The Portland Trail Blazers, playing with just nine active players due to injury, stunned the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday night by a final score of 121-105. Perhaps drawing inspiration from Rocky while playing in the City of Brotherly Love, Portland overcame the absence of star Damian Lillard—along with a laundry list of others—with a complete team effort. Gary Trent Jr. led the way with 24 points, and was one of six Blazers who scored in double-figures.
After a tightly contested first half, Portland exploded for 40 points in the pivotal third quarter, while holding Philadelphia to just 19 on the other end. It was more than enough to overcome a dominant performance from early MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who led all scorers with 37 points, of which only six came in the second half.
After the Sixers opened on an 8-2 run, the Blazers found their footing and were able to go toe-to-toe with them, holding a slim lead by the midway point. Embiid suffered an apparent leg injury on a block attempt at the six-minute mark, sending Dwight Howard into the game earlier than expected, but was able to return with under two minutes remaining in the period. Furkan Korkmaz carried Philadelphia’s offense, scoring 10 points in the frame while the Blazers got a more balanced effort as all five starters scored. The score was tied 28-28 at the horn.
Portland started to create some distance on the scoreboard by way of the long ball and scrappy defense, leading by seven at the eight-minute mark. Embiid kept the Sixers in the game with his work in the paint and midrange, but the team was ice cold from downtown, going 0-10 from beyond the arc in the half. As the Blazers’ hot shooting eventually cooled, Philly slowly whittled away at the the lead behind their big man, pulling even with two minutes remaining in the frame. The score was again tied at the half, 57-57. Embiid finished the half with 31 points, 25 of which came in the second quarter.
The Blazers opened on a 14-0 run, as it took the Sixers three minutes to get on the board. Danny Green connected on Philly’s first three-pointer at the six-minute mark, after they missed their first 12 attempts. Portland’s ball movement allowed them to pick apart the Sixers’ defense, generating quality looks that they were able to consistently connect on. They did most of their damage from distance, but also found success at the rim, both on the drive and on the offensive glass. The Blazer lead ballooned as the quarter progressed, and they took a 97-76 advantage into the game’s final stanza.
The Sixers never made a serious run to get back in the game, as the Blazers stayed aggressive at both ends of the floor to ensure there would be no comeback. Philly waved the white flag at the seven-minute mark, sending in their subs with the Blazers up 25.
Credit is due across the board for the Blazers in the improbable victory. While Trent played a key role, he was actually the most inefficient Blazer shooting wise, as his 24 points came on 8-23 shooting. Carmelo Anthony, one of the least efficient players on the team this season, had a phenomenal night, going 8-14 from the field for 22 points and dishing out a team-high five assists. His selflessness embodied the team effort the Blazers needed to win the game against the more talented Sixers. Rodney Hood (16 points), Enes Kanter (17 points, 18 rebounds) and Anfernee Simons (14 points in 19 minutes) were also instrumental.
However, the real star of the night was rookie CJ Elleby, playing his first significant minutes of the season. The 2020 2nd-round pick rose to the occasion, playing with a spark and hustle that seemed to infect the rest of the team as well. He scored 15 points in 31 minutes, but his most important contribution was arguably his scrappy defensive effort and work on the glass. The 6’6” guard had three of Portland’s 19 offensive rebounds, which led to a bevy of second-chance opportunities.
Embiid was stellar, particularly in the second quarter, but didn’t get enough help from his teammates. Already playing without Ben Simmons, the Sixers got an uncharacteristically off night from Tobias Harris (12 points on 5-14 shooting), while Seth Curry was limited to just 12 minutes of action. Korkmaz did nothing after the hot start, and Green hit just the single shot. Much of the Sixers’ bench damage came in the fourth quarter, with the game already decided.
The Sixers actually outshot the Blazers on the night, but were disastrous from distance. Despite Embiid’s dominance down low, the Blazers actually had more paint points, largely because of the offensive rebounding. In general, Portland just put forth a better effort, played with more energy, and got contributions across the board, while Philadelphia got one great quarter out of one great player and not a whole lot else.
The Blazers’ road trip concludes in the Big Apple on Saturday, as they face the New York Knicks in a 10 a.m. PT matinee at Madison Square Garden.