The Portland Trail Blazers opened up their regular season schedule with a 108-100 loss against the Denver Nuggets. Rather, they played a reasonable facsimile of the Denver Nuggets. The chip on All-NBA center Nikola Jokic’s shoulder over last year’s playoffs defeat appears to have migrated to his midsection over the summer. Point guard Jamal Murray suffered an injury midway through the game that hampered his effectiveness. Still, the Blazers weren’t just fighting Denver; they had to contend with their own inexperience as a unit. Portland had plenty of shining moments, but couldn’t summon enough continuity to earn the win against Will Barton, Denver’s deep bench, and hot three-point shooting.
The story of the first period was a motivated, fired-up Hassan Whiteside matching up against Nikola Jokic, who appeared to be auditioning for the big baddie in the original Ghostbusters movie. Whiteside made short work of Denver’s Stay-Puffed center, as Jokic drew three fouls in three minutes. Whiteside and Zach Collins patrolled the lane with authority. The Nuggets probed the middle, often getting a step on Portland’s perimeter defenders. They seldom took it all the way to the rim, settling for mid-range pull-ups with mixed results. Sweet scoring from CJ McCollum and the guards gave the Blazers a nice 19-10 cushion in the middle minutes of the first. Portland’s perimeter defense couldn’t keep up, though. The Nuggets worked inside-out against a collapsing defense, taking advantage of slow rotations to the arc. Though Portland owned the paint 14-4, Denver hit 6 threes in the quarter. Portland led 27-24 after one.
The second period began with a battle of the bench units. Denver took advantage of Portland’s inability to score in the halfcourt offense. The Blazers’ bench showed well on defense, moving their feet, but they had problems setting each other up and getting clear shots. McCollum became a steadying force when he took the floor, but too many gears were running out of sync. Portland’s offense ground to a halt as Denver wormed to a 49-39 lead with 4:00 remaining. The defense created easy buckets as the quarter closed, but the Nuggets still led 54-50 at the half.
P.S. Jokic had played 3 total minutes. The Nuggets still led. Yeah.
The Nuggets continued their distance-shooting barrage early in the second half, hitting three threes in the first three minutes, all lightly contested. Denver ended up loving the long ball more than it loved them, though. As the triples started rimming out, Portland started crawling back into it. Denver’s progress was complicated by an arm injury to Jamal Murray, effectively leaving them without a point guard and with half a center. Lillard had no injury and no mercy, dragging his team by the lapels into contention with dagger-like shots. Head Coach Terry Stotts kept him in even when Denver went to an all-bench quintet. The move paid off. Portland led 74-73 after three.
Denver dropped all pretenses as the fourth quarter started. They kept Jokic in the game and continued trading on the triple. Jokic stepped outside and dared Portland’s bigs to chase him. They kept near the rim and the Joker made them pay.
The game remained nip and tuck as the quarter progressed. Denver couldn’t score inside, but Portland missed contested jumpers outside. Offensive fouls peppered multiple sets.
Portland built a significant edge in second-chance points, but the Jokic threes kept falling. Coach Stotts finally had to sub out Whiteside so the Blazers could cover the arc, eliminating one of the hottest players of the evening. Portland was down 97-90 when Lillard started to take over, hitting a three with 1:57 remaining, then a free throw off a drive, then barely missing a layup that would have brought his team within 3 with a minute left. No dice, though.
Down 5, Portland was forced to collapse upon a driving Barton with 47 seconds remaining. They stopped the People’s Champ, but without Whiteside, nobody was around to keep Jokic from the follow-up tip. Denver led by 7 with less than a minute remaining. At that point, the outcome was academic.
- Portland’s bigs defended well as long as they were able to stay home. When they had to rotate out to the perimeter and back, the defense looked significantly weaker. The Blazers almost seemed willing to give up the three as long as they kept the middle covered. Chances are that’s 60% game plan and 40% “You just didn’t close out quick enough.” They’ll need to remedy the latter part if they want to prosper with this defensive approach.
- Similarly, the Blazers gave up multiple offensive rebounds when their interior defenders helped on drives, but nobody came to cover the other side of the rim. They gave as good as they got in the offensive rebounding department, but rhythm and coordination just weren’t there.
- The Blazers did well getting to the rim with their guard corps. Running and slashing are going to be hallmarks of Portland’s attack, far more than they were in the past few seasons. With the slightest bit of daylight, Blazers drivers were devastating.
- It may take a while for Portland’s reserve unit to gel, but they’re clearly quicker than the bench has been the last couple years. Watching them defend is like listening to your favorite podcast at 1.5x speed. The Blazers had more steals and run-outs than they usually see in a month.
- Denver’s bench is a stiff test, but if tonight was any indication, Coach Stotts might need to keep a starting guard on the floor with Portland’s reserves until they get used to each other.
- Shot blocking is going to be a serious feature of this roster.
- The Blazers kept Whiteside in his comfort zone on both ends, even if it meant giving up outside shots. He was effective nearly every minute he was on the floor.
- Skal Labissiere looked eager on offense, but got fried like a truck stop egg on defense.
- Anfernee Simons looked plenty quick and alert on defense...a pleasant surprise. He wasn’t solid on the basics, but when he got to use his speed in plays of opportunity, he was great. The same generally held true on offense. He didn’t hit often, but when he did score, it was usually spectacular.
- Zach Collins was almost the opposite of Simons, blending in smartly like a veteran and doing little things well.
- Kent Bazemore couldn’t hit the ground with a greased bowling ball, but he was one of the nice factors on defense. He gambled and moved hard. His defensive effectiveness was determined, in part, by the scheme and people around him; it’s not like he turned the defense around on his own. But he opened a door with aggressiveness. If the Blazers pay attention and step through that door, they could start creating serious points with their “D”.
- Rodney Hood played beautifully on offense. He was exquisite.
- 54 points in the paint, 25% three-point shooting. These are not your slightly-older-brother’s Blazers.
Watching the new players on the floor felt like learning a new language. Yes, it was halting at times, but envisioning the Blazers fluid in French or Mandarin or whatever the Atlanta Hawks speak was both exciting and encouraging. Several fresh winds blew through Moda Center tonight. Whether it all ends up effective and producing wins remains to be seen, but the start of the season is sure to be exciting.
Help kids in need see the Blazers play the Minnesota Timberwolves in March!
The Blazers face the Sacramento Kings on Friday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.