The Portland Trail Blazers obliterated the Phoenix Suns tonight in Game 2 of their 2021-22 regular season campaign. The 134-105 final score tells you that things went PRETTY well for Portland. If you want to see how the game unfolded, check out our instant recap. If you want to hear more about why, here are the key points from the evening.
For most of this game, Portland ran their offense double-time. It looked much better. From training camp until this game, we’ve basically seen the Blazers set one significant screen per play, make one pass, then take a shot. It’s like they were practicing the remedial version of their schemes. Tonight they threw it into overdrive, setting multiple screens and making extra passes. This was enabled by (gasp!) more than just one or two players moving on offensive sets. The result was much less kindergarten, much more carnival ride.
Putting the Suns defense into dizzy teacups land helped Portland get open looks earlier in the clock. They showed no remorse in taking them, and all of a sudden an offense struggling to get 25 in a quarter made 30 look simple and 40 achievable.
Return of the Threes
Getting the ball inside is a critical part of Portland’s new attack. Fair enough, but tonight the guys in red and black attempted FIFTY (50) threes. At the start of the game, most of their deep shots came from drive-and-kick plays. After they warmed up, threes were coming from everywhere: off iso dribbles, through perimeter passes, after penetration...it just didn’t matter. The Blazers shot 42% from distance. Everyone in their starting lineup except Jusuf Nurkic hit at least two. The bench made nine combined.
The Blazers didn’t abandon the inside game. They scored 50 in the paint (many of those in transition). They didn’t attempt a lot of free throws (17). Either way, the three-pointers made those other stats secondary.
This game felt like a statement that, no matter what design they employ, permission to score quickly and deep is going to be a big part of Portland’s success.
For all the extra speed in the offense, the Blazers took good care of the ball...a hopeful sign. They committed 9 turnovers, evenly dispersed throughout the rotation. That’s a tiny number compared to the potential risk they incurred. They also managed 24 assists, only one less than they had in their opening-night loss.
The Blazers played snappy and happy on defense tonight. Jusuf Nurkic did a good job getting out to the perimeter, then moving laterally without fouling. CJ McCollum provided the extra, mid-clock rotation that the Blazers had been sorely missing during previous outings this fall.
For the uninitiated, Portland is good at getting to the ball, then making one rotation to the middle afterwards to cover whomever helped. After that, almost nothing has happened, leaving the opponent perpetually one pass away from Easy Street on any given possession.
Tonight McCollum made that extra rotation. Whether it was towards the lane or out to the arc, CJ was there. That one little bit of hustle gave his teammates time to reset the defense, leading to far fewer open shots for the Suns.
Even so, Portland did have a rather large issue during the parts of the game where Phoenix still cared. No matter who rotated in which direction, the Blazers sending their center out to the arc to pick up the ball left the rim defended by only short people. Again and again in the first half, Phoenix turned passes directly to the bucket into easy scores. The Blazers will need to fix that. Nurkic and Zeller can get back to help, but they can’t travel faster than the speed of alley-oop.
Even on a good defensive night for Portland, Phoenix shot 48.3% from the field and scored 56 in the paint. The Blazers won handily by holding the Suns to 9-28, 32.1% from the arc and allowing only 15 free throws. Even when outsized inside, they moved their feet, not just their intentions. It made a big difference.
We’re going to talk about scorers in a second, but first we’re going to give credit to the man who made much of it possible: Jusuf Nurkic. Nurk set innumerable screens tonight, also rolling with alacrity to create a double-threat from the center position. When you read about huge guard scoring numbers, think of those same guards curling off of Nurkic picks. When you hear about three-pointers falling, think about defenders having to stay in the lane or on the strong side of the court because Nurkic kept the scoring threat credible with his size and mobility. His stats read 9 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes. They also read just 2 turnovers and a single foul. But Nurk’s real contributions came beyond the boxscore. He was everything for the Blazers tonight because he helped everyone else be better.
CJ Leads the Way
CJ McCollum scored 28 points on 10-19 shooting, 6-11 from the arc. He led all scorers in the game, putting up as many shot attempts as any two other starters combined.
McCollum’s offense was both deadly and efficient. He was the one breaking down Phoenix’s defense when the Blazers got stuck. He was the one with his hands out, ready to shoot a three off of the pass. He looked as good as Damian Lillard looks on his great nights. Because of that, the Suns had no place to settle on the court. They were either going to get killed on the pick and roll or smashed by CJ. Able to concentrate on neither solely, they fell to both.
Once again, Damian Lillard seemed content to play a purer point guard role than is his usual practice. Perhaps that’s overstated? It seems like every year, Dame spends the first third of the season making sure everyone else is ok and then torches the league during the remaining two-thirds. His teammates rewarded his benevolence tonight, hitting enough shots to grant him 8 assists along with his 19 points.
The best number of all might be Lillard playing just 25 minutes in the game. He was forced into 40 on opening night. Every five-minute increment the Blazers can save him will help in the long run.
The Team Comes Through
Nobody scores 134 points without multiple players catching fire. Norman Powell was the first example, scoring 16 points in 12 minutes before leaving the game with a knee injury in the second quarter.
He was hardly alone.
Nassir Little replaced Powell in the first unit and hit 5 out of 10 shots for 11 points. Anfernee Simons played 24 minutes and scored 18, hitting 7-14 from the field, 4-8 from the arc. His quick-trigger three came back into play. Like all the Blazers, he played like the green light was shining brightly and took advantage. Meanwhile Dennis Smith, Jr. dished 5 assists in 15 minutes, looking like a kid in a candy story.
In all, 13 players took the floor for Portland and every one of them scored.
The second-half blowout not only allowed Portland’s deeper bench to play, it allowed them to run. The Blazers tallied 21 points in transition against only 6 for Phoenix, a radical inversion from their loss to Sacramento. 54.3% shooting from the field overall and a bunch of highlight-reel dunking was their reward. Watch for this game to turn up in all those fancy music videos the arena staff cooks up to inspire fans for the season.
The Blazers will travel to Los Angeles to face the Clippers on Monday night at 7:30 PM, Pacific.