The Portland Trail Blazers managed a soul-stirring, sleep-robbing victory over the Brooklyn Nets last night, preserving their season and catapulting them into the play-in series for the 2020 NBA Playoffs. As is typical, the game was rocky for Portland, with potholes and clear straightaways intermixed. It turned out to be an instant classic anyway.
If you haven’t watched it yet, you should try to. The pivot points were dramatic and the outcome pleasant. For those who saw it, or who just want the high points, here are six key observations from the evening.
The Dame Bomb
The game was not going well for the Blazers as the third period transitioned into the fourth. The usual third-quarter blahs had left Portland trailing a team that they were expected to roll over, given the circumstances. Flagging morale was a real possibility.
Up to that point Damian Lillard had been relatively quiet, getting teammates involved without taking over the ball or the scoreboard himself.
Then this happened:
The value of that bomb was far more than three points and a spectacular highlight.
Sensing blood in the water, the Nets became crunch-time sharks, circling Lillard with a second defender, keeping him from engineering a comeback. They were willing to absorb any defensive deficiency to get the ball out of his hands.
When Lillard connected from five feet past halfcourt, he defined terms for the opponent. If they were intent on keeping him bottled up, they would need to send two defenders out to the logo on each possession in order to accomplish it. That would leave them woefully out of position, playing 3-on-4 with everyone else. In effect, Lillard’s shot made them choose between guarding him and guarding the team.
To their credit, the Nets took up the challenge. They did pick up Lillard deep outside for the next few possessions. That resulted in our next observation...
Jusuf Nurkic Comes Through
CJ McCollum had more points than Jusuf Nurkic last night, 25 to 22. To his credit, McCollum also posted 7 assists and 3 steals. The Nets were ready to absorb all that and still win. Their second-half lead was built over McCollum’s prior scoring and seemed relatively immune to it.
When the game was in doubt, Jusuf Nurkic became the hammer head at the end of Lillard’s big stick, breaking down Brooklyn’s defense and causing them to rethink strategy.
When the Nets went all-in on the “rush Lillard” defense, Nurkic planted himself firmly in the middle of the lane. Brooklyn was forced to single-cover him. When they tried to collapse out of a spread-floor situation, the help came late. Left to his own devices down low, Nurk scored like a champ, connecting six times in the restricted circle in the fourth quarter alone.
Those baskets were crucial in a one-point win, but foiling Brooklyn’s master plan was just as critical. With Nurkic powering in shots, the Nets had to change course, leaving Lillard free to do what he does best.
Carmelo and Trent Jr. Bring the Intensity
On paper, this was a muted game for Carmelo Anthony (9 points, 7 rebounds on 4-12 shooting) and a very good, but not world-beating, one for Gary Trent Jr. (16 points, 4-10 from distance).
Both players brought critical intensity to the final quarter that doesn’t show up in any boxscore. Cameras caught ‘Melo with a huge scowl, clapping his hands, and yelling to teammates to get back on defense in the fourth. He stuck in on the defensive end all night.
Carmelo Anthony has received enough publicity this year—and accomplished enough in his long career—that he could walk away tomorrow, still make headlines this summer, and still get a contract with somebody next season. The only thing keeping these final few games meaningful to him is him. That he’s choosing to make them so—and with such intensity—is worth noting.
Every time Trent Jr. found himself defending on an island up high, he hitched up his shorts, squatted down, and took whomever was across from him head on. There was no doubt, no hesitation, and absolutely no backpedaling. GTJ knew he was there for defense as much as shooting. More than any other Blazers player, tried to win the game that way.
You expect Lillard to rally, lead, and badger teammates. Seeing it come from the fourth and sixth men as well says everything needed about how the team is approaching this seeding run.
Portland’s “Tells” Come Into Play
In poker, a “tell” is a twitch or mannerism which indicates the relative strength of the cards a player is holding. “When Jimmy gets a good hand, he always goes quiet...”
The Blazers also have a couple of “tells” and both of them came into play last night. You know the Blazers are falling apart when the opponent makes layups or starts dominating the glass. Both are contraindicated by Portland’s size, personnel, and game plan. The Blazers can come back from missing shots themselves or opponents hitting threes. When the bad guys start scoring at the cup or grabbing lots of boards, look for the scoreboard to turn against Portland precipitously.
(Conversely, when they shut those things off, watch them recover from the stall.)
Both Teams Played Hard
You would expect Portland to go at this game hard with their season on the line. The story wasn’t the same for Brooklyn. Ironically, the Nets ended up lighting a fire under the Blazers with their hard play.
Brooklyn wanted this game. They were going at it every possession, particularly defensively. You cannot say enough about how cool that was. It made the evening memorable.
One of the most impressive things about that game was how everybody was into it. Carmelo and Nurkic, Trent Jr. and all of the Nets. They were all going for it.— David Deckard (@DaveDeckard) August 14, 2020
It reminds you that the NBA has a great sport and amazing people playing it. Show folks pure basketball. It’ll sell.
The Final Possession
The only crack in the foundation came during the final play of the game, when Caris LeVert took on CJ McCollum for the victory.
It’d be stupid and disingenuous to say anything bad about LeVert. He was excellent all night, scoring 37 on 16-29 shooting.
To my eyes, though, LeVert didn’t take full advantage on the deciding possession. The Nets had clock to work with. He dribbled it down to the point you see in the video below, then made his move.
I have no problem with LeVert’s step-back in theory. It’s in his arsenal, also well-worn in the current NBA lexicon. But if you look at the setup, it seems less than ideal.
Even if he wanted to take away the possibility of a Portland counterstrike after a make, LeVert probably went a couple seconds too late. The clock took away the possibility of him making extra moves. Instead of worrying about fakes, spins, or which way LeVert was going to drive—and not fouling during same—McCollum just had to stay in front of him to force the mid-range shot. CJ not only did that, he stayed close enough to force the step-back and greater distance.
The real story unfolds when you watch the bottom of the screen, where Joe Harris—one of the league’s best three-point shooters in a generation known for them—sits parked with his hands ready to catch.
Watch Gary Trent Jr. He’s completely aware, but also stuck between a rock and a hard place. If LeVert goes slightly earlier and drives right, Trent now has an impossible choice of helping CJ defending the rim or staying with Harris at the arc. Honestly, looking at Trent, it seems like his choice is already halfway made. Aside from a half-glance, he’s not even looking at Harris anymore. In fact, Harris may have been able to cut backdoor down the baseline and get behind GTJ (though Trent may have just been looking him off too).
Either way, LeVert never makes the dilemma a reality. He goes left with the crossover, creating space between McCollum and Trent to drive through, but doesn’t have enough time to reverse and actually do it. CJ is playing his right hand, and 1.6 seconds isn’t enough time to cross back or spin to overcome it.
By going a couple seconds too late, LeVert took everybody out of the play but himself. Granted, he was a darn good option, but it still seemed like a wishy-washy ending to an otherwise thrilling game.
Credit to McCollum, by the way, for essentially trapping LeVert once he crossed left, preventing exactly what we’re talking about. That matchup could have been a horrible mismatch. CJ’s smarts in taking away the “option” space right in front of the dribbler, forcing him to choose driving routes that were too close to traffic, then cementing him in the direction he eventually chose, made LeVert’s final shot as difficult as possible.