On a night where both of the Blazers’ stars had forgettable shooting performances, it was the bigs who came through with huge plays down the stretch. Jusuf Nurkic turned in a workman-like double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Larry Nance Jr. continued his stellar play with perhaps his best game in a Portland uniform (16 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals).
Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 22 points and 10 assists but shot only 6-18 from the field.
Even missing their All-Star center in Nikola Vucevic, Chicago is fielding easily their most competitive roster since the Derrick Rose era, and their record (10-5) shows it. A busy offseason surrounded Vucevic and Zach LaVine with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, who have fit like a glove. Portland was completely outmatched in the early going by the Bulls’ trio and had to dig deep in the second half to claw their way back into the game.
The Blazers found themselves in a hole almost immediately, as the Bulls came out on fire. LaVine led a three-point barrage with three triples in the quarter and DeRozan roamed just about wherever he pleased inside the arc, giving the Portland defense seemingly unmanageable amount of real estate to cover.
Meanwhile, the Blazers struggled mightily with their own shot and were forced to rely on a plodding half-court offense to stay afloat. Portland worked the ball around well, but couldn’t convert that into reliable shot making. Those troubles were all the more apparent watching Chicago execute many of the same principles - unselfish passing, pace and an emphasis on playing from the inside-out - glaringly more effectively at the the other end.
Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for a goose egg in the points column and the Blazers were lucky to be as close as they were trailing 33-24 after one.
It was just more of the same with DeRozan and LaVine continuing to make the Portland defense look like Swiss cheese. The Bulls had an answer for everything thrown their way and eventually were just choosing between good shots and better shots. The duo combined for 33 points in the half versus just 6 for Lillard and McCollum, who were stifled by tenacious defense from Ball and the all too familiar Alex Caruso.
If it weren’t for some careless fouls on behalf of Chicago, the Blazers would have faced a much less surmountable task, but instead trailed 63-48 heading into the locker room.
It was night to day coming out of the break, as Portland finally showed up to the ball game. After throwing the kitchen sink at LaVine in the first 24 minutes, they threw the sink, counter and dishwasher at him in the third, running him off the three-point line, sending double-teams and essentially daring anybody else to beat them. The tactic worked, and Chicago looking near-invincible up to that point began showing cracks.
While the Blazer backcourt still struggled to get points on the board, they were given a huge boost from the frontcourt. Nurkic finally starting finding some success in the pick and roll, Nance Jr. was a big factor at both ends, and suddenly Portland had scrapped back to trail by single digits. Now it was the Blazers winning hustle plays and using pace to their advantage.
Bulls took just a 85-81 lead heading into the fourth.
Portland continued to ride the momentum in crunch time and eventually tied the game on a Lillard three just under the 8-minute mark. Another triple from McCollum a couple possessions later completed the comeback and regained a brief 94-92 lead. From there, it was a back-and-forth battle down ulcer gulch.
The teams traded the lead into the final minute, but Chicago’s magic appeared to have run dry. LaVine had more than a couple clean looks from deep that could have either tied or regained the lead for the Bulls, but none found their mark.
A couple big shots from Dame, including a 30-foot bomb, and the upset was there for the taking. The Blazers didn’t score a field goal in the final two minutes, but got to the foul line where they were perfect.
Portland somehow escapes with a surprising win.
Stay tuned for the extended analysis coming soon.
The Blazers get a couple days off before hosting the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday evening at 7 p.m. Pacific.