Much of the NBA world believed that the Portland Trail Blazers had given up on the 2016-17 season when President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey traded Mason Plumlee earlier this month. With star Damian Lillard already playing poorly, and Plumlee reinforcing the current 8-seed Denver Nuggets, it appeared the Blazers would be content to tank their way through the final third of the season.
And the Blazers’ players certainly looked like they had enlisted with “team-tank” during the first three quarters of tonight’s game against the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center.
But a three-headed dragon of Lillard, newcomer Jusuf Nurkic, and Shabazz Napier(?!) led a dominant fourth quarter comeback. The Blazers outscored the Magic 35-18 in the final frame on their way to a 112-103 victory.
Lillard led all scorers with 33 and his 17 fourth quarter points were one shy of singlehandedly matching the Magic. Nurkic had a second consecutive strong game with 12 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Napier played a key role in the clutch and finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Tonight’s contest started out ugly. Both teams struggled to score in the early going, combining for only 6 total points in the first four minutes. Blazers fans, however, found solace in the fact that Nurkic was having a demonstrable defensive impact in the paint.
Nurkic’s importance became palpable when he checked out of the first quarter with about four minutes to go and the Blazers leading 14-13. With Nurkic on the bench for the next six-and-a-half minutes the Magic would outscore the Blazers 20-12 to take a 33-26 lead. Even with Nurkic back in the game, and the Magic shooting only 10-for-25 from the field for the quarter, the Blazers couldn’t muster a comeback - an appalling 15 first half turnovers will do that to you. The Magic led 55-46 at the half.
The third quarter started with Elfrid Payton going at Lillard hard - Payton repeatedly drove to the hoop to score or create shots for teammates. He went on an uncontested end-to-end drive to force a timeout with 7:47 to go in the quarter. Nikola Vucevic drilled a triple on the next Magic possession and all-of-a-sudden the lead had ballooned to 14 (71-57). The Blazers, however, responded and finally upped the defensive intensity, sparking an 11-0 run to make it 71-68. But the Magic responded and rebuilt their lead, 91-80 with 9:52 to go in the game.
Then something magical happened - the Blazers picked up the defensive intensity and Lillard shrugged off his recent woes to carry the offense. A lineup of Lillard/CJ McCollum/Napier/Maurice Harkless/Nurkic sparked a 16-4 run to give the Blazers a 96-95 lead with 5:20 to go. A three play sequence of excellent ball movement leading to a Harkless dunk, strong interior defense against a Payton drive, and Lillard hitting a corner triple in transition put an exclamation mark on the run:
Portland never trailed again and Harkless iced the game with a 3-pointer to give the Blazers a 108-103 lead with 1:37 remaining.
The Blazers won this game because the Magic could not compete with the unorthodox Lillard/McCollum/Napier/Harkless/Nurkic lineup for the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. Ordinarily, a three-guard lineup featuring Lillard, McCollum, and Napier would be a defensive nightmare, but McCollum did a solid job containing leading-scorer Evan Fournier, and Napier was generally reliable on defense. Add in Harkless’ endless activity and Nurkic’s roaming interior presence and the Blazers held the Magic to 4-for-18 shooting (22 percent) for the quarter.
The defense also turned into transition offense on several occasions, evidenced by the Blazers six points off turnovers in the quarter. In addition, Lillard rediscovered his early season form after shooting atrociously over the last two games. He was unstoppable around the basket, completing several impressively twisty lay-ups, and also dialed in from deep (3-for-5 on 3-pointers). Overall it was a vintage Lillard performance.
Other than Lillard, Nurkic may have been the game’s MVP. So far he’s been nothing but positive in a Portland uniform and his impact was apparent on both ends of the court tonight. Nurkic’s polished low-post moves, combined with a poor man’s version of Arvydas Sabonis’ passing game, played a major role in disrupting Orlando’s defense. Lamar Hurd made the point that Noah Vonleh was the Blazers best post-up player prior to acquiring Nurkic. The upgrade has been noticeable, to say the least. Nurkic has also been a bonus on defense. Nobody is going to solve all of this team’s defensive woes in the paint, short of Hakeem Olauwon circa 1992 time traveling to 2017 - but Nurkic has been a nice step in the right direction.
Of course, Nurkic is still new in Portland. The relationship is very much in the honeymoon phase - and we’re talking two-weeks-all-expenses-paid-to-New Zealand kind of honeymoon, not a long weekend in DisneyWorld. Watching opponents begin to gameplan for Nurkic, and seeing how he responds to an extended stretch of poor play, will be the next major hurdles for this marriage to clear.
Outside of the fourth quarter, Blazers fans would be wise to forget about this game. Giving up 55-first half points to the team with the no. 29 offense in the league, turning the ball over 15 times in 24 minutes, and trailing by 14 midway through the third? Woof.
Shabazz Napier! Easily his best game of the season. He played the entire fourth quarter and was a major catalyst for turning the contest around. In postgame interviews both Head Coach Terry Stotts and Lillard credited Napier with giving the Blazers the boost they needed to win this one.
CJ McCollum was solid with 22 points and 6 assists. He displayed good court vision tonight and also played above average defense on Fournier down the stretch, allowing Stotts to use the unorthodox smallball lineup.
Maurice Harkless filled in wherever needed with Al-Farouq Aminu out with an injury, including helping Nurkic play interior defense. His 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 blocks fit well tonight.
Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis mostly stayed out of the way, but also didn’t add much. They combined for 9 points and 9 rebounds. Leonard did have a classic facepalm moment when he needlessly clobbered Biscmack Biyombo rather than trying to challenge a lay-up attempt.
Allen Crabbe apparently became a huge Ralph Ellison fan after signing his $72 million contract.
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA | GoBlazers87@gmail.com