Other than Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis—one of whom had to be traded for cap purposes—no names were hotter for the Portland Trail Blazers at the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline than Jusuf Nurkic and Moe Harkless. Nurkic was loosely rumored on his way to the Los Angeles Clippers for DeAndre Jordan, Harkless to the Sacramento Kings for cap relief. For one night, at least, the Blazers can thank their lucky stars that neither deal came through. After falling behind by double-digits, the Charlotte Hornets pushed Portland into overtime tonight, rolling with momentum behind 40 points from Kemba Walker. But Nurkic and Harkless shut down the floor in the extra period, propelling their team to a 109-103 victory with floor-spanning defense salted with a game-icing put-back dunk that brought the house down. Portland owes this game to the potential cast-offs.
The Hornets Have No Sting
The Blazers opened the game by jumping out to a 22-5 lead. Nurkic pounded the ball inside against Dwight Howard while CJ McCollum stroked jumpers. Charlotte got to their spots defensively but didn’t have much of an effect there. Their offense was putrid. Portland ceded them face-up looks, but the only thing getting beat was the rim with their incessant bricks. Only a trio of three-pointers late kept Charlotte anywhere close. Portland led 29-18 after one.
After the wretched performance in the first quarter, the Hornets decided to move the offense inside in the second. They found success there against Portland’s second unit. Kemba Walker looked at Portland defenders the way a shish-kebab skewer looks at steak and bell peppers. A Walker three with 47 seconds remaining brought the Hornets within one, but Meyers Leonard saved the day with a buzzer-beating triple to keep the Blazers ahead 49-45 at the half.
Lillard Takes Control
The third period belonged to former Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, whose jump-shooting and defense brought the Hornets right into Portland’s lap. Or it would have belonged to him had not Damian Lillard stepped in to arrest Charlotte’s progress with a dizzying array of drives and shots. The Hornets went from calm control to head scratching in the space of three minutes. The Blazers zoomed to a 79-65 lead rounding the third turn. With Charlotte’s offense sputtering, this one was in the bag.
They’ve Got Walkers
That remained true until the exact moment Walker took a match to the bag, burnt it to the ground, and began devouring the sweet goodness therein. He would score 17 in the fourth period as the Blazers couldn’t stop his penetration and somehow managed to foul him twice on shots at the three-point arc. Portland still would have won easily had not the Hornets clamped down on defense—their bevy of rangy, athletic players helping mightily—forcing turnover after turnover. The cumulative effect was Portland all but handing Charlotte the win. The Moda Center crowd went deathly silent, nervously stroking their Noah Vonleh bobblehead dolls as the clock ticked down to doom. The score was knotted at 97 with 1:45 left when Portland finally stepped up the defense to match Charlotte’s. Nobody scored after. Overtime awaited.
Don’t Even Think About Trading Us
After the impressive fourth-quarter performance, everybody was waiting to see what Walker would do for an encore. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Every time any Hornets player got within 12 feet of the rim, Nurkic became his own defensive missile battery, blocking or intimidating attempted shots into oblivion. When Charlotte manufacture a can’t-miss, 3-on-1 fast break opportunity, Moe Harkless streaked out of nowhere to block the shot and retain possession. Now two dogs patrolled the yard and the Hornets were going nowhere. All Portland had to do was score to end the game.
Frustratingly enough, they couldn’t. Nurkic was getting called for moving screens like the refs were getting paid by the whistle. Lillard wasn’t getting clean looks and turned the ball over on a critical play. The only guy putting the ball in the hoop was...Harkless. He converted a driving layup early and a vicious put-back dunk with 37 seconds remaining to put Portland up 106-100 and seal the game. It was a magnificent, energetic performance from Harkless and Nurkic, perhaps unlikely heroes, but absolutely necessary to keeping this game in the win column.
Defense Does the Trick
When the opposing All-Star guard scores 40, you don’t necessarily think of defense as the deciding factor, but Portland withstood the Walker Storm because they locked down in critical moments late in the game. It’s impossible to overstate what Nurkic and Harkless did in overtime, but Lillard and Aminu also had great moments as the clock dwindled. Once Portland knew the middle was secure, their confidence soared. They allowed Charlotte 39% from distance for the game, but held them to the same 39% from the field overall...an equitable trade considering the Hornets like to score inside the arc.
Portland also dominated in the paint, 58-32. Nurkic played a large part, but guard penetration and passes to cutters helped break down Charlotte’s excellent point-of-attack defense.
Defense and interior play? This was pretty much an old-school victory for Portland.
Walker’s scoring prowess kept the game from being easy, but no more so than Portland’s loose grip on the ball. 17 turnovers almost blew the game against a team that shouldn’t have been able to come back on them, given the overall lack of offense. But the late-game rally made up for the earlier incompetence. Or, as William Shakespeare said, All’s Well that ends with Nurkic and Harkless stripping the leather off of every shot the opponent offers.
The Trail Blazers face Moe Harkless’ once-future team, the Sacramento Kings, Friday night at 7:30 PM, Pacific.