The Portland Trail Blazers were set up perfectly for a win against the visiting Brooklyn Nets tonight. Jusuf Nurkic was an indomitable force in the middle. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were primed to counter D’Angelo Russell, scoring over him two to one. Portland’s bench and supporting players matched up favorably against the injured Brooklyn roster. All of those things came true, but a funny thing happened on the way to victory. Portland’s defense and confidence crumbled simultaneously in a fateful third quarter, while their best offensive weapon remained on the pines throughout the fourth. When the smoke cleared the Nets, not the Blazers, were celebrating a Moda Center victory. Brooklyn earned their second road win of the season, 101-97, while the Blazers headed back to the drawing board with their second straight loss...this one painful.
From the moment the ball was tipped, the Nets, NBA leaders in pace, lived up to their scouting report. The Blazers feasted off of quick and easy buckets, finding Jusuf Nurkic often. The Nets found success from the three-point arc, hitting 4 triples in the first 6 minutes. The early scoring barrage slowed down as the two teams combined to miss 10 straight shots. The Blazers, thanks to a buzzer beating three by Pat Connaughton, pulled out to a 7-point lead after the first, 28-21.
The easy buckets for the Blazers became far and few between in the second quarter, and the Nets climbed right back into the game. Portland did a good job not turning the ball over, but that had more to do with taking quick shots than it did any type of discipline. The Nets continued driving and dishing, hitting more than enough threes to hang around. They put up 24 three-pointers in the first half alone, the Blazers just 8. Portland’s main weapons—Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and offensive rebounding—played a minimal role. Despite that, Portland was still able to take a 52-46 point lead into halftime.
Portland started the third quarter in good offensive rhythm, hitting shots on each of their first three possessions. Then someone opened a window. Portland didn't score another field goal until the 1:40 mark. Brooklyn continued to fire away from deep. Though their offense was far from spectacular, they still managed an incredible 22-2 run. Portland’s offensive struggles infected their defense, and they got themselves in a terrible rhythm. Missed shots led to even more easy baskets for the Nets. The end of the quarter could not have came soon enough. Brooklyn led 77-70.
As the fourth quarter commenced, Portland’s offense finally found a band-aid in the form of Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier and McCollum. That trio combined for the first 16 points of the 4th quarter as the Blazers regained the lead. Nurkic, who had led the team offensively in the first half, sat almost the entire quarter. Lillard finally started to get going, but even though the offense picked up, the defense never did. Despite renewed scoring, the Blazers found themselves in another tight game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D'Angelo Russell scored the final 17 points for the Nets, including a Russell basket and foul sequence that put Brooklyn up 4 with 8 seconds left. McCollum’s missed three with 2 seconds remaining put the period on the discouraging home loss.
For all of the emphasis and improvements on defense this year, it is clear that this Blazer team still gets its energy from the offensive end. When the offense hit the wall in the third quarter, the Blazer defense didn't step up to compensate. Quite the opposite, as frustration from missing shots carried over to missed defensive assignments. That’s how a comfortable lead turned into an uphill battle.
Portland never looked great in the first half but they were clearly the better team. The Blazers succeeded with an emphasis on Lillard and Nurkic pick-and-rolls. Brooklyn guard D'Angelo Russell couldn't get through the picks and Mozgov couldn't make a play to stop the ensuing 2 on 1. Lillard made great reads getting Nurk the ball on the move, and although the finished weren’t always clean, the looks were great. When Lillard started to pull up at the free throw line off of screens, it looked to be the answer. But the Nets’ smaller lineup gave Nurkic trouble defensively. He sat for the final 11 minutes of the game. There went the screens and the offense.
Both benches had a major impact throughout the game, combining to score 62 points between them. Eighteen players played more than 15 minutes. Only one player, Nurkic, topped 20 as both offenses diversified.
Portland led for most of the game but were never able to separate themselves from the feisty opponents. Even after enduring a 17-0 run, the Blazers still found themselves up 5 with 5 minutes left. But another 8-0 Net run at that point, filled with wasted Portland possessions and defensive miscues, proved to be too much. That’s not even counting the 22-2 slide in the third. The Blazers seem so close to being a good team, but that third quarter run told everything. Credit the Nets for playing well and taking Portland’s offense out of rhythm, but a run like that takes cooperation...in this case a large lapse in effort and focus.
Portland has to find a way to get more consistent when defenses focus on cutting off Lillard and McCollum. When the Nets defense picked up, the ball became stagnant. Then players without the ball became even more stagnant and once-simple shots became difficult.
Damian Lillard did not shoot the ball especially well, but he facilitated the game nonetheless. When the Blazers needed buckets late, Lillard came through. Whenever Brooklyn’s defense had him targeted, he made smart decisions, deferring to his teammates.
CJ McCollum had a quiet night. He got the offense going early in the fourth, scoring 13 of his 16 in the second half, but was face-guarded most of the game and couldn't get going. If McCollum isn't scoring, he doesn't excel enough in other aspects to make up the difference.
Jusuf Nurkic proved a tough matchup for Brooklyn all night long. He spaced the floor when Timofey Mozgov tried to defend low, then became a force inside whenever Mozgov sat. Nurkic took 13 shots in the first half, but it almost felt like he wasn’t being utilized enough. The Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll raised initial problems in the second half, then disappeared. When the Nets went small, head coach Terry Stotts decided to go small as well, effectively neutralizing Portland’s best offensive weapon of the night.
Evan Turner had 5 straight points in the fourth quarter, injecting mad-scientist life into what had been a corpse of an offense. He passed superbly. He missed a wide open three and turned the ball over off the dribble late in the game, but up until then, he played like the vet of the team.
Pat Connaughton hit two threes in the first half and it looked like he could be in for a big game, but that was about it. He got caught ball-watching a few times on defense and gave up easy baskets.
Shabazz Napier gave the Blazers scoring punch when the offense was hitting a lull. He may be the smallest guy on the roster, but he was one of the few players able to get to the rim in the first half. He and the second unit gave the Blazers a much needed push in the fourth. He and Nurkic were the only Blazer shooting 50% at the end of the night..
Maurice Harkless kept up his season-long trend of quietness tonight. Harkless is at his best when the ball is moving and he can slip behind defenses or run the floor for easy baskets. In a game like the where the ball isn’t moving, his efficiency plummets. Harkless shot 3-11, missed both of his threes, and although he did end up with 8 rebounds and was active defensively, his contribution was hardly noticeable.
Ex-Blazer Allen Crabbe found himself in familiar territory wearing unfamiliar apparel. His game was similar to those he posted over the past four seasons in Portland. He came out aggressive in the first quarter, scoring 8. He shot the ball confidently, looking like he wanted to prove something. But then he somehow ended up with only 12 on the evening.
The final week of Portland’s huge homestand commences Monday, when they face the Denver Nuggets at 7:00 pm, Pacific.