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Lillard, Nurkic, and Rookies Shine as Blazers Fall to Suns in Preseason Game 1

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You might have expected Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic to showcase mad skills, but Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan stole the show.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers opened their preseason, 2017 campaign with a bang, plowing through a half-assembled Phoenix Suns team with indomitable play from center Jusuf Nurkic and point guard Damian Lillard. Fantastic scoring from that duo set Portland’s table with a big lead, perfect conditions for rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan to make a mark in their first-ever NBA action. Between dominant stars and plucky newcomers, a Portland win looked assured. Fatigue and lack of talent at the tail end of the lineup conspired to keep them from the honor, though. Down by double-digits for most of the game, the Suns slid by for a 114-112 victory. Any disappointment from the home team was short-lived. No exhibition score could erase budding enthusiasm for Portland’s slimmed-down center and his two newest frontcourt buddies, whose potential showed true in this opener.

Game Flow

From the opening tip, the Trail Blazers proved that their new “Big 3” isn’t just a paper concept. Lillard and Nurkic sliced, lofted, and pounded their way through the Suns’ defense. Phoenix could not stop the inside-out game. Nurkic “Swiss Army Knifed” the quarter with dunks, cuts, and jumpers while Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum did their thing from mid-range and beyond. Portland’s defense looked energized, but only mildly more effective than last year. Still, the Blazers opened up a comfortable 32-24 lead after one.

The second period featured several developing wrinkles in Portland’s offense. A variety of players touched the ball. Evan Turner played point guard. The Blazers screened for mid-range shots. The mid-bench and rookie players got plenty of run. It was chaotic, interesting, and ultimately fairly successful against a Phoenix squad whose bench players were less accomplished. Portland led 63-46 at the half.

The third period started with a reprise of the Lillard-Nurkic show before the stars gave way once more to understudies. Rookie Collins started the period and served well with high screens and shot-block attempts. Swanigan kept the Suns off balance with face-up jumpers. Portland rebounded, forced turnovers, and ran when they were able. The cracks in the deep-rotation players began to show, however. Missed shots and slowing rotations took their toll as Phoenix took the period 27-22. The Blazers still led comfortably, 85-73 heading to the final period.

The Suns began to dial in on Portland’s weaknesses in the fourth quarter. The Blazers reserves started to look gassed. Rebounds disappeared, screens wavered, and defensive rotations dried up. As Phoenix started making a run, the Blazers stayed with variations of the rookies, Meyers Leonard, Jake Layman, Pat Connaughton, and training-camp invite guards. It was as if a Monty Python sketch starting with, “I can beat you with one hand tied behind my back,” eventually led to, “I can beat you with BOTH hands stuffed down a garbage disposal, kneecaps coated in rubber cement, and my head stuck up the nether regions of a giraffe!” The guy delivering that final line was Head Coach Terry Stotts. And, well... he couldn’t. Phoenix blocked shots, Windexed the glass, ran the break, hit foul shots, and splashed jumpers. Eventually the Blazers were forced to rely on a pair of three-pointers from Isaiah Briscoe for a comeback attempt in the final minute. They got the first triple to keep it interesting, but not the second for the win. After the Blazers dominated much of the game, Phoenix snuck back in for a 114-112 victory.

Analysis

Portland’s offense looked polished, as one might expect of a team comprised of returning players. When the Big 3 played together, the Phoenix defense was stuck in a choose-your-own-adventure book from hell.

Where would you like to be smacked?

If you choose right buttock, turn to page 48.

If you choose left buttock, turn to page 23.

If you choose right upside the head, turn to page 90.

And all three pages read: You Lose.

Interesting offensive wrinkles included:

  • Evan Turner (and occasionally others) running point.
  • An emphasis on guards getting shots inside the arc: Lillard and McCollum off of screens and Turner in the post.
  • Absolutely free use of forwards taking face-up jumpers out top, including beyond the arc.
  • Dangerous offensive rebounding.
  • Consistent tries for backdoor cuts

In short, the Blazers seem intent on varying the “Center post up or three” offense they tried to grow beyond last year, but never quite could.

Even with the variance, though, it was painfully obvious who should be shooting and who shouldn’t. Outside of Swanigan ending up in the positive category, zero names would surprise you. The dividing line across the roster remains bright and firm. Bankable offensive aptitude cuts off right below the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic line.

Portland’s defense was typified by rebounding, forced turnovers (a pleasant development but also one occasioned by a mangled Phoenix lineup), and surprisingly stout interior defense from Nurkic and Collins. But hoo boy...the guards aren’t any farther ahead in their defensive development. Outside of the aforementioned duo—plus occasionally Al-Farouq Aminu—the big men still can’t cover. When anybody but Nurkic manned the middle, the defense fell apart quickly.

On the whole, this game felt like slightly better frosting on the same old cake...with the prominent addition of a Swanigan and Collins cake-topper that wasn’t there last year. The rookies need more time to develop before judgment is rendered, but they look quite promising at first blush. Sliding them aside for a minute, this team is just not very good one you get past the Big 3. Whatever “promise” is trying to peek its way above ground is getting buried in gravel-filled jumpers and landslide defensive stands. Turner is probably the best bet for consistent help, but he’s not enough (and he might not be that consistent).

If tonight was any indication, the Blazers are going to need big minutes from Nurkic, McCollum, and Lillard to keep on the sunny side of good.

Individual Notes

Jusuf Nurkic was brilliant. Last year his moves were 33 rpm. Minus 35 pounds, they’re at least a 45 now, occasionally a 78. Video doesn’t do justice to how fast this spin move went:

Nurkic also looks lighter on his leaps. They’re close to effortless. His rebounding persists. His shot-blocking will probably improve if he keeps the weight off...a scary thought for Portland opponents. There’s nothing not to like about New Look Nurk.

Damian Lillard might as well have been walking in the park nibbling on shaved ice while larks sang tonight. Everything he did screamed “peak form January” instead of “preseason October”. His jumper is a thing of beauty. He plays off of Nurkic so well that he’s going to be open for it plenty. That’s exciting.

CJ McCollum didn’t get quite as many good looks but his three-point shot was on and he played confidently. In theory the emphasis on midrange shots is old hat for him...again, reason to be excited.

Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan get massive thumbs up for their efforts tonight. The defense picked up the moment Collins hit the floor (admittedly compared to the second string, which was icky). His sense of spacing, movement, and timing is advanced for a rookie. He shows signs of being a legitimate shot-blocker. His interior scoring game is non-existent so far, but he set good screens tonight...a huge boon if it continues. Meanwhile Swanigan hit multiple face-up jumpers from distances up to and including three-point range. He also helped Collins seal off the lane. During the game I remarked to Chad Doing of Rip City Radio, “This is what it looks like when guys care about defense.” If the young bucks have to lead that charge, let them.

Evan Turner looked good handling the ball and great in the post, despite a general lack of shots falling. He’s smart, steady, and well-positioned. The difference between Turner in the offense now and at the start of last season is marked. He has potential as a second ball-handler on the floor with Lillard or McCollum. I’m not quite as enthused about his prospect as a starter next to both.

Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu started the game. They and Moe Harkless all fell into the murky middle as the night progressed. Each had moments—Aminu had an amazing blocked shot that reminded you why his defense is prized—but they didn’t get enough minutes to show anything definitive except that they’re not reliable scorers.

Meyers Leonard looks physically impressive but it’s just not there. The old knock against him was that he could get to the spot but couldn’t do much once he was there. At one point he looked as if he had evolved beyond that. Nope...it’s back. Entering his sixth season, he still runs sets like a rookie...as if he’s following dance steps but never really getting into the swing. The actual rookies provided more of a lift tonight. The season is long, though. Meyers was calling out schemes and directions to teammates, so he does know what’s supposed to happen. Can he make it happen, though?

Pat Connaughton got plenty of playing time and induced many headaches. Jake Layman didn’t do much better. They were painful to watch.

Isaiah Briscoe almost ended up the hero of the fourth quarter. He’s got a body (and a half) on him but his jump shot needs work. The jury’s still out on him and Archie Goodwin.

Anthony Morrow got about a half a second of playing time and collected a personal foul.

Up Next

The Blazers take on the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night at the Moda Center, 7:00 pm.

Check out video highlights from the game in our instant recap!