NBA League Pass watchers complained mightily at the start of the season opener between the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings tonight. The feed was choppy, video coming in fits and starts without any consistency. When the issue was cleared up towards the end of the first quarter, almost everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Not Blazers fans, though. As soon as the broadcast smoothed out, they discovered that many of those choppy, inconsistent visuals were actually real-time views of the Blazers themselves.
After spotting Sacramento a huge lead for three quarters, Portland put on a furious rally in the fourth, led by CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. It almost worked, but not quite. Friendly foul calls and strong interior play left Portland within three with the clock winding down. Damian Lillard had the final shot to tie, but couldn’t quite convert, leaving Portland on the wrong end of a 124-121 score at the final horn.
Damian Lillard scored 20 in the opener, but shot 0-9 from distance. CJ McCollum was Portland’s primary scorer. He had 34. De’Aaron Fox scored 27 for Sacramento, Harrison Barnes a career-high 36.
The Blazers started their season exhibiting a little bit of the old and a whole lot of the new. Their first points came from Robert Covington on a three. Besides that, they committed turnovers and looked awkward. Norman Powell tried to drive, but had modest success. Passes didn’t find their targets. When they did, Portland missed the resulting shots. Halfway through the period, one of the most potent offenses in the NBA had just 7 points.
On the other end, Portland wasn’t stopping Sacramento anywhere. 6 of the Kings’ first 7 makes came either at the arc or right at the rim. Their attack could not have been easier.
Damian Lillard tried to take over mid-quarter, scoring twice in the lane and then at the line. Portland’s threes weren’t falling, though. It was an issue.
Sacramento’s second unit couldn’t follow up on the starters’ success. Plus the Blazers bore down a little harder on “D” as the quarter closed. Their offense still looked sketchy as heck, but it wasn’t fatal. The Blazers trailed 24-23 after one.
Anfernee Simons got a chance to run the point at the start of the second period. His first tour featured...a bunch of iso dribbling by CJ McCollum. The Kings pushed the Blazers way out on the court. McCollum tried to invent different ways to get past their coverage while everyone else watched.
On the other end, Portland’s interior defense proved ineffective. The Kings took the lane with relative impunity. If they also could have hit a kick-out three, the Blazers would have gotten buried by 20. Fortunately, they couldn’t. The Blazers kept hammering it inside on offense just to keep close. On the upside, the turnovers ceased (likely because the passing did too), so at least the Blazers had chances to score.
Coach Chauncey Billups put Lillard back in around the 9:00 mark in the second. He and McCollum continued to own the ball and the shots. The Blazers have plenty of guards, but only two they really trust. Lillard also played off of Jusuf Nurkic well on the screen and roll, opening up at least one other option.
No matter what else happened, though, the Blazers still couldn’t solve their issues on defense, particularly on the inside. They either gave up layups or committed tons of fouls. When Sacramento finally hit a couple of threes, it got ugly. De’Aaron Fox had 16 points at the half. The Kings had 21 free throw attempts (16 in the second quarter alone). Portland shot only 13 threes and made only 4. Sacramento led 62-49 at the half.
The Blazers came out in the second half with McCollum penetrating even more, joined by Lillard upon occasion. Whenever the guards drew Sacramento’s attention, they passed to Nurkic. Nurk hit a couple shots and the offense started rolling. But Harrison Barnes caught fire and the Kings gave as good as they got. Normally Lillard and McCollum heating up is a sure sign of Portland’s success. Here it allowed them to keep pace. The defense just wasn’t good enough.
As the quarter unwound, Sacramento aided the Blazers somewhat, falling in love with the three instead of the solid penetration/foul-shot attack that built them their lead. The Blazers found an edge at the foul line in the third, reversing the first-half trend. All the guards drew them off of penetration. That helped the offense.
But every time Portland would make a run, there was Barnes again. Or Fox. Or somebody. Sacramento led 100-85 at the end of three. As they did so many times last season, the Blazers gave up 100 points by the end of three quarters. The only difference in this game is that they didn’t score enough to keep up.
Portland needed to make a big run in the fourth. The achieved it partially, letting McCollum keep the ball in hand while Sacramento subbed in their second unit. They doubled down, bringing Lillard back early as well.
Meanwhile the referees seemed intent on evening out the foul call disparity from the first half. The Blazers put Sacramento in the penalty with 7:00 left on the clock, a huge advantage. Soon after, they cut the lead to 7. Coach Luke Walton had long since seen enough, though. He subbed his A-Squad back in. Portland’s starters looked great against Sacramento subs. The defense still couldn’t hold up against the first unit.
McCollum remained ON FIRE as the quarter progressed. Lillard was uncharacteristically cold. With the Blazers not firing on all cylinders, the comeback was slow. They had a chance, but something had to change.
The Blazers had the lead down to 6 with 3:00 left. The Kings started tightening up, shooting a little scared. Fox drove hard but failed to draw fouls on contact, which didn’t help their mental state. Powell hit a three to cut the lead to 3, where it stood with 2:00 remaining.
At the 1:52 mark, Buddy Hield hit a layup that was called an and-one. Coach Chauncey Billups got the score wiped off of the slate with a successful challenge. On the ensuing possession, the Kings passed right around Portland’s defense for an open three from Barnes, making the point moot.
Nurkic did the best he could to keep his team in the game, scoring on every opportunity. Sacramento kept driving it inside and hitting Nurk, but the refs let him crash and smash on both ends. Under those conditions, he proved mightily effective.
The Blazers had a chance to cut it to two on a foul against Powell with 24 seconds left, but Norm hit only 1 of 2. The score read 120-117, Sacramento, Kings ball. It was an interesting look at Billups’ strategy in this kind of situation.
The Blazers opted to foul Hield with 20 seconds remaining. Buddy hit both. Portland trailed by 5, burning their final timeout.
McCollum hit a floater on the ensuing possession, then Tyrese Haliburton dropped the ball. It ended up in Lillard’s hands. A layup made the score 122-121 with 11 seconds remaining.
The Kings got the ball to Barnes, wide open by the bucket. Nurkic hit him across the head for the foul. Barnes hit both with 9 seconds remaining, making the score 124-121. The Blazers had the ball with a single possession able to decide the game.
Instead of fouling, the Kings let Lillard shoot from the logo, but the ball spooned in the bucket and out. Sacramento walked away with the three-point win,
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon.
The Blazers will face the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.