The Portland Trail Blazers welcomed the Phoenix Suns into the Moda Center Saturday night fresh off the news that big man Jusuf Nurkić would miss at least two weeks due to a fracture in his leg. Portland entered the game needing to prove that their chase for the playoffs didn’t end with that setback. Fortunately the Suns came into the Moda Center losers of 10 straight, as likely a target as could be imagined. Sure enough, Portland started the game on a 15-0 run then held serve the rest of the night, securing a 130-117 win and positive momentum forward.
The first quarter started with Portland blitzing the Suns. Phoenix was down 18 before they could blink as Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu contributed 20 combined points in the quarter. Anytime those three combine for 20 in a period, the Blazers are going to do well. The score read 37-21 Portland after one.
The second period started with more of the same, except Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum decided it was time to join the party. The Blazers partied like crazy until they stopped playing defense. At that point a lead that had ballooned to 25 points dwindled to 10 in the blink of an eye. After shooting lights out, Portland’s stroke cooled and Phoenix found joy with Devin Booker. Portland left the frame outscored by 6 but still leading by 10 at the break, 63-53.
The third quarter came to a stalemate thanks to a battle between Lillard and all of the Suns. Dame would drop 17 in the quarter while Alex Len and Booker provided the scoring punch for Phoenix. What felt like a comfortable wire-to-wire victory for Portland, now looked a bit more precarious as the final quarter began 97-87.
Phoenix closed the gap to 4 points just two minutes into the final period. With the score reading 99-95, he collective groans could be sensed as well as heard. The Blazers shrugged off nerves and doubt, rallying to score 14 straight in the next 2 minutes and 14 seconds. From there on out the contest became a formality, only the margin in doubt.
Entering this game, the emotional and psychological impact from losing Nurkić was a subtext that threatened to blossom into the whole story. The Bosnian Beast drops 15/10/2 a night. His emotion, energy, and ferocity have helped transform the entire team over the past 6 weeks.
Faced with this huge test, the Blazers did well. Multiple players stepped up. In place of Nurkić, Terry Stotts put Harkless down low to work against smaller opposition. He rewarded Stotts’ faith early and often. He scored off post catches, worked the ball inside and back out, and found cutters when the defense came to double. That’s no small feat for a player who hasn’t been featured in such sets.
Vonleh kept up his “Best Supporting Big Man” performance, rebounded like Nurkić was still out there. He played within himself and kept the Blazers nearly even all night on the backboards. Meanwhile, Aminu put the ball on the floor repeatedly, and it worked out! He also tickled the twine via multiple catch and shoot opportunities.
When the supporting cast gives Portland that kind of effort and production, things have to go seriously sideways to lose. The Blazers may not have made up for Nurkić with a single player, but they tag-teamed their way to victory instead.
Damian Lillard’s 31-point, 7 assist, 5 rebound performance tied the franchise record of 30-point games in a season. It felt almost routine- that’s how good he’s been lately. Lillard came back with a big shot every time Booker thought he had brought the Suns within shouting distance. You couldn’t ask for a better performance from Dame.
Crazily enough, another guy had an incredible night that felt like just another session in the gym. CJ McCollum gave his team 29 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. That’s 60 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds from Portland’s backcourt on just 37 shots. Insert emoji eyes here. That’s staggering.
Harkless, Aminu, and Vonleh combined for 37 points, 20 rebounds, and 5 steals. Continuing the count (something we can’t do every night) that’s 97 points scored by just 5 guys. That kind of production will win a ton of games.
AS IF THAT WEREN’T ENOUGH, Evan Turner dropped another 18 points off the bench.
Links and Such
BrightSideoftheSun is probably too busy counting ping pong balls to care about tonight’s loss
The Blazers now head out on the road for the last time this season. Their first stop comes in Minneapolis as they face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday at 4:00 PM PST.