The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Detroit Pistons 110-92 on Tuesday night, returning to their winning ways at the exact moment they returned to the Moda Center. Granted, a win over Detroit is rather like a corn dog: predictably good but not exceptional. But the 11-11 Blazers needed to right the ship after three consecutive road losses and the Pistons were just the opponent to do it against.
Damian Lillard and Norman Powell both sat out the game. In their places, Anfernee Simons and Tony Snell got the starting nod. Both struggled shooting. Snell hit 3 of 7 for 9 points in 27 minutes, redeemed by his 2 of 5 pace from the three-point arc. Simons shot 5-14, 2-6 for 12 points, but did not look shy in the least while doing so.
CJ McCollum led the Blazers with 28 points, but he hit only 11-26 from the field, 4-11 from the arc in doing so. (Contrast that with Detroit’s Cade Cunningham, who scored 26 on 10-13 shooting.) Mirroring McCollum, Portland’s offense was productive, but not up to its usual snuff.
The good news for the Blazers: they kept the game in hand with DEFENSE. No, that’s not a misprint. The Pistons shot only 38.2% from the field, a terrible 25.7% from the arc.
Since this is a rare occurrence, we’ll dedicate the bulk of the analysis to explaining why Portland succeeded defensively.
Guards Get Close
Simons spent most of his evening getting up in the grill of his Pistons counterparts. Had they dimmed the lights and pulled out a rotating mirror ball, Simons would have been in prime slow-dance territory. McCollum also played closer to opponents than usual. Portland’s guards forced the Pistons to take more dribbles in order to gain momentum on their drives. That allowed the Blazers’ bigs to get set.
Detroit’s relative lack of speed in the backcourt helped, but at least the Blazers came in with a plan to take advantage of it.
Detroit’s guards are also inexperienced. The Blazers took advantage by switching coverages, going man-to-man on one possession, throwing a zone on the next. They never let the Pistons get too comfortable in their offensive sets.
A Mighty Fortress
Jusuf Nurkic evidently understood that, unless he swung a forearm at his temple, Pistons center Isaiah Stewart was unlikely to light up the floor. That left him free to help perimeter players defend penetration.
With Powell out, Nurkic also got to link with Larry Nance, Jr. and Robert Covington, and those two got to play with each other. Together, the trio formed a fairly consistent interlocking web of tall, mostly-rangy defenders. Detroit found solid resistance inside during every shift, scoring only 34 points in the paint.
The Pistons are the absolute worst three-point shooting team in the league. That showed tonight. The Blazers didn’t defend the arc as well as they defended inside, but they didn’t have to. The Pistons missed a ton of jumpers. Each brick encouraged the Blazers to converge aggressively in the paint.
We often comment that Portland can defend inside or outside, just not both at the same time. Freed of the responsibility to stop shooters, their interior prowess was more than enough.
This was a very Nurk-ish outing on offense. Portland’s starting center attempted only 8 shots, hitting 5 for 13 points. That’s nowhere near his best production of the season, but he didn’t seem to mind much. He set incredibly solid screens and whipped the ball to open comrades from his central perch. Nurkic had 5 assists in 27 minutes, plus 4 offensive rebounds and enough pick setting to make a coaching instructional tape. The guards scored more, but this game quietly belonged to Nurk.
Portland gets another game at home on Thursday night, as they face the San Antonio Spurs at 7:00, Pacific.