The Portland Trail Blazers entered their game with the Philadelphia 76’ers on Monday night at full strength. The Sixers were without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons, arguably their top three players from last season. You wouldn’t have known it on the floor, though. Portland and Philadelphia played a back-and-forth, frenzied first half followed by a somewhat more clinical second.
Portland got plenty of scoring from their guard corps. Norman Powell had a huge night, scoring 22 to keep his team in the game. Anfernee Simons was just as big off the bench, scoring 17 on 7-12 shooting. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 20 apiece.
But the Blazers also allowed the opponent 52% shooting from the field, plus an incredible 34 assists on 43 made buckets. Fatigue on the second night of a back-to-back took the offense out from under Portland’s feet. The defense had never been there to begin with. The result was a 113-103 loss that left the Blazers still seeking their first road win of the season.
The Blazers opened their night in Philly the same way they left Charlotte last night: shooting threes. CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard both hit, contributing to a quick 8-point flurry. Sadly, the defense remained permissive. Not only did Philly hit threes in turn, they converted drives, grabbed offensive rebounds, and turned Portland turnovers into quick points. With the Sixers on alert, Portland’s offense started operating slower, always a bad sign. Suddenly, nothing was falling.
In response the Blazers went to the second unit, perhaps a wee bit early. Nassir Little and Larry Nance, Jr. gave the Sixers some of their own medicine on defense. At that point, nobody was scoring! But that was a step ahead for the Blazers. When Anfernee Simons stroked a three and Nance, Jr. converted a breakaway dunk, Portland was back in business. Philly led 27-21 after one, but it was a game.
Tony Snell got his first action of the season in the early second quarter. He provided even MORE energy, combining with Little and Nance, Jr. to make Portland’s attack the equivalent of the Ultimate Warrior shaking the ring ropes. Their technique was just as lacking as the former champ’s, though. Both teams played in a frenzy, taking covered shots and whipping turnovers to each other. Portland couldn’t score for the first four minutes, but they didn’t let the Sixers escape. Snell hit a pair of threes. Then Lillard, McCollum, and Norman Powell started scoring mid-period and everything looked just fine again. By the 5:00 mark, the score was all but tied.
Portland’s starters couldn’t follow up when they returned. They were unable to keep the Sixers away from the rim. Dunks and layups gave Philly enough juice to keep up with the Blazers’ offense. The Blazers were caught in a Catch-22: offense or defense, starters or bench? The only guy really bucking the trend was Simons, who provided second-unit energy with first-unit scoring, hitting 3-4 shots for 8 points by the half. Philadelphia led 54-53 at the break.
True to form, Portland’s starters lost containment in the opening minutes of the third, not only giving up drives, but fouls which they, to that point, had avoided. Powell rode to the rescue, hitting a three, a pair of free throws, and a layup to stem a tide that threatened to take the Sixers to a double-digit lead. Then Little checked in with the first unit to play power forward, which jazzed up the defense a bit. It wasn’t enough to cover entirely for Portland’s backcourt, but it helped for a while.
Just when you thought things were getting better, the collapsing interior defense started allowing open threes. Three points on “and-ones”...three points on jump shots... that was a lot of threes for the Sixers. By the four-minute mark, they had that coveted double-digit edge. Much of it came courtesy of Georges Niang, a 6’7 journeyman who should not be lighting up two possessions, let alone a quarter.
Once again, though, the bench squad came to Portland’s rescue, forcing turnovers in the final 90 seconds of the period and giving their team a chance to convert. It worked. Philly didn’t hit any shots late, but still owned an 86-81 lead heading into the fourth.
Even the comparatively-young second unit looked like they were suffering from fatigue as the fourth quarter commenced. Philly played smart, setting screens at the top of the floor and towards the baseline. Every time the Blazers had to go around one, they looked a step slower. Open shots for the Sixers became commonplace. By the 6:00 mark, the Sixers had built the lead back to 10.
At that point, Lillard took over, governing every possession, leading the Blazers back into a more spread-court offense instead of the screen-and-pass system they’ve been using, They generated opportunities for individual iso takes, which they converted. That made sense, considering they were now going with a four-guard offense consisting of Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Simons, and Jusuf Nurkic. It was like the Blazers said, “Screw it. We’ll just score until we win.” For a while they did, nearly every trip down the floor.
On the other end, the Tiny Lineup made up for lack of height by scrambling everywhere on defense, then praying to pick up a rebound off a miss. They crowded dribblers way out behind the three-point arc, sending 2-3 men against penetration. Nurkic patrolled the lane and the glass. It wasn’t bad. They committed a few fouls, but no more than they had been in the period. Would it be enough, though? Philadelphia still led by 5 with 3:20 remaining despite the Blazers hitting 5 shots in a row prior.
Sadly, Portland fizzled at both ends of the court simultaneously. Drives and pull-ups became jumpers, then longer jumpers. They fell short. The Sixers passed around Portland’s scrambling, finding ludicrously open attempts. With 90 seconds left, the lead was back to 10 and the Blazers’ fate was sealed.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers visit Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Wednesday, with a 4:00 PM, Pacific tip.