After a month, and in many ways a season, in which the Portland Trail Blazers had trouble putting away opponents of any stripe, they finally made a game easy against the hapless New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden tonight, defending smartly and scoring with ease on their way to a 103-91 victory. Both ends of the roster contributed to the win as Damian Lillard combined with unheralded starters Pat Connaughton and Noah Vonleh to pull down the Knickerbockers in front of a decidedly unappreciative home crowd who showed up to see forward Joakim Noah make his big return and instead were treated to an old-style, WWE squash match.
The first quarter began with unlikely hero Pat Connaughton taking the fore. The newly-minted starter scored 7 of Portland’s first 13 points via a layup, dunk, and three-pointer. As the quarter progressed, Damian Lillard and Evan Turner scored with impunity in the lane. The Knicks countered with three-pointers, three from Kristaps Porzingis alone. It wasn’t enough to keep the Blazers from taking a 30-23 lead.
The second quarter featured Portland forcing turnovers and throttling down New York’s already anemic offense. Blazers forward Noah Vonleh all but shut down Porzingis, holding him to 1-5 shooting in the period. A small outburst from CJ McCollum was enough to lift Portland to a 53-37 advantage at the half.
Normally this would be the point at which the Blazers eased up and got caught. Instead they rode the horses that brought them to town, with Vonleh continuing his defensive heroics, Lillard and Connaughton carrying the offensive load in an incredible 37-27 period. The Blazers shot 66% in the third, including 4-4 from beyond the arc. Portland led by 26, 90-64, after three.
The fourth quarter featured the near-mandatory run from the trailing team as New York closed the lead to 12 halfway through the period. Jusuf Nurkic got into it with Michael Beasley. The Blazers failed to hit a field goal until 3:07 remaining in the quarter. It hardly mattered. The Knicks closed to within 8 late
Analysis and Individual Notes
Everybody looking to find signs of life from Portland’s supporting cast should be happy tonight. Despite fouling out of the game, Vonleh was the quiet hero of the game, keeping in front of Porzingis, limiting his looks to face-up jumpers which, while effective, were hardly devastating. Without Porzingis going big, New York couldn’t manufacture meaningful scoring.
Pat Connaughton had the best (significant) offensive game of his career tonight. He didn’t just look in rhythm, he WAS the rhythm early. He shot 7-9, 3-4 from distance, for 17 points in 26 minutes. Even better, the defense stayed intact with him playing a major role.
Following up on his fourth-quarter tour de force against the Washington Wizards, Damian Lillard went crazy in the lane. He finished 10-20 from the field, 11-11 from the free throw line, and scored 32 points while making only one three-pointer.
Oddly enough, nobody else had that great of a game. Ed Davis rebounded hard, as usual. CJ McCollum was off, shooting 4-15 for the night and drawing only 2 foul shots. The bench was nondescript offensively. The Blazers shot only 45% from the field, 33% from the arc. But their defense targeted smartly, held down the Knicks to similar percentages, and managed New York’s fourth-quarter rally well...allowing two-pointers but not crippling threes. The Knicks average 24 assists per game, ranking 5th in the NBA in that category. Tonight they managed only 13. New York dominated the offensive glass, but that’s the only outstanding feature of their evening. This game was all about intelligence and yeoman-like defensive work. Those two qualities have been missing from Portland’s repertoire all season long. No matter the opponent, the sight was welcome.
The victory tonight gave the Blazers a 4-1 record on their Eastern road swing, padding for a tough homestand just ahead.
Posting and Toasting will not be boasting.
The Blazers welcome Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.
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