The Portland Trail Blazers entered Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers without starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Down 42 points before the opening tip, Portland made up for it with tougher-than-normal defense, gritty effort, plus big scoring nights from Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell. It wasn’t enough to secure victory, as L.A. streaked away in the fourth period to a 102-90 win. But it was better basketball than the Blazers played their prior game against the Boston Celtics. That’s something.
If you missed the contest, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Below are other interesting developments and analysis.
The Blazers have been unable to summon much “D” for the last few weeks but tonight they earned a solid “E” for effort. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are better players than anyone the Blazers fielded tonight. But a superior starting lineup with pedestrian energy/execution ends up looking pretty ordinary.
“Ordinary” didn’t even begin to describe a perimeter rotation featuring (gulp!) CJ Elleby, Dennis Smith, Jr., and Tony Snell. Between them, those three are making the equivalent of Lillard’s valet tips. Their skill level wasn’t tops and their ability to control the ball—let alone run the offense—was suspect. BUT they tried hard.
Surprise, surprise, effort turned a suboptimal lineup into a fairly passable one. This was not the Clippers’ best game. If they had been able to hit threes—or take more advantage of Paul George’s talent—they could have relaxed. They couldn’t do either, and Portland stayed right with them.
No heads hung for the Blazers. No feet flagged. They just played decent, mostly-competent basketball. They ran plays. They closed out. They didn’t stop doing those things even when the Clippers made them look inexperienced, occasionally silly. It didn’t matter how they looked compared to their opponents. They just kept going and it worked.
Bravo, Blazers. It was not a night to ask for miracles. Basketball was enough. They played it.
Jusuf Nurkic played big with the starting guards out. That’s true figuratively, as he amassed 31 points on 12-19 shooting. It was also true literally. Nurkic knew he had all the time—and almost all the touches—he could ask for tonight. He used both well, backing opponents into the lane and bulling his way through them. This was a great reminder that we don’t see everything Nurk can be on a regular basis. The team wouldn’t necessarily be better if we did—see also questionable fouling decisions and the low overall score—but it’s still nice to see.
It was no accident that the Blazers went into the paint heavily tonight. Nurkic was a part of it. But frankly, Portland’s perimeter players were so outclassed by their opponents that offense beyond the arc was hard to come by. When they couldn’t generate open looks, Portland pried them free wherever they could. They ended up scoring 52 inside.
The Blazers did a couple different things defending screen plays tonight. First of all, Smith, Jr. was a clear upgrade in this department. He didn’t leave his bigs in impossible situations. The Clippers still got open off of pick plays, but they had to work at it. Slowing down the opponent offense a smidge made it easier to defend.
Nurkic also dropped back into the paint tonight more than usual. The Clippers are a lousy three-point shooting team. That gave him latitude. It seemed more natural/comfortable for Nurk and the guards to play this way. L.A. had a hard time scoring in the paint most of the game.
The Blazers also employed plenty of zone defense. (See above about the Clippers’ shooting giving Portland more options.) As with most other facets, it wasn’t decisive, but it wasn’t horrible.
It was striking how, playing different coverages with far different player combinations, the Blazers looked more coordinated with a cobbled-together lineup than they often do with their regular-rotation and defense. Hmmmmm...
Lack of Individual Scorers
As the game closed, Portland’s lack of individual scorers started to show. Lest you think the compliments above are an endorsement of life without Lillard and McCollum, watch the first 6:00 of the fourth quarter, in which the Blazers made only two field goals, both extended jumpers. Their one-on-one moves ranged from mediocre to tragic. Nurkic did his best; he was actually effective. But it was weird to see a team with firepower to burn all season suddenly unable to find any. Larry Nance, Jr. and Robert Covington taking key shots? That’s not ok.
The Clips, of course, had no such problem. George and Reggie Jackson both filled that role well. That pretty much decided the game late.
There was no way to avoid it: committing 18 turnovers made the game hard for Portland tonight. No judgment. That’s going to happen when all your ball-handlers and distributors average less than 15 minutes per game.
Norman Powell turned into a pure scorer tonight, a role he’s not often allowed to play. He responded with 29 on 10-24 shooting. The Clippers sent double teams much of the night to prevent him from taking over the game. That he still managed that kind of production speaks well of his hidden scoring capacity.
The Blazers face the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night at 7:00 PM.