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Lillard, Nurkic, McCollum Overcome Nets Balanced Attack

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Portland’s Big 3 have the game of their lives but Brooklyn almost toppled them anyway.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers visited Brooklyn today to face the Nets, looking to avenge a surprising home loss exactly two weeks ago to the day. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Portland proved that revenge is a dish best served hot...as in blistering hot, which both teams were due to a general lack of defense. The Nets put 8 players in double-figures, led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Portland countered with the Big Three of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic. When the smoke cleared, 252 points were scored. The Blazers ended up with 127 of them, good for the two-point victory.

Game Flow

The Blazers spent the first quarter stopping the Nets like Amazon stops Black Friday shoppers. “Customers who made this layup also converted three pointers and offensive rebounds. Click here to get all three!” Brooklyn spent the first 5 minutes of the game scoring at will in the paint, building up a 15-8 lead. After a mid-quarter timeout, the Blazers packed the middle. The Nets responded by hitting jumpers. Their passing lanes were so wide open that 16 giant balloons and Jimmy Fallon’s ego could have paraded through them with no problem. With Portland playing slow and low, Brooklyn exited the first with a 32-23 lead.

A couple of veterans saved the Blazers in the second period. Ed Davis finally provided a stiff backstop in the paint; Evan Turner scored like hotcakes on the other end. That stemmed the tide enough to make the shots of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum count for something instead of being life-preservers in the storm. The Nets still showed no fear of Portland’s defense, lofting up jumpers at will and connecting on most, but at least they were jumpers and not layups. Another mid-quarter timeout provided a sea change as Jusuf Nurkic came in energized, patrolling the rim on defense and clearing out the lane on the other end. That was the spark Portland needed to rattle off a 10-0 run, bringing the Blazers back within 1 with 3:00 remaining. The teams finished the period evenly and the Nets took a 54-51 lead into intermission.

The Blazers were back to their paint-permissive ways to start the third, adding in foul shots to make sure the Nets stayed afloat. But Portland also battered Brooklyn in the lane on the other end, courtesy of a huge barrage by Nurkic. Nurk would end up with a dozen points in the quarter, as dominant as he’s been all season. But Portland’s shoddy defense and mediocre rebounding conspired against them taking a clear lead. Even with Lillard exploding late—including a super-deep three-point strike with a second remaining on the clock—the teams remained deadlocked at 92 as the buzzer sounded. The Blazers scored an incredible 41 points in the third, but they allowed Brooklyn 39.

The fourth period was another hot mess of scoring and bad defense. McCollum and Nurkic continued to pour in the points and the Blazers started a parade to the foul line, courtesy of gracious referees. Meanwhile Nets guard Joe Harris made mincemeat of the Blazers from the three-point arc while Spencer Dinwiddie carved them into slices in the lane. Neither team got separation and the score remained tied at 123 with 30 seconds remaining. That’s when DeMarre Carroll blocked a Nurkic layup attempt right into the hands of shooting guard Caris LeVert, but Nurkic ripped away the ball and put it through the hoop for an and-one conversion. The three-point edge proved vital as the Nets scored easily on the next play, then fouled Portland for possession twice in the closing seconds. McCollum converted 1 of 2 free throws in the first instance, Nurkic 0 of 2 in the second. But the Nets would not put the ball through twine again and Portland escaped with the 127-125 victory.

Analysis

If you liked offense, this was your game. Nurkic, Lillard, and McCollum had great outings, scoring 89 of Portland’s 127 points. Every time they got a seam of daylight, they made shooting look easy. Portland shot 50% from the field, 40% from the arc on a comparatively low 15 three-point attempts. The variety of Portland’s offense was on full display.

The defense, on the other hand, was horrible. Frontcourt and backcourt, the Blazers got broiled. Going under screens is one thing, going so far under that your ears start to pop from the pressure of the earth’s core weighing down on you quite another. But at least the earth rotates. That’s more than you could say for Portland’s bigs on half of their possessions. Ed Davis deserves credit. He brought the first signs of credible defense to the court. Nurkic also deserves credit for his second-half stand. Portland’s defense is much stouter when the centers engage.

Brooklyn ended up shooting 50% and 40% just like the Blazers did. They got one more offensive rebound than Portland even though they’re not as good of a rebounding team. They put up 100 shots on the Blazers, which Portland does not want to happen. Peel back the happy-happy scoring binge and the biggest disparity in the game was 35 free throw attempts for the Blazers, 21 for the Nets. And yes, the refs were inclining calls Portland’s way in the second half. Brooklyn probably should have gotten at least four more attempts. That’s neither here nor there as far as the victory...a win’s a win. But needing officiating to vanquish the Nets after hitting 50% of your shots and 40% of your triples is a sign that you may need to examine your life choices.

During the game I tweeted this:

The Blazers did not end up taking control at any point. That they won anyway is crucial for the record. Also for the record: they need to start playing in a style that’s repeatable, dependable, and profitable. This wasn’t it. Until they do so, games against teams like the Nets will remain nail-biters and games against teams that actually know how to play will be difficult.

Individual Notes

Despite struggling early, Jusuf Nurkic came on strong and took over the game. His 19 field goal attempts were more than I can remember him taking. Hitting 12 of them was magnificent. As his offensive rhythm developed we saw some of the “old Nurk” defense return down low. 29 points, 15 rebounds (much needed), and 4 blocks.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both hit 10-19 from the field, Lillard with 4-6 three-point shooting and 10-11 from the line. They combined for 60 points and 14 assists. That’s a world-class day at the office.

Evan Turner kept this game from getting out of hand when the Blazers were struggling. His mid-range and inside games were strong. 6-15 from the field, 13 points. Ed Davis provided steady veteran presence as well with 9 rebounds and good defense in 17 minutes of play.

Pat Connaughton started in place of Maurice Harkless. Noah Vonleh and Jake Layman also participated in the forward carousel that occasionally provided dividends but ultimately ended up exposing the general lack of talent among Portland’s forward corps. Having the four combine for 19 points in 68 minutes isn’t surprising, but you’d expect the defense to be better.

Shabazz Napier went 1-6 from the field.

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The Blazers visit the Washington Wizards tomorrow at 4 PM, Pacific.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com