In the early part of the 2017-18 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers became known for surprisingly good defense. The former laughingstocks put up a credible fight most nights, quietly earning a good efficiency rating along with a fair number of wins. In the weeks leading up to tonight’s contest versus the Orlando Magic, the Blazers had fallen off the wagon somewhat. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum put up great scoring numbers, but the Blazers had trouble containing opponents and corralling W’s. Tonight they reverted back to form, smothering the Magic with an impressive array of defensive stands, holding Orlando to four sub-standard quarters, and coming away with a welcome 95-88 victory. Portland’s stars did not shine tonight, but the team prevailed anyway...a more than fair exchange.
The Magic started the game hitting inside shots, working past a vaguely permissive Portland defense on the way to an early 9-3 lead. But their hall pass was revoked summarily as the Blazers started to stiffen in the paint. Al-Farouq Aminu led the charge, hitting from distance and helping to anchor the suddenly-strong defense. Zach Collins helped as the first man off of Portland’s bench. Portland’s offense wasn’t spectacular, but they committed only one turnover in the period on their way to a 24-20 lead after one.
The second quarter told the story of the evening, as Aminu, Shabazz Napier, Evan Turner, and Pat Connaughton took turns working around Orlando defenders for open shots. Orlando had no comparable luck. Their open looks went astray all evening. Portland continued to limit the Magic’s opportunities as they edged their way to a 3-point advantage in the period and a 50-43 halftime lead.
Napier and Aminu continued to look fluid, confident, and aggressive in the third, helped along by CJ McCollum, whom the Magic had trouble containing. Portland’s defense continued unabated and they led 75-66 after three. They built the lead to 17 by the 9:00 mark of the fourth, largely off of supporting cast contributions again. Orlando rattled off a 12-0 run midway through the final period, the only time all night the Blazers slipped defensively. Inside shots killed Portland during that stretch, but the Magic couldn’t connect on enough three-pointers to complete the comeback. They ended up 2-10 from distance in the period, hounded by Portland defenders or pushed back out of their comfortable range to avoid same. When Jusuf Nurkic ended Orlando’s run with a layup, just 2:44 remained on the clock and Portland still led by 7. When McCollum converted an and-one on the next possession, any hopes for a miracle went out the window. Portland prevailed by 7 in a game that didn’t end up that competitive.
Whatever emphasis on defense the Blazers re-discovered in their Wednesday night victory in Miami, it held here. To a man, Portland bore down and concentrated on staying in front of their Magic counterparts. Orlando helped matters a little, missing more bunnies than Elmer Fudd. But that often happens when the opponent gets in your head, and Portland was in Orlando’s tonight.
Orlando ended up shooting only 38% from the field, 34.5% from the arc, and attempting a reasonable 19 free throws. Despite Nikola Vucevic going off for his usual two-dozen points against Portland (26, to be precise), this was clearly one of the best, most complete, and most widespread defensive efforts of the season...enough that 95 points of offense rendered a relatively easy win. If the Magic hadn’t scored 20 on the break, they might not have broken 25% shooting.
This was also one of the blessed nights when Portland’s supporting cast clicked almost from top to bottom. The Big 3 didn’t make a huge splash. Nurkic went 4-11 and scored but 9 in his return from injury. McCollum scored 20, but took 20 shots to get there. Lillard shot 3-6 from distance but a relatively pedestrian 7-16 overall on his way to 21 points. Aminu, Turner, Napier, and Connaughton all made up the difference by scoring efficiently. Turner had 8 rebounds, Collins 6 in 19 minutes. Eliminate Ed Davis with a nearly-unconscionable 5 turnovers in 18 minutes and the bit players accounted for only 6 turnovers in 125 minutes of combined play.
Who knows when the Blazers will finally be able to put offense and defense together on the same evening, but until that moment, concentrating on the defense is definitely the way to go.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were the only Blazers to score more than 15 tonight, two of only three Portland players in double figures. Except on the defensive end, they almost seemed like an afterthought. Each tallied a modest 4 assists, 2 rebounds, and 4 free throw attempts. McCollum didn’t hit a three-pointer. Lillard committed 4 turnovers. The team was so solid around them that their semi-forgettable performances still netted a win. That’s different...and welcome.
Jusuf Nurkic looked rusty in his return, trying like blazes to score inside and hitting fewer than half of his shots there. His mobility wasn’t spectacular, but staying on the blocks did earn him 11 rebounds in 25 minutes. He also helped shut down Orlando’s starlight parade in the paint with a pair of blocks, plus he had 3 assists. Vucevic made free with him on the other end, looking far more spry.
Now we get to the good part...
Al-Farouq Aminu played the complete game, hitting 6-9 from the field, 3-5 from distance, and anchoring the defense. He wasn’t individually brilliant as much as the solid point around which teammates could rotate. He’s on the best extended run of his career this season and it’s nice to see.
Evan Turner did a little bit of everything in the other forward starting slot, hitting 3-6 from the field, attempting zero three-pointers (yay!), grabbing 8 rebounds, and peppering in 3 assists to match Nurkic. (Keep in mind the team leaders only had 4 each.) Orlando’s mid-sized wings made Turner’s defense valuable.
Shabazz Napier brought out the nasty stuff tonight, using quickness to full advantage, scoring 8 on 4-7 shooting with 3 steals. He was all the way live. This game will make Terry Stotts reconsider any thoughts of re-benching him. (He also paid attention on the defensive end, which will help in that regard.)
Pat Connaughton was more opportunistic than pronounced, but he hit 2 of 4 three-point attempts and benefited from playing across from guards who were not going to exploit him. He gave the Blazers what they needed in his minutes.
Zach Collins was an interesting case. Having the defense solidify around him made him look far more effective than normal. All of a sudden his area of responsibility became bounded and manageable, the avenues through which he could help, clear. His height and instincts started to pay off. He garnered 6 rebounds in 19 minutes, plus a pair of blocked shots. He fired 2-8 from the field, the only supporting cast player with a rough shooting night, but that’s the rookie blues for you. This was a significant game for Collins.
Ed Davis proved the only contrarian in the bunch, picking up 5 fouls in 18 minutes with 4 rebounds.
Noah Vonleh played but 9 minutes.
Orlando Pinstriped Post is anxiously waiting for their team to get healthy again.
The suddenly-in-possession-of-a-winning-streak Blazers face the Charlotte Hornets tomorrow at 4:00 PM, Pacific. 3-0, anybody?
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