As the fourth quarter of tonight’s Portland Trail Blazers - Philadelphia 76ers game commenced, the Blazers found themselves 75% of the way to a discouraging defeat. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ripping up Portland inside and out while Dario Saric and JJ Redick stroked shots alongside. Damian Lillard sat on the sidelines, injured. Thanks to multiple fouls, Jusuf Nurkic spent much of the game there too. CJ McCollum scored big, but it didn’t seem enough to overcome bad defense and lackadaisical pacing. But then, like Jonah, Shabazz Napier repented and tickled the belly of the malaise-filled whale in which his team lodged. When Nurkic and McCollum followed, the indigestion became too much. The Great Fish of Suckiness vomited them up on the shore of victory, ending a six-week long home losing streak and sending the team—and the Moda Center crowd—home happy.
The game began with the Sixers committing to quick offense and deep shots. They caught the Blazers unprepared in both categories. The pace left Portland a step behind on coverage, while distance shooting left their bigger players bewildered. Joel Embiid hit the first of a litany of triples barely a minute into the game, forcing Jusuf Nurkic—and later Ed Davis—to range completely beyond their comfort zone. Philly pushed to a 19-12 lead before CJ McCollum and Pat Connaughton stroked threes of their own. When the smoke cleared, the long-range marksmanship had produced a 30-27 score in Philadelphia’s favor.
In a complete turn of fortune, play shifted to the interior in the second period. Davis and Moe Harkless got their turns scoring at the rim, but Portland’s second unit had trouble holding onto the ball, allowing the Sixers plenty of opportunities to make good. They did so with an interior barrage of their own behind Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Blazers fared well in the slug-fest. They led by a point, 52-51, at the half.
Whatever they served in Portland’s halftime locker room, the Blazers should stay well away from it in the future. The home team entered the third period in what could best be described as a turkey coma. Simmons and company dismantled them completely. The Sixers went on a 16-1 run in the first 5 minutes of play as Portland defended like drunken penguins, leaving the rim wide open. A late 10-1 run save the Blazers from total disaster, but Philly still took the quarter 34-20 behind their interior onslaught. Portland trailed 85-72 after three.
When Nurkic picked up his 5th foul just 26 seconds into the fourth, it looked like the game might be over. His play to that point had been soggy at best. Terry Stotts, realistically out of options at that point, chose to leave him in. To be fair, the referees had at least four separate chances to whistle the 6th foul on Nurkic, causing a disqualification. They didn’t. This was one of the keys to what would become an enormous comeback. The other was Shabazz Napier, who became a towering inferno of scoring and passing as the quarter wound onward. He dazzled with drives, dicing Philly’s lead into small chunks with every layup, then turning them into hash with nifty passes.
Napier scored 13 points in the first 5:17 of the fourth, bringing his team back to within 91-88. Then Nurkic began to assert himself on the defensive end, clogging the lane and grabbing rebounds. At that point Philadelphia got sweaty. They began to settle for contested jumpers when the lane closed down. They started committing turnovers. Whistles blew against them constantly. The Blazers surged ahead 97-90.
During the final 4:30 of the game Portland would endure a pair of three pointers from Dario Saric, another from JJ Redic, and THREE from Joel Embiid in a wild gambit to recover. The Blazers never panicked, remaining calm while the Sixers made most of the “young team” mistakes. CJ McCollum took over late to bring the win home. Portland triumphed by 4 in a game they once trailed by 18, winning 114-110.
Napier and Nurkic deserve the credit for this victory. Were it not for their energy and heroics during the fourth period, the Blazers would have slouched to yet another home loss. “Slouching” was a wholly-appropriate description for their showing for most of the first three periods. They played without urgency, loping down the floor instead of running, treating defense like it was steamed broccoli at a prime rib buffet, disdaining it and staying far away. Simmons demoralized and Embiid demolished them. They turned over the ball left and right, got out-rebounded, and allowed the Sixers to shoot over 50% from the field.
Philadelphia likely let up a little as the fourth quarter commenced and Napier made them pay. Nurkic was spoiling for a chance to exert himself after another fairly awful game. When Shabazz opened up the door, Nurk’s play mattered again. He stepped forward big time. McCollum also deserves credit for scoring throughout and closing the game strong.
Even so, a look at the opposing stats isn’t pretty. Saric shot 10-12 from the field for 25 points, Redick 4-9 from distance for 19, Embiid 6-12 from beyond the arc for 29, while Simmons provided a relatively pedestrian 17 on 7-17 shooting. Even reserve guard T.J. McConnell tore up the Blazers for 10 points, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Basically anybody not being guarded by Al-Farouq Aminu went off. The Blazers needed every bit of the miracle comeback to stay afloat.
Portland was saved not only by the Napier-Nurkic-McCollum triangle, but by shooting 47 free throw attempts against only 14 for the Sixers. The inside scoring disparity between the teams was not that flagrant. Every fourth quarter whistle, especially those involving the edge-of-disqualification Nurkic, went Portland’s way. Nurkic and McCollum ended up shooting as many free throw attempts individually as the entire Sixers team.
Fans are quick to point out perceived officiating slights against the Blazers. It’s probably fair to say that going +33 in free throw attempts and +26 in actual points at the line helped Portland overcome their (fairly serious) issues in this game. Philly hit 7 more field goals and doubled up Portland’s three-point makes 16-8. It didn’t matter.
Shabazz Napier overcame a mostly-terrible start with that amazing fourth-quarter burst. He ended up shooting 7-14 from the field for a (non-McCollum) team-high 23 points, going 7-9 from the foul line, with 3 assists and 3 steals. He couldn’t handle the Sixers early; they couldn’t handle him late.
Similarly, Jusuf Nurkic did his best “Useless Nurkic” impression during the early stages, collecting 4 fouls, proving ineffective at defending inside or out, and missing everything he put up in the lane. Ed Davis was clearly the superior center until that fateful fourth when it all came together. Nurkic looked as if he were primed to go when he checked in for his late stint and he made good. He scored 21 points on just 5-13 shooting thanks to 11 of 16 foul shots. His 12 rebounds proved huge in closing out the game, as did his interior defense late.
CJ McCollum shot a respectable 9-20, 2-5 from distance, but shone at the charity stripe with 14 of 14 free throws made for 34 huge points. He also collected 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Like Napier and Nurkic, he had trouble defending...until he didn’t.
Evan Turner never got off the ground defensively or otherwise. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 0 points, missing all 3 of his three-point attempts. (His form appears to be deteriorating, as if he’s forgetting what brought him to three-point ascendancy.) But Aminu is the one Trail Blazer who can claim decent defense throughout the game. He also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Ed Davis and Moe Harkless were hidden heroes early. Portland was getting housed, but Moe and Ed kept them from getting duplexed. Davis took advantage of the second-quarter interior scoring spree to notch 10 points on 5-5 shooting. Harkless hit a big three when Philly made a run in the fourth and scored 8 total.
Pat Connaughton shot as confidently as we’ve seen in a while, going 3-5 for 9 points in 25 minutes.
You know how Zach Collins’ season is going when the Sixers leave him wide open for a 14-foot jump shot, the Moda Center crowd anticipates the attempt like its a game-winning three-pointer, and he still misses. He did have 4 rebounds and 2 assists in 17 minutes.
Liberty Ballers probably thought their team was on the way to an easy victory. Oops.
The Blazers now own a real, live winning streak! They’ll put it on the line against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday at 4:30 PM, Pacific.