The Portland Trail Blazers bounced back from their opening night debacle against the Sacramento Kings by crushing the Phoenix Suns tonight 134-105. CJ McCollum led the way with 28 points while Damian Lillard once again played a facilitating role, notching 19 points and 8 assists. The victory was a true team effort, with crisp passing, alert rotations, and excellent shooting forging the way.
The Blazers shot 54.3% from the field, 42.0% from the arc on 50 attempted threes. Phoenix managed 48.9% shooting in defeat.
Norman Powell and CJ McCollum started Portland’s offense early, aided by multiple screens from Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers looked night-and-day different from their recent efforts, with multiple screens and probes happening on each play. Nobody held the ball long. Quick passes and opportunistic shots typified their effort. No doubt this is what Head Coach Chauncey Billups envisioned when he designed the offense. Full credit should go to Nurkic for his ultra-critical screen work.
Of note, three pointers came much earlier, and without scruple, in the first quarter of this game than previously. Portland wasn’t quite so fixated on getting inside. They had 9 three-point attempts in the first 9 minutes of the game.
Portland’s defense was also active, but the Suns were equally so. They looked to release down the court against Portland’s tardy transition “D”. Devin Booker shooting and Chris Paul passing caused problems, as one would expect.
The Blazers were even more dedicated to stopping the ball at the point of attack than usual. Phoenix would get two players in the same spot on the floor; Portland would send three to stop them. That left too many spaces open elsewhere, though. Phoenix scored fairly easily, giving as good as they got, often scoring right at the rim. The Suns knew just how to dissect the defense as the Blazers sent their center to help: pass inside and dunk it.
Whenever the Suns missed, Portland grabbed rebounds ferociously. That helped them keep Phoenix’s potent offense bottled up.
The Blazers shot 57% in the period, the Suns 48%. The cumulative result was a 30-24 Portland lead after one.
The Blazers started out the second period blistering the twine. They didn’t worry about second unit designations. Instead McCollum and Powell reprised their first-quarter opening, torching the opponent with shots and drives.
Phoenix’s answer was JaVale McGee. He became their version of “more cowbell”, following up his first-quarter flurry with a litany of inside moves and scores.
The Blazers almost got too three-happy as the quarter wound on...a serious temptation when the shots are falling. They salted in enough drives to keep the defense guessing, drawing free throws along with the occasional conversion. If they had made their foul shots, the game might have turned into a rout. There were plenty. As it was, the lead stayed in double-digit range, reaching 19 by the 6:00 mark.
McCollum took over on the defensive end (you read that right) in the middle minutes of the second. The book on the Blazers so far has been they’ll make one rotation, but not two. Tonight CJ provided that extra hustle, taking over free players for his teammates, then returning to his own. Anytime the Suns got the ball in the middle of the floor, CJ was a nuisance. It was a huge development in Portland’s defense.
Phoenix took it inside as the half wound down, garnering a few free throws and layups themselves. Portland’s defense looked weaker, but it hardly mattered when their shots fell like autumn rain. The Blazers led by 20, 67-47, at the half.
The only thing that went wrong for the Blazers in the first half was Powell (6-8 from the floor, 16 points) leaving the game with a knee injury. He would not return.
With a huge lead in their pocket, all the Blazers needed to do in order to secure the win was keep scoring in the third. McCollum did his part to keep the scoreboard churning, drawing fouls and shooting threes.
Unfortunately the Suns had the same idea. They found corner shooters wide open, perhaps a sign that Portland’s defense wasn’t quite up to its first-half standards. A couple triples from Phoenix made a once-secure margin look more precarious. It didn’t help that the non-McCollum Blazers were having trouble finding their range.
Phoenix’s attempt was futile, though. CJ kept cooking like a breakfast-diner chef, serving up omelets with cheese and a whole bottle of hot sauce besides. When Lillard also hit a couple threes, the lead went back to 20.
At the 4:30 mark, Chris Paul shot an, “If this doesn’t go, I give up” solo three-pointer that missed. On the next possession, McCollum came back up the court and hit one from darn near Logo Land. That made the score 94-70, signaling the symbolic end of the contest.
After that, the young guys stretched their wings. Anfernee Simons went on an 8-point run. Nassir Little assaulted the rim with dunks and layups. By the time the third quarter buzzer sounded, Portland led 106-81.
Anybody who wanted to see Portland’s younger players soar must have loved the fourth period. Anfernee Simons moved off-ball as Dennis Smith, Jr. took over at point guard. Little continued in the small forward role. They ran, dunked, and demolished the Suns in a fun run-out festival. Significance was marginal, but the Moda Center crowd loved it. Little finished with 11 points, Simons 18, and Smith, Jr. with 5 assists.
Stay tuned for our extended analysis of the game, coming soon.
The Blazers will travel to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on Monday night at 7:30 PM, Pacific.