Though it came at a price, the Portland Trail Blazers survived yet another early double-digit deficit, rallying to fend off the Atlanta Hawks 112-106 at the Moda Center.
Only two days after losing Jusuf Nurkic for at least 8 weeks to a broken wrist, the injury bug struck yet again, this time sidelining CJ McCollum, who was ruled out at halftime after suffering a sprained left ankle after being stepped on by Clint Capela at the end of a drive early in the first quarter. He was slow to get up and showed a considerable limp, but after a timeout looked to be okay and even finished out the half, making his sudden absence in the third quarter a bit more concerning. Portland dodged a bullet, though, as Terry Stotts said postgame that x-rays and an MRI on the foot were negative. Crisis averted.
Neither team came into this game with a reputation for playing much defense, and it didn’t start here. Both sides were able to effectively get whatever looks they wanted and appeared willing to just throw all of their offensive chips onto the table and let their shooting percentages determine the outcome. CJ McCollum got off to a hot start, knocking down three treys on his way to 13 points in the quarter before twisting his ankle. At the other end, Portland labored to compete with Capela’s length near the basket, as the Hawks came away with the early edge, leading 38-34.
At the flip of a switch, the Blazers couldn’t buy a bucket, as the second unit again struggled to take the baton from the from starters and seize on the momentum. Atlanta built its lead up as much as 16 points before McCollum and Damian Lillard returned and restored a bit of order. Capela continued to look like Wilt Chamberlain at a block party volleyball game - he had 19 points and 5 blocks just in the first half - and Trae Young started to see through Portland’s defense (he realized they weren’t going to play any), dissecting it at will while the Blazers found themselves chasing shadows. Hawks led by 7 heading into the break.
With his partner in crime back in the locker room, Lillard took full reins of the offense in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his 36 points to help even the score. From the point he crossed half court, Atlanta defenders had no idea what to do with him. Give him space; he’d raise up for a triple. Pressure full-court; he’d have an easy blow-by to the rim. Send a double-team, he’d throw a 35-foot lob to a streaking Derrick Jones Jr. There was simply no answer. The score was locked at 86 heading into the final frame.
With the Hawks playing on the second night of a back-to-back, it was finally Portland’s chance to capitalize on tired legs. After conceding 66 points in the first half, Atlanta was outscored 27-20 and 26-20 in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, as the Blazers started winning hustle plays and knocking down shots. In a reversal of the second period, the bench led by Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony finally found its groove, as the two combined for 15 points in a pivotal stretch where Portland went from trailing 90-89 to leading 104-98. From there, Lillard was able to slowly ice the game at the free throw line.
Can Play Kanter
Enes Kanter got the starting nod in place of Nurkic, which may be a fluid situation going forward, but ultimately acquitted himself well tonight. Even though his counterpart in Capela at times looked impractically dominant, Kanter managed to do enough to help mitigate the damage, and turned in a well-rounded, boxscore-stuffing performance with 12 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks, 3 assists and 2 steals. The direction of the center position going forward may take many different forms - don’t be surprised to see Robert Covington log minutes there in small ball lineups - but if anything, Kanter reminded fans who might’ve forgotten his role in the team’s run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals that he is a more than capable stopgap.
Off the Mark
Speaking of Covington, we need to talk about his shooting. Saying he’s in a slump to start the season comes woefully short of the 33% mark he was sporting just coming into the game, and tonight’s was his most difficult yet - going just 1-13 from the floor after going 1-7 against Indiana. He’s still finding ways to contribute, such as with his 10 boards and 3 assists tonight, but if the Blazers are going to keep this ship righted, they are going to need offense that’s not squarely on the shoulders of Lillard. Covington is a proven veteran, and as ugly as his shooting splits are, his deficiencies don’t look to be from a lack of trying. At some point, he’s all but mathematically guaranteed to return to the form fans expected when the team parted with two first-round picks to acquire him in the fall, it just needs to be sooner than later.
Jones to the Rescue
If Melo and Trent were the heroes offensively in the fourth quarter, Jones was certainly the unsung champion of the defense. Not only did he assume the task of guarding Young all night, but he had two massive steals down the stretch - the second essentially sealing the game as he stripped a driving Kevin Huerter with 8.1 seconds to go.
He also converted this ridiculous aforementioned alley-oop:
[ed. That’s a cool channel to subscribe to, by the way. We see you, trueblazerfan!]
The Blazers get a day off before hosting the San Antonio Spurs on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, this Monday at Noon.