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Trail Blazers Play in Fits and Starts, Emerge Victorious vs. Kings

Defense was sorely lacking through much of the game, but Portland turned it on late.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Behind the usual excellence of the backcourt as well as contributions from more unusual candidates, the Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Sacramento Kings 127-116. CJ McCollum led the way with 33 points on 14/22 shooting and five three-pointers. His backcourt buddy Damian Lillard scored 24 and added 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside recorded a career-high seven assists to go along with 22 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks.

Tonight’s victory was Portland’s fourth in the last five games and brings them within a game of the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns. It was also the team’s first win in the second of a back-to-back; they were 0-4 before beating the Kings.

CJ McCollum had the hot hand

For the tenth consecutive game, McCollum eclipsed 20 points, tied for the longest such streak of his career. He surpassed the 20-point mark in the first half after a red-hot second quarter. At one point, he scored nine straight for the Blazers to cut Sacramento’s lead from eight down to two.

Although he occasionally tries to lead the bench unit by being a one-man show, McCollum scored his 33 points in the flow of the offense tonight. High screens from Skal Labissiere and Whiteside allowed him to run downhill and finish a couple acrobatic layups. He also caught defenders off guard by cutting on give-and-gos with his big man for easier finishes at the rim.

On the other end, McCollum set a career-high with four blocked shots. He recorded three of those in the first four minutes of the game and made life hard on the Kings’ primary scoring option, Buddy Hield.

Comeback game for Kent Bazemore

In his last six games, Bazemore failed to score in double digits and shot an average of 24.1% from the field. He was forcing shots in transition, settling for pull-up midrange jumpers, and simply couldn’t find the bottom of the net on corner threes.

But night in and night out, Bazemore outworks everyone on the floor, especially on the defensive end. Tonight, his defensive hustle got repaid on the other end as he scored a season-best 15 points on 5/9 shooting and three triples.

13 seconds after entering the game in the fourth quarter, Lillard kicked it out to Bazemore in the corner for a wide open three. That triple put Portland in front by 11 and forced a Kings timeout. As the players returned to the bench, Bazemore’s elation from rediscovering his shot was evident as he hopped around and celebrated with his teammates.

If Rodney Hood’s Achilles injury forces him to miss time, having a confidently-shooting Bazemore will maintain the starting lineup’s production.

Offensive opposites in the first half

The Blazers got off to a quick start by hitting six of their first eight shots. Five of the six makes came within arm’s reach of the rim, AKA the highest percentage shots on the court. Lillard continually found his teammates in great scoring positions, specifically Whiteside, who rolled harder to the rim than he has all season.

However, Portland returned to their old ways at the end of the first quarter. Lillard, McCollum and Simons settled for contested off-the-dribble midrange jumpers that didn’t fall at the same rate the dunks and open threes did earlier. As a result, Sacramento put together a 10-2 run and reclaimed the lead at the end of one.

Following McCollum’s second quarter tear, Portland avoided reverting to that isolation-heavy offense and instead let high pick and rolls free something up. They finished with 127 points on 56% shooting from the field, a testament to how successful the offense can be when operating as smoothly as it did tonight.

Problems on the defensive end

Through the first 12 minutes of the game, the Blazers shot 58.3% and still trailed by five points. More plainly put, the defense couldn’t stop a Kings team missing three of its top offensive options.

In transition, Portland too often double-teamed a random player on accident and left the trailer wide open at the top of the arc. Nemanja Bjelica knocked down at least two triples in such fast break scenarios. Improved defensive communication will come with time as the players adjust to their new teammates, though.

Another defensive weakness with a less optimistic outlook is the guards’ navigation of screens. The three undersized guards — Simons, Lillard and McCollum — struggled to fight through picks, which isn’t helped by Whiteside’s drop coverage. To start the second half, Cory Joseph and Richaun Holmes ran several consecutive pick and rolls that resulted in an uncontested shot within 10 feet for one of them.

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The Blazers continue their home stand against the conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m. PST.