The Portland Trail Blazers downed the Philadelphia 76ers 118-111 in Moda Center on Saturday night behind 39 big points from Damian Lillard. It was a manufactured win. Even without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers fought hard. Portland had to fight off several runs as Lillard scrambled to save them. In the end, results were satisfying even if the process was laborious.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Once you’re done with that, here are some other themes of the evening.
If the Trail Blazers are trying to send a message to the league, it’s coming back postage due. The Blazers had every incentive to come out and crush the Sixers tonight. Portland needs wins. Philadelphia was playing without their two best players. They beat the Blazers earlier in the season under those same circumstances, so Portland owed them. Instead of jumping on the opponent, the Blazers seemed ok making a “He Said, She Said” hash out of the game...winning the argument, but not ending it decisively.
The Blazers had a couple of scintillating defensive plays—blocks and forced turnovers—but their efforts on that end started tepid and never really improved much. Portland won by hitting shots. For much of the fourth quarter, the game rode on whether Philadelphia made or missed 1-2 buckets. They missed. Some credit goes to Portland for that. But this version of the Sixers shouldn’t be able to hang around like that, especially when they spent most of the game shooting 20-ish percent from the three-point arc while Portland lit them up. The shooting gap wasn’t a game-winner for Portland as much as a life raft which finally ended up on the right shore.
Fair enough. A win is a win. But the Blazers need continuity, control, decisiveness, will, and a dozen other things that might distinguish them from their Western Conference rivals. You know that kind of elite basketball when you see it. This was not that kind of game.
Damian Lillard proved the exception to the rule tonight, scoring 39 on 10-21 shooting from the field, 5-13 from the arc, and most importantly 14-14 on foul shots. Lillard had 7 assists and 3 blocked shots, making the stat line pretty too.
This wasn’t one of Lillard’s all-time efforts. There were a few too many “interesting” decisions and shots, maybe some defensive lapses in between the blocks. But he gave the Blazers what they needed: the win. Nobody else for Portland topped 20. Their defense would have given away the game to Philly had Lillard not dropped nearly 40.
Don’t miss the importance of free throws to Dame’s total. The return to elite status drawing fouls coincided with his return to ultra-elite scoring.
To Three or Not to Three
The Blazers shot 14-34, 44.1% from distance in the game. The three-pointer was their main weapon, staving off Philadelphia runs. The Sixers hovered around 25% most of the evening before upping their percentage in the latter half of the third and fourth periods, finishing 10-28, 35.7%. As it turned out, Portland needed all of those shots. Philly outscored them 52-36 in the paint, holding the Blazers to just 5 offensive rebounds.
Portland did take advantage of lane scoring in a couple of ways. When the Sixers closed a former 15-point gap to just 2 midway through the fourth, the Blazers drove the ball four straight times, converting on all four attempts. That followed a bit of unsuccessful jump shooting that got Portland in the predicament to begin with.
The Blazers also made hay at the line, hitting 23 of 23 foul shots. That helped them stay afloat amid Philly’s lane barrage.
Full credit for ultimately knowing how to underpin the distance shots with some solid scores.
One Way or the Other
Portland allowed the Sixers to shoot 50.6% from the field tonight. They did a reasonably good job on the perimeter, picking up screens and playing well against one-on-one dribblers outside. That seemed to be their area of focus.
As is typical, the Blazers ended up choosing which part of the court to watch rather than shutting down the whole thing. Philadelphia didn’t have to try a ton of corner threes because every time they drove past the outer shell of Portland’s defense, they found a relatively easy layup...no further passes required. This was not ideal.
Lillard accounted for 21 of Portland’s 80 field goal attempts tonight. Add in CJ McCollum and the number becomes 38, or nearly half. The Blazers knew how they wanted to attack and pretty much stuck with it. Balance be damned; they wanted this win.
Nurk vs Nance
One of the most interesting sidebars of the evening was Head Coach Chauncey Billups juggling Jusuf Nurkic and Larry Nance, Jr. The two bigs played virtually identical minutes: 23 vs. 22. Nurkic took 6 shot attempts, Nance, Jr. 5. Nurkic played a little in crunch time, but Nance finished the game.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Billups is more comfortable with Nance, Jr. on the defensive end. Given the cumulative results in this game, that may be justified. It’s not likely that Nurkic will settle well with any type of incursion onto his role or minutes, though. Stay tuned.
The Blazers get a rematch with the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.