreviate.
The absence of CJ McCollum, suspended for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation, did not hurt the Blazers a bit tonight. Evan Turner started at shooting guard, but the first quarter belonged to Pat Connaughton off the bench. A pair of three-pointers and two mid-range shots gave the seldom-used sub 10 points in the period. Shabazz Napier added two more triples, pushing the Blazers to a 4-6 quarter from distance. That was more than enough offense to sustain a lead as they shut down the lane on the Suns, refusing open looks at the cup. With Phoenix on their way to a 1-10 half from three-point land, Portland’s interior dominance turned into a hammerlock from which the Suns could not escape.
The second quarter provided more of the same, with the Phoenix offense alternating between blocked shots and long bricks. The Blazers led 60-35 at intermission. But it was about to get worse...much worse.
The second half of this game resembled a mob movie wherein Act I Joe Pesci beats the crap out of Act III Joe Pesci. Squeamish observers had to look away as the Blazers spent the third period DESTROYING Phoenix with inside scoring while hitting 4 of 4 three-point attempts. The Suns connected on 3 threes in the period, but those came off of 9 tries. That was their exact rate in the lane as well. They hit zero mid-range shots. The quarter ended with the Blazers up 98-55. The lead would balloon to an obnoxious 118-60 before settling at the final score of 124-76. But hey, what’s 48 points between friends?
Reading too much into a single game is perilous. The Suns drove right down the heart of Portland’s defense all night, making decisions easy for the Blazers. At least Portland had a defense though.
The Blazers controlled the lane tonight in every way possible. They blocked shots. They rebounded. When the Suns got free on high screens (which still happened a bunch) big defenders kept them out of the middle, forcing dribblers to pull up from mid-range. The trend held on the other end too. The Blazers scored in the paint and kept possessions alive with offensive rebounds. They drew 28 foul shots to 18 for the Suns. Inside dominance turned a semi-expected win into an incomparable blowout.
That Portland shot 14-24, 58.3%, from the arc in the same game was just unfair.
Rebounding, shot-blocking, and swarming interior defense were the most exciting developments of the evening. If the Blazers can maintain that level of intensity against more talented teams—teams capable of hitting a three-pointer, or at least not so eager to offer themselves up on the Altar of Ultimate Destruction—they’ll have taken a clear step forward. Game 2 awaits.
Damian Lillard could have passed up every shot tonight and the Blazers still would have won by 21. Instead he connected on 10 of 20 from the field, went 4-6 from distance, and led the team with 27 points. Can we pause for All-Star voting now?
Pat Connaughton played 32 minutes, shooting 9-14 overall and 4-7 on threes for 24 points. For perspective, prior to tonight he had scored 148 points in his entire career. The Suns left him wide open. He made them pay.
Jusuf Nurkic looked great in the middle of the defense, not so great in the middle of the offense. His post moves went nowhere, but the farther out he moved on the floor, the more he contributed. His face-up jumper looked good, his passing fine, his rebounding masterful. The 5 turnovers weren’t an accident, though. As important as he will be for the Blazers, Nurkic is going to play some frustration ball this year as well.
Shabazz Napier benefited from CJ McCollum’s absence, but he also took full advantage, hitting a pair of threes on his way to 4-6 from the field and 10 points in 23 minutes. He looked quick. The Suns weren’t into guarding quick.
Caleb Swanigan made an impressive debut, playing 18 minutes while refusing to back down to any height, skill, or athleticism the Suns sent his way. He literally ripped the ball away from Phoenix players, securing 4 rebounds and a steal. He passed for 3 assists and scored 8 on 3-7 shooting. Given the nature of the game it was an easy entry into the NBA, but still a good one.
Ed Davis scored 10 with 7 rebounds in just 14 minutes. Evan Turner shot 4-8 for 12 points with 3 assists. Al-Farouq Aminu grabbed 12 rebounds in 28 minutes while Moe Harkless added 3 offensive rebounds of his own. Did we mention the Blazers were swarming inside?
A Boxscore to bronze and frame.
Bright Side of the Sun might not be so bright after this. (Hint: Their game recap headline began with, “Ummm...yeah.”)
We announced Blazer’s Edge Night, 2018 today. Click right here to find out how to help 2000 underprivileged children and youth from the Portland area see these same Trail Blazers play in February. I know someone out there pledged a ticket per point of victory tonight, right?
The Blazers face the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 of their season on Friday at 4:00 PM, Pacific. Meanwhile, we’ll leave you with this from the Trail Blazers themselves: