The Portland Trail Blazers rattled off their second straight impressive pre-season game tonight, defeating the Toronto Raptors 106-101. As with all things exhibition, the final score matters less than the manner of victory. Juicy goodness from Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, solid showings from rookies, and a couple key contributions from veterans added up to an efficient, if not beautiful, performance that the Blazers can be proud of.
To hear more about the game flow and see video of crucial plays, make sure to check out our instant recap. Here are the significant developments from team and individual perspectives.
Quickness and mobility, particularly among frontcourt players, played a huge role in Portland’s success tonight. The game followed a consistent theme. When feet stopped, so did the momentum. When players moved, the scoreboard did too.
The starting guards kicked things off by driving down the lane, then dishing to open shooters. Once the floor was spread, all bets were off for Portland’s fleet-footed corps of bigs. Whenever Nurkic, Caleb Swanigan, or Zach Collins got into open space, an easy conversion was coming at the rim. When the defense closed, the big men found open shooters. As long as this pattern held, the Raptors couldn’t keep up.
During relatively-rare one-on-one possessions, the Blazers stalled. Nurkic had trouble scoring against Jonas Valanciunas in straight post possessions. Portland guards usually missed pull-ups off of extended dribbles. This was an offense of a thousand flying daggers, punctuated by the occasional sledgehammer dunk. The Blazers are not built to get on horses, armor up, and tournament joust.
Portland’s strongest attack came from beyond the arc; they shot 40% from three-point range. Training Camp invitee Anthony Morrow splashed 4 of 5 triples while McCollum contributed 4 of 6. Add in Pat Connaughton and the Blazers tallied 10 makes out of 15 attempts from the shooting guard position alone...significant when opponents gear up to stop the point guard and center. Ironically, three-pointers are Toronto’s bread and butter. Portland hit more (14 to 13) and shot a better percentage (40% to 30%).
The evening’s most impressive moments came when alacrity spread to the defensive end of the floor...a wasteland for the Blazers in prior seasons. Swanigan, Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Moe Harkless all closed on opponents in hard-but-mature fashion. Swanigan and Harkless led a particularly stout third-quarter stretch by refusing to give up on plays. Few Blazers distinguished themselves straight up, but many and various were the close-outs rendered by active and willing legs. Portland’s new motto seems to be, “When in doubt, move.” That’s light years better than last year’s de facto theme: “Just pull the ball out of the net and score more.”
Rebounding helped the Blazers hold the fort even when the Raptors made runs. Toronto garnered but 4 offensive rebounds to 11 for Portland. This has been a legitimate, intimidating strength so far in the pre-season.
After two games, a summation of Portland’s emphases would run like this: move quickly, active hands, rebound and screen hard, find the open man. They did all of that tonight and more. Drawing conclusions from exhibition games is a fool’s errand, but the Blazers have done the right things as a team so far.
Jusuf Nurkic took 14 shots in 18 minutes of play, hitting 5. Some of those misses came when he bodied up and tried to score in the post...not his finest hour. As with all the Portland bigs, when he moved he was unstoppable. When he stopped, he looked like 3⁄4 of a player. But make no mistake, just the threat of a guard passing to Nurkic on a pick and roll charge down the lane drew enough defensive respect to give that guard a one-on-one layup attempt or a perimeter shooter an open look. Nurkic bent the defense tonight even when he didn’t touch the ball. His teammates weren’t as wide open when he left the floor.
Damian Lillard looked in mid-season form in Portland’s first game against the Phoenix Suns. Tonight his approach was more casual, his shot selection cavalier. He did tally 8 assists in 26 minutes...his primary focus. Meanwhile CJ McCollum shot and handled the ball like he was prepping for an All-Star game instead of practice. His release was so quick and deadly that the Raptors (minus DeMar DeRozan) didn’t know what to do with him.
Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu started this game. Each had good moments. Harkless moved well and had a spectacular blocked shot in the third period. Aminu helped clean the glass.
Once again accolades go to rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins. Each got long runs in the second half. Both set big screens. Swanigan is already a powerhouse on the boards. He and Nurkic spell big trouble for opponents on the offensive glass. Collins got into foul trouble but showed the ability to take contact and remain on his feet. Both are eager blue-collar guys...a quality missing from Portland’s rotation for a while.
Ed Davis had 5 rebounds in 15 minutes. His return is getting overshadowed by the rookies.
Evan Turner had another nice post-up move against a smaller Kyle Lowry.
While the Raptors were busy watching everybody else, Anthony Morrow lit fire to the twine in the second period. The Blazers are good at generating open perimeter looks. They haven’t been as good at actually hitting them. If Morrow makes the team, he could provide a partial solution...
Not all the Blazers excelled, though. Meyers Leonard had another tough game, fouling 4 times in 15 minutes, not stopping opponents otherwise, and hitting 1 of 6 shots. Pat Connaughton stroked 2 of 4 three-pointers, scoring 10 points in 20 minutes, but he was ineffective on perimeter closeouts and it’s hard to see him getting minutes once the regular season starts.
The Blazers face the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday at Staples Center. Game Time will be 12:30, Pacific.