Jusuf Nurkic did not play tonight.
For most fans of the Portland Trail Blazers, Nurkic’s pending arrival after being acquired yesterday in exchange for Mason Plumlee is THE story of the month. The pre-game announcement that he would be in the Moda Center, but would not suit up, left many fans wishing the game could be delayed 24 hours.
Unfortunately, the rigors of the NBA schedule allows no such reprieve, and Head Coach Terry Stotts and his team soldiered on without their replacement starting center.
The result: a crushing 109-104 overtime defeat. In the extra period, the Hawks rallied from 7 down to score the game’s last 12 points and pull out the victory. The Blazers missed seven consecutive field goals to end the extra period and played poor defense down the stretch to facilitate the Hawks’ closing run.
Overall, the game played out like a battle of attrition that saw both teams struggle mightily from the field, combining to shoot only 37 percent (69-for-186). Throw in 57 combined fouls and 73 foul shots and it’s a wonder TNT didn’t preempt the overtime with Law and Order re-runs.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led the Blazers with 21 and 26 points, respectively, but got their baskets inefficiently, finishing a combined 15-for-45 from the field. The Hawks were also led by their starting backcourt; Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 25 points and Dennis Schroder added 22.
The Blazers opened the game with a free and easy offense. Meyers Leonard’s presence in the starting lineup opened up the spacing and facilitated excellent ball movement to create open shots. The Blazers shot only 11-for-28 for the quarter, but many of those were just missed open shots. The Hawks, similarly, couldn’t shoot the ball into the ocean, finishing only 6-for-19 from the field. The game was close but low scoring, with nine lead chances in the first 10 minutes.
The tides turned when Al-Farouq Aminu entered the game with 3:44 to go in the quarter and the Blazers put the clamps down on defense. A resurgent Ed Davis helped Aminu stifled the Hawks’ inside scorers, while Aminu also drilled his first three 3-pointers of the game. This sparked a 16-0 Blazers run, and Portland held a 34-21 lead with 10:27 to go in the second. From there, Schroder shredded the Blazers defense and scored 12 points in the quarter to cut the lead to 48-42 at the half.
After scoring only 42 points in the first half, the Hawks exploded for 33 in the third quarter. Hardaway picked up where Schroder had left off and scored 12 in the period. The Blazers, not to be outdone, answered with 26 points of their own. The Hawks claimed a 75-74 lead heading into the fourth.
In the fourth, with the Hawks swarming Lillard, McCollum would shine by scoring 13 of his 26 points. An already ugly game turned downright Medusan with both teams resorting to intentional fouls as the 2:00 mark approached. The result was 22 fouls and a combined 15-for-29 on free throws in the quarter. When the fouling stopped, the Blazers held a 95-91 lead with 1:45 to go, but a Hardaway triple set the table for Paul Millsap’s overtime forcing buzzer beater:
Overtime started well for the Blazers as they jumped out to a seven point lead, but then the Hawks came roaring back to score the next eight and take a 105-104 lead. The Blazers, who nearly stole the game with a 22-7 offensive rebound edge, had the ball with 40 seconds to go and a chance to take the lead. But they would miss five(!!) shots off four offensive rebounds over the next several seconds.
Despite that Portland STILL had a chance when Taurean Prince picked up a loose ball foul on Maurice Harkless with 12 seconds remaining. This time, however, Lillard tripped on his drive to the hoop and the Hawks recovered the loose ball and hit some free throws to win 109-104.
The NBA is weird. President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey completed a trade yesterday that improved the team the Blazers are chasing for the final playoff seed. The trade, quite probably, also made the Blazers worse in the short term. Essentially, Olshey punted on the season in exchange for a draft pick and some salary cap relief this summer.
Despite the tacit admission that the front office has already moved past the 2016-17 season, the players still have to go through the motions of the last two months of the season.
Accordingly, tonight’s game was almost unbearably ugly at times. The Blazers often did look like a team that was going through the motions, lacking focus on offense late in the game and any kind of intensity on defense. Despite some excellent early game flow offense, the second offense was muddled with errors, including three (seriously?) shot clock violations. The Blazers three true big men (Noah Vonleh, Leonard, and Davis) combined for 17 fouls trying to compensate for the turnstile defense on the perimeter. If not for a solid run in the second quarter and ice cold shooting from the Hawks, the outcome of this game never would have been in doubt.
Basically, tonight’s game looked like the typical 2016-17 Blazers with some poor shooting and extra fouls added. Now everyone’s attention will shift to Nurkic: Can he fix these problems? The honest answer is probably not. At least in the short term. But he might help.
Nurkic’s potential defensive impact has been lauded as exactly what the Blazers need, but the reality is that Portland plays their best defense when all five guys are flying around on the perimeter aggressively trapping and switching as needed. The brief chaos that Davis and Aminu, playing Center and Power Forward, caused in the first half tonight acts as a perfect example.
As a near 300-pounder, Nurkic will not fill the role of aggressively trapping big man. Rather, he’ll be closer to a Leonard or Robin Lopez type who needs to hang back and cut off opponents as they venture through the mid-range toward the basket. The problem is that that style of defense doesn’t work with Portland’s current personnel. For example, in tonight’s game when Leonard did challenge in the mid-range Dwight Howard roasted the Blazers when help defense failed to rotate to compensate for Leonard’s position. It’s possible that Nurkic will become a plus defender for the Blazers, but he’s either going to need to transform into the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, or his teammates are going to need to get better at denying penetration and at recognizing secondary help rotations.
The Blazers offensive weaknesses were also on display tonight. The Hawks effectively stifled Lillard and McCollum, forcing them both into awkward shots on many occasions. When this happens the Blazers don’t have a reliable third option so they usually play a “hot hand” approach. Tonight Harkless and Aminu filled that role. Both players hit multiple 3-pointers in the early going to help the Blazers build a lead. But both players also became unreliable down the stretch - Aminu went only 1-for-6 on triples after his hot start, for instance.
If Nurkic can develop a reliable low post game it will add an additional element to the Blazers’ offense that can reliably take some pressure off Lillard and McCollum. Right now the Blazers are living off hot shooting from secondary players and in many games those shots dry up. A player who can consistently manufacture his own scoring on the interior would diversify the offense and reduce the need to rely on the erratic supporting cast.
In the end, Nurkic’s addition will not save the 2016-17 season for the Blazers. Tonight’s loss to the Hawks, once again, exposed the team’s fundamental flaws and made it clear that they are not competitive as currently constructed. The ongoing question over the last 27 games is whether or not Nurkic will be able to help fix those flaws in the future.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @EricG_NBA