Every NBA team faces a certain number of games that can be termed “must-win” during the course of an 82-game season. When the Portland Trail Blazers met the Phoenix Suns on January 16th at home, needing a victory to avoid dropping to .500, a more precise term would have been “better win”. [Insert strongly-implied “or else” here.] The Blazers did prevail, 118-111, courtesy of a torrential outpouring from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. 43 points from Devin Booker and questionable play from most of the supporting cast made the finish more interesting than it should have been, but the Blazers will take the win, another day above .500, and the bolstered claim that Lillard should be a 2018 NBA All-Star.
Guards Gone Wild
The first half was all about Portland’s three guards: Lillard, McCollum, and Shabazz Napier. That trio had 48 points by halftime...a pace which, extended over four quarters, would have made them the winners of many NBA games all on their own. If Phoenix cared about this game, they had a funny way of showing it.
Unfortunately “not caring” also described the approach of center Jusuf Nurkic, who might have viewed all the guard scoring—and corresponding decrease of his own looks—the same way a vegan views a Big Mac buffet. Whatever was wrong, it evidenced itself in a complete laissez-faire attitude towards defense and, well, apparently the entire universe. Coach Terry Stotts pulled Nurkic after six minutes of play and he would not see the floor the rest of the half.
As it turned out, the Blazers didn’t need him that much. Phoenix tried to pound the ball inside early but soon settled for mid-range jumpers. Portland led 36-31 in a mostly-defenseless first quarter, then extended their advantage to 66-51 at the half. Phoenix couldn’t hit a long shot to save their lives, but that was about to change.
Nurkic returned ready to play in the third quarter, which might or might not correspond to six shot attempts in the period versus just one in the first. As his offensive role picked up, the rest of his game followed. The Blazers struck repeatedly from the arc and at the rim, winning the quarter 26-21 to take a commanding 20-point lead into the fourth.
The Hail Mary Almost Works
With a comfortable edge, Stotts removed his starting lineup seemingly for good as the fourth quarter commenced. Within three minutes it became apparent that the reserve unit was paying homage to the San Antonio Spurs by mirroring their initials exactly. The first two letters stood for, “Sloppy as...” You can guess the third.
Meanwhile Booker and Troy Daniels started marking the range from distance. All of a sudden Portland’s lead was down to 12, then to 10. At that point Stotts pulled Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic away from autographing cotton candy sticks (or whatever home-field stars do after their nights are done) and hurriedly shoved them back in the game. The Suns continued to bomb from deep in wholly-scary fashion, but a few determined drives from Lillard kept the lead out of reach. Despite the bout of hiccups in the fourth, the Blazers ended up winning by 7. They once led by four times that much.
If you like guard play, this was your night. Between them, the Portland and Phoenix backcourts accounted for 160 points, 70% of the total scoring. Poor defense accounted for some of it, but once the stars zeroed in, it was like watching a really good video game.
The Suns and Blazers are both fatally imbalanced, but feature legitimate stars who can turn a scoreboard into the Las Vegas Strip. Booker scored 43 points in 41 minutes. Lillard shot 11-19, swatting away the Suns like a fly in the middle of their huge comeback. McCollum and Daniels shot 6-10 and 6-11 from distance respectively. It was like a fantasy, but for that reason almost nothing in this contest transfers to other NBA games.
The only lingering impression is a general distrust of Nurkic. It’s been bubbling under the surface all season, occasionally bursting forth among fans and, evidently, coaches. If you want to know why the Blazers aren’t more serious, the gravity continues to trend there.
Otherwise, this was a fun win for 42 out of 48 minutes, wholly apropos given the opponent and the situation.
Bright Side of the Sun had one obvious bright side to this (mostly) blowout loss.
The Blazers return to action Thursday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific versus the Indiana Pacers.
—Dave (email@example.com / @blazersedge / @DaveDeckard)