The Portland Trail Blazers swept up another easy home victory on Wednesday night, downing the Chicago Bulls 124-112 behind a 56-point performance from their bench. The Bulls hung tight early, feeding off hustle and general discombobulation from the Blazers. Their energy ran out long before Portland’s 10-man offensive attack, and the second half became an exercise in fun plays from lesser-known players with a little added sauce from CJ McCollum, who led all scorers with 24.
The Big Three
The first quarter of this game belonged to Portland’s stars. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic scored 8 in the opening period; Damian Lillard added a pair of threes. The star trio accounted for 22 of Portland’s 30 in the frame. As often happens, Portland couldn’t keep the Bulls out of the lane and the score stayed close, 30-29 after one.
Those Other Threes
Chicago played a sneaky spider-like defense, going under screens all night long. This could also be termed the “let the opponent do the exact thing they thrive on” approach. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. The Blazers shot 2-9 beyond the arc in the first period, getting their sea legs. After that they fired 53% from distance, hitting 9 of 17.
Nobody benefited from Chicago protecting the mid-range against people who weren’t going there anyway more than Portland’s bench corps. Seth Curry hit 3 of 5 triples, taking the lane triumphantly once he had spread the floor. Curry scored 17 on 7-11 shooting overall. Zach Collins nearly matched him, netting 16 on 6-9 shooting, 2-3 from distance. Since the Bulls were giving away threes, Nik Stauskas took a couple, scoring 8. Meyers Leonard went 4-4 too. Even Turner pooped the offensive party, shooting just 1-5, but he had 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and played stout defense.
I started taking notes on which Portland reserves were having a good night and ended up saying, “Aw heck. It’s all of them.”
Where’s the “D”?
The Bulls shot 46.2% overall, 40.9% on three-pointers. It’d be wrong to say the Blazers defended poorly; the effort was there most of the night. It’d also be wrong to say the Blazers defended well. The Bulls stopped the Bulls as much as Portland’s defense did.
Once upon a time, the Blazers had a serious problem with point of attack defense. Nobody could hang with dribblers and the bigs never helped quite enough, leading to free-and-easy drives followed by open threes over a collapsing defense. Portland has, for the most part, solved that weakness. They’re quicker laterally at the perimeter spots, more committed overall, and the bigs have an eye out.
Nowadays their problems happen after the initial probe. They stifle or channel dribblers appropriately, but once the ball escapes that first coverage—when dribblers find the mid-range or by pass the ball out—Portland’s response just isn’t there. Opponents don’t get as many head-slapping easy shots as they used to, but they still get too many open ones. There may be a Portland player in the vicinity, but that player usually isn’t doing much to alter the shot.
This isn’t going to hurt them much during the regular season, especially against mediocre-to-bad teams. It still seems like the defense is ripe to be picked apart by dedicated, knowledgeable teams, though. You know...the kind that populate the post-season.
CJ McCollum has shown signs of life lately, but tonight he burst forth like the blazing of a million suns. Chicago watched Lillard fairly close, but they couldn’t tab his backcourt mate. McCollum shot 10-14 for 24 points with 4 assists. (Lillard scored only 16 but had 10 assists.)
The odd nature of the game...plus a few Lillard bruises...plus maybe this was intentional a little...gave each of the starting guards run with the second unit instead of keeping them together. This probably suits McCollum. It’s something the Blazers are going to need to consider if they want him at full capacity more often. He plays easier when he can touch the ball, direct traffic, and shoot in the flow.
Obligatory Nurkic Report
Jusuf Nurkic looked great again, scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting with 8 rebounds in just 21 minutes of play.
The Blazers face the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night at 7:00, Pacific
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