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Nurkic, Lillard Score Big but Blazers Play Small in Loss to Kings

Sacramento’s interior play leads to another Portland road loss.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Sacramento Kings 125-121 Wednesday night, wasting a 28-point, 17-rebound, 5-assist night from center Jusuf Nurkic. The loss drops the Blazers to 10-9 overall this season, 1-8 on the road. The Kings put 7 players into double figures while shooting 52.3% from the floor on their way to victory.

If you missed the game, you can read Marlow Ferguson Jr.’s recap here. Once you’ve seen how it went, here are the other factors playing into the outcome.

Interior Defense

Let’s just call it like it is. Portland’s interior defense doesn’t exist...at least not with the first unit, and only barely with the second. Sacramento’s shot chart tonight looked like the La Brea tar pit moved right into the middle of the key: a black, inky spot of doom. The Kings scored 60 in the paint, seemingly half of them in the first quarter alone. That contributed mightily to their fantastic shooting percentage.

Sacramento didn’t shoot lights-out from distance either...only 36.4% for the evening, and they had to warm up to get there. The Blazers allowed more rim shots than a Henny Youngman concert for no particular reason.

Giving it Back

To be fair, the Blazers gave as good as they got. Jusuf Nurkic’s points came close to the hoop. Damian Lillard made good use of the drive in the first half, looking more video game than human. Stop-and-go hesitation led to multiple layups. Portland scored 58 at the cup themselves, only 2 fewer than the Kings.

Screens

Whatever energy the Blazers lacked on the defensive end, they made up for with screens. Every big who took the floor set them. The guards used them well too. This provided dramatic contrast with Sacramento, as they did neither. Portland got plenty of easy shots simply because they didn’t give up on the pick.

Fast Bench

The effort of Portland’s starters famously goes back and forth, but the bench crew is starting to develop an identity. They get active in the passing lanes, trying to force bobbles and steals, then take off in transition at the first opportunity. That’s not a bad role for springy young players and short-minute vets. The change of pace is welcome. Granted, Sacramento wants to play fast, but not that way.

Beasting

The Blazers saw two versions of Jusuf Nurkic tonight. On offense, he was active, intense, the Bosnian Beast returned. His stat line was more than impressive; it was phenomenal. The Blazers would not have not run up the scoreboard like they did without him.

On the other side of the floor, Portland’s defense was pretty permissive with Nurkic on the floor. He couldn’t cover his own space well, let alone render the help his teammates needed. The Blazers left an awfully long “to do” list for him, as they often do. It didn’t get completed.

To be fair, though, they shouldn’t have been relying on him so hard when he was carrying them on the other end.

CJ Goes Bonk

CJ McCollum will not circle this night in his scrapbook of good memories. He shot 6-20 from the field, 1-6 from distance, for 13 points, 6 assists, 4 turnovers, and 5 personal fouls. He was charged with inbounding the ball on a critical play with 24 seconds remaining in the fourth period, his team down four. It was Portland’s last shot at winning. As it turned out, they didn’t even get a shot. McCollum couldn’t find a target for the inbounds pass and the Blazers got whistled for the rare and tragic five-second violation.

Even worse, Kings guards Davion Mitchell and Buddy Hield cooked the Blazers. Hield was equal-opportunity, but Mitchell was mostly CJ’s responsibility.

Powell for Three

Norman Powell provided the steady scoring that McCollum couldn’t, hitting 5-10 from three-point range en route to 22 points. Powell was the ultimate outlet scorer for the offense, hitting in the open spaces Sacramento left while guarding McCollum and Damian Lillard.

Lillard Free Throws

Damian Lillard continued his parade to the foul line tonight, hitting 15 of 16 attempts. 3 of his top 4 free throw games of the season have come in the last week. That certainly helps the bottom line. He scored 32 despite shooting just 7-18, 3-12 from distance.

Dennis Smith, Jr.

Dennis Smith, Jr. took over Anfernee Simons’ minutes, as Simons was down with a respiratory ailment. Smith, Jr. isn’t as talented as Simons, but he’s way more point-guard-y. He’s a real passer, anticipating the motion of his teammates instead of reacting to them. It’s been a bit since Portland has experienced that pureness.

Lack of Focus

Once again, the Blazers entered a road game against a supposedly-inferior opponent with a lack of focus. Defense was the big sign, but there were smaller ones. Robert Covington got ejected for throwing his mask in the vicinity of an official. The offensive attack went up and down. Half the team got into it with the refs. Inconsistent close outs, lackadaisical box outs, that final five-second violation...it all adds up. Most damning of all, the Blazers let the Kings hang around all game even after Harrison Barnes and De’Aaron Fox both went to the locker room mid-game.

We’re not to the dog days of the season yet. The Blazers have everything to prove and no laurels to rest on. Their lack of attention to detail—coupled with a lack of commitment to energetic play—boggles the mind. If they don’t have anything to play harder for, when will they find it?

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Life isn’t going to get any easier. The Blazers face off against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific...on the road.