The Portland Trail Blazers started their game with the Toronto Raptors on Monday night in familiar fashion: looking like they didn’t really care. After a first quarter filled with moans and groans, Portland’s bench picked up the pace and got the Blazers back in the game. From there, tough inside scoring, active defense, and a few shots by CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard in the fourth period salted away a much-needed 118-113 victory.
McCollum led the Blazers with 29 points on 11-18 shooting. He captained the decisive fourth quarter, providing a sure, secure outlet when Portland needed points. Lillard scored 24 on 10-21 shooting. The starting guards shot a combined 9-17 from three-point range in the process.
Big men Larry Nance, Jr. (7-7, 15 points, 5 rebounds) and Jusuf Nurkic (14 rebounds and a ton of stiff defense) provided critical infrastructure that made the guard scoring count.
After all the pomp and circumstance from Coach Chauncey Billups following a lifeless performance by the Blazers last night against the Denver Nuggets, Portland’s starting lineup came out ready and willing... to give up as many open threes as the Toronto Raptors wanted.
Jusuf Nurkic looked game with some pep in his step, but his first real post-up saw him fight with Scottie Barnes and lose to the smaller rookie - throwing up a post shot that was as likely to go in as it was to land in the first row. It was very much lipstick on a pig and that feels insulting to the pigs out there.
The bench unit came in, played with fire, aggression - mostly just giving a <<redacted>>. Cody Zeller kept a possession alive diving into the stands that resulted in a kick out from Larry Nance Jr to Anfernee Simons for three. Then another Simons three. A Simons pull up from the line. Voila, the equation came clear: giving a damn + working for each other = not getting run out of the gym. Toronto still led 33-24 after one, though.
Larry Nance, Jr. helped the Blazers charge right back at the start of the second period. He pushed the ball down the floor, almost begging teammates to run with him. He set screens to free his guards. He also scored in the lane. Nance, Jr. was alive, wholly engrossed with, and at one with, the game. The Raptors hit a couple threes to save themselves from the onslaught, but once again we saw Portland’s second unit picking up the mess left by the first.
CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard returned the Raptors’ three-point shooting with interest as the quarter wound through its middle minutes. Toronto still had an edge in hustle and playmaking, but scoring three at a time makes up for a lot of hiccups.
Still, the Raptors committed hard to defending out high against Portland guards while crashing the boards and managed to pull off both reasonably well. That kept them afloat in the sea of threes.
Lillard picked up a technical foul for arguing a call with 3:15 remaining in the half. He walked off the floor into a timeout saying words you wouldn’t want grandma to hear. It appeared to light his fire, though. He drove to the hoop hard on the next two possessions, showing bursts of speed seldom seen this season. When Robert Covington and Norman Powell followed suit a minute later, the Blazers led. That capped off a 9-0 run, completing a quarter in which the Blazers shot 15-20. A 75% success rate will make everything look rosy. Portland led 61-60 at the half.
The third period started with both teams trying to establish supremacy in the lane. They drove to the cup and hit each other hard, making like bumper cars. Nurkic looked good. He got a stout block and plenty of hard whacks in. Portland prospered accordingly. They picked up dribblers way out high and delayed them enough to let the inside help close off drives. They also picked up the rebounding energy and limited the Raptors to one shot. By the 5:30 mark they had built a 7-point lead. A slow pace and rough-and-tumble play helped them maintain it until 90 seconds or so remained. If nobody is scoring, nobody is making up margins either. Toronto scored a wee bit faster and easier in the final few possessions as the pace picked up. The teams were tied at 85 after three.
McCollum and Lillard came out in the fourth draining shots like a newly-minted 21-year-old on their birthday. Three makes, two of them threes, keyed a 10-0 run. When Nance, Jr. slipped a screen with 8:30 remaining, receiving a McCollum pass for an alley-oop jam, the Blazers served notice that they weren’t going to give this one up. After threes by McCollum and Nassir Little, the rout was on. It seemed like every Toronto threat was defended by three Blazers. The game appeared to be in Portland’s pocket.
Toronto made a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 105-101 with 5:34 remaining, but Nance, Jr. flushed a baseline jam and then CJ McCollum registered a MONSTER block against Scottie Barnes on the next possession. When Lillard hit a three, it capped off the metaphorical finger wave. The Raptors would not be taking this one.
Or so it seemed.
The Blazers got a little casual on offense, missing open shots. Meanwhile the Raptors went into panic mode. Fred VanVleet hit a pair of threes and a layup. The game started to resemble Jurassic Park as the scoreboard read 112-111 with 1:51 remaining.
After that, Norman Powell was fouled on a drive and hit both free throws, taking it to 114-111. The clock read 1:30. Toronto gave Portland a huge assist by committing an unforced turnover on the next possession, throwing the ball out of bounds.
Lillard drove for a floater, putting it up too strong. He corralled his own offensive rebound, though, getting the ball to McCollum, who hit a short jumper to put the Blazers up 116-111, 48 seconds on the clock. When Nurkic forced Barnes under the basket and into a travel, the game was over...fittingly, thanks to big-man defense.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon!
The Blazers go up against the mighty Chicago Bulls Wednesday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.