Not much has come easily for the Portland Trail Blazers (11-8) during a 2017-18 season marred by inconsistency.
True to form, the Blazers pulled out a 127-125 win over the Brooklyn Nets (6-12) this afternoon at the Barclays Center, despite missing clutch free throws down the stretch and giving up 72 second half points.
Jusuf Nurkic personified the team’s ups and downs in the closing seconds, grabbing a crucial steal from Caris LeVert under the Portland basket and then converting an and-1 lay-up with 27.6 seconds to go to give the Blazers a 126-123 lead.
Nurkic’s fortunes quickly turned, however, as he missed two free throws with two seconds remaining that would have given the Blazers a four point lead and ended the game. The Blazers averted disaster when the Nets, who had no timeouts remaining, failed to get a good shot. But Nurkic was still dissatisfied by his 5-for-10 night at the line.
“I’m a way better free throw shooter than I’m showing. My free throws must be better,” Nurkic said. “That’s important for me and the team, especially late in the game.”
Despite his disappointment, Nurkic had a stellar game, finishing with 29 points, 15 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks. He was active all night on both ends of the court and made several key defensive plays crucial to the Blazers’ victory.
The performance offered a tantalizing reminder of Nurkic’s potential; it stood in stark contrast to the 101-97 loss against the Nets on Nov. 10 when Nurkic barely played in the fourth quarter. For his part, Nurkic is aware that the Blazers need him to consistently bring dominant play to every game this season.
“I need to be like that every night. The consistency we’re talking about the whole year — that’s what matters for us,” Nurkic said. “This team needs me and I need to be there 100% every night so I’m focused on that.”
Lillard’s Shooting Back on Track?
Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 34 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds, while going 4-for-6 on 3-pointers. Prior to today, Lillard had struggled to score efficiently with any consistency, converting on only 40 percent of his field goals and 33 percent of his 3-pointers this season.
“It was a rough start and I’ve had to figure out ways to impact the game and find a way to score when my team needs me to score,” said Lillard. “I’m shooting pretty poorly so far, but still finding a way to get 25 points per game.”
Lillard’s mentality paid off late in the game against the Nets. Despite his gaudy scoring totals, Lillard missed all four of his field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, but managed to score four points at the line and also draw consistent pressure from the Nets’ defenders. Lillard’s gravity helped Nurkic and CJ McCollum combine for 19 points in the final period.
“When [Nurkic] is diving with confidence and being assertive with the plays he’s making then the defense has to worry about that,” said Lillard. “And I’m coming off and making it harder for them. I can come off and look like I’m going to attack but then give it to him late.”
The offense finally shows up. But where’s the defense?
The Blazers set a season high for points scored AND points allowed today. And, yes, that includes the season opener against the Suns.
Portland’s defense was nearly non-existent at times, as they ceded 72 second half points. All 10 Nets that saw action scored 7 or more points and Brooklyn finished with 50 percent shooting from the field (50-for-100). It was a disappointing performance for the Blazers, who entered the game with the No. 2 defense in the entire NBA.
The Blazers did manage to generate key defensive stops down the stretch. After falling behind 119-115 with 3:42 to go, Portland only allowed two points over the next 2:04, before Spencer Dinwiddie tied the game at 123 with 38 seconds remaining.
“We made some good defensive stops in the last minute and a half and we were able to convert in the other direction,” said Stotts. “Nurk had a deflection, got a block. In the last minute and a half we seemed to come up with the ball.”
Lillard echoed Stotts’ sentiments.
“We didn’t have it for most of the game, but down five or six points points we needed some stops and we made it happen,” said Lillard. “We got hands on balls, we got rebounds, we were communicating. We did the things we needed to do for that stretch.”
Nevertheless, the Blazers will need to find a way to consistently play both defense and offense if they hope to finish high in the Western Conference standings.
“We played a really good offensive game, we scored a lot of points. We had some good balance the way the ball moved. That’s how we want to play offensively,” said Lillard. “We just have to figure out how to have those kind of offensive games and not lose the defense.”
Consistency in the starting lineup?
Stotts has struggled to find a starting lineup since Al-Farouq Aminu went down with an ankle sprain on Nov. 2. Pat Connaughton’s addition to the starting unit marked the third lineup Head Coach Terry Stotts has tried in Aminu’s absence. Stotts made the change hoping that Connaughton’s 42 percent 3-point shooting would help spread the court for the team’s offense.
“I went with Connaughton mainly to get shooting on the court. I felt like we needed some spacing,” said Stotts.
The turnover in the starting five has become indicative of a lack of consistency from the team’s role players — at times it seems no player wants to step up and claim the vacant spot. Connaughton didn’t exactly buck that trend, scoring only 4 points in 15 minutes, and occasionally missing assignments on defense. But, after the game, Stotts announced that Connaughton will get at least one more shot.
“The win was the first thing. If anyone wants to know, he’s going to start the next game. I’m not going to go away from that,” said Stotts.
With luck, Connaughton will prove himself worthy of the starting job and give the Blazers the consistency they’re seeking.
What’d the Nets have to say?
Dinwiddie finished with 23 points but missed an open 3-pointer that would have put the Nets ahead by one with four seconds to go.
“I felt like it was a good look. Down two we wanted to shoot a three if I was open and it bounced on the rim a couple times and didn’t go in,” said Dinwiddie.
The Nets have lost several close games this season, and were coming off a 119-109 loss to the Cavaliers. In that game, they were tied with the Cavs heading into the fourth, but surrendered 23 points to Lebron James in the final frame.
“I think that’s the hardest thing to do in the NBA, you know, is to close games,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson after today’s loss. “We saw it the other night in Cleveland, play really well for three quarters. There are great players on these other teams that are determined not to let you win.”
Dinwiddie voiced the Nets’ frustration with the recent outcomes.
“None of the guys in the locker room play for moral victories, we’re playing to get wins every game. So it was tough to put in that effort and come up short,” said Dinwiddie.
Former Blazer Allen Crabbe finished with 12 points on 5-for-14 shooting.
- McCollum rebounded from a 1-for-14 performance on Wednesday against the 76ers with 26 points on 10-for-19 shooting. McCollum’s shooting has been a consistent bright spot for the Blazers all season.
- In stark contrast to the Nets’ balanced scoring, Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic combined for 89 of Portland’s 127 shots and 32 of their 48 field goals.
- Less than 48 hours after voicing frustration with his role in the offense, Maurice Harkless finished with 6 points on 3 rebounds in 19 minutes. He had a nice dunk on a baseline cut and assist from Nurkic, and showed some hustle on the boards a few times, but otherwise did little to show that he deserves the larger role he reportedly desires.
- Stotts said before the game that Aminu is moving better but no timetable has been set for his return.
- Blazers fans represented well in Brooklyn. There were many Blazers’ jerseys in the Barclays Center and Lillard’s 3-pointer to end the third quarter got some loud cheers.
- The arena was mostly full despite the holiday and early start. It wasn’t particularly loud, but the Nets seem to have solid support.
- The Nets did not have a halftime show, but they did host an on-court proposal during a timeout. Moderate cheers ensued.
- Both Atkinson and Stotts downplayed the early start time in pregame comments, but after the game a reporter asked, “Is it a little tougher playing after the holiday and playing an afternoon game?” Stotts’ response to audible chuckles: “Yes and yes.”
- Evan Turner, always the fashion enthusiast, loudly noted that nearly every Blazer was wearing a denim jacket postgame.
Favorite moment of the game:
Nets trying to sneak in a quick huddle with Atkinson before the final play. Napier runs over and stands in the middle of it to disrupt. Heady play.— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) November 24, 2017
The Blazers have little time to savor today’s victory — they’re heading to Washington, DC for tomorrow’s game against the Wizards.
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA