In a matinee matchup at Madison Square Garden, the Portland Trail Blazers fell to the New York Knicks 110-99. Damian Lillard led all scorers with 29 points along with nine assists. Gary Trent Jr. had 19 points himself while Enes Kanter and Robert Covington both cobbled together double-doubles.
Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton led the way for the Knicks, scoring 22 each. RJ Barrett had 18 himself while Alec Burks provided 16 off the bench.
It was a pretty even start to the game, with both teams trading shots early on. The Knicks mixed up their pace well, knowing when to wind the clock down and let Julius Randle bully-ball in the post and when to push in the fastbreak. For a team that’s one of the slowest in the league, it was a little surprising. New York did a good job taking advantage of Portland’s defensive miscommunications. Luckily, Portland was raining it in from outside early. Gary Trent Jr. looked as confident as ever looking for his shot and Robert Covington even made a pair of threes. It helps when Damian Lillard is back and able to draw defenders away from his teammates. Anytime Portland sets a ball screen for Lillard, it immediately draws two. A logo three from Lillard made it 31-26 Portland after one.
The Blazers bench unit started blitzing more on screens, trying to put as much pressure as possible on Immanuel Quickley. Considering the rookie guard had 31 points against Portland last time, it wasn’t a bad idea. However, Quickley was very good at passing out of the double-team and it cost Portland some points. Portland’s bench held their own on both ends while Dame and others sat. With Lillard still visibly fighting an abdominal strain, it was encouraging to see the second unit make it easier on him. But a bad stretch of missed shots gave the Knicks a chance to take the lead, and take it they did. Back to back threes to end the quarter gave New York a 57-51 lead at the half.
Lillard looked hurt the entirety of this quarter and it didn’t seem to matter. He still slithered his way past New York’s bigs when needed or just pulled up from deep. Portland consistently ran a double screen with Kanter and Covington that opened shots up for Lillard and Trent. Unfortunately, the Knicks started to find their shot from outside, with Randle and Reggie Bullock happily pulling the trigger from three. The Knicks aren’t a team that usually likes to do that, but when playing Portland, it’s worth it to explore three-point opportunities. Portland just couldn’t burst New York’s eight-point bubble and the Knicks led 84-76 after three.
A point guard for the Portland Trial Blazers had a great start to the fourth quarter, and it’s not the one you think. Anfernee Simons scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth, scoring both at the rim and from outside. But the defense just wasn’t up to snuff from the second unit as a whole. Led by Quickley, the Knicks were able to get easy shots from the corners and at the rim. Costly turnovers led to easy buckets for New York, making it difficult for Portland to overtake. Absolutely nothing was falling towards the end of this game, with open threes left and right just rimming out. It just wasn’t meant to be. Portland fell 106-99.
Dame Playing Through Pain
Lillard had a good game. 29 points and nine assists is a good stat line. But as he continuously winced in pain and struggled to move with the same gusto, I couldn’t help but think that he should’ve taken this game off too. With so many injuries, I find it difficult to justify having Lillard play a Saturday matinee game against the Knicks.
I understand that’s not how Lillard operates and that he’s always going to choose playing over sitting, but Portland should be protecting Dame whenever possible. Thursday’s bizarre win over the 76ers showed that it’s possible to load manage Lillard while staying competitive. I would guess that most fans care more about having Dame at his best in the playoffs, not at 10 a.m. on a random Saturday in February. Resting Lillard when you can seems like the best move.
He only made three of his nine shots from outside, but Robert Covington looked more confident in his shot today. That’s a good thing for Portland, especially after the dreadful shooting start he’s had so far. In the first half he didn’t hesitate as much to launch it from outside, taking advantage whenever Lillard or Trent drew defenders away from him. The result? Easy shots.
He went cold in the second half, but honestly all of Portland did except for Simons it seemed. When he’s on, Portland is dangerous. He’s already a big-time contributor defensively (he had a block and two steals today), so it really is just a matter of if he can make shots. Portland is better when Covington is confident.
Gary Getting Plays
Gary Trent Jr. had 20 shots in this game. It’s the second game in a row where he has gotten 20 shots or more, and I think that’s a good thing for the Blazers. Even as he uncharacteristically missed some open threes late, I was impressed with how often he was creating those open threes for himself. There’s a reason Reggie Bullock had to stay glued to Trent as much as possible.
Interestingly, it seems like Terry Stotts is calling more plays that put the ball in Trent’s hands, trying to get him open. The double screen from Kanter and Covington to create that midrange jumper is a great example. His shot versatility has been a real treat already this season, and knowing that Trent is both comfortable and capable of self-creation opens things up for Portland.
Let’s Get Back Home
This loss to the Knicks marks the end of the longest road trip of the year for Portland. It wasn’t an easy stretch, but finishing 3-3 is not too bad all things considered. Finishing .500 in six road games with so few players available over that stretch is fine, and I’m sure that the Blazers are ready to get back into Moda for their next three matchups. Plus, we’ll always remember where we were during the CJ Elleby game.
Next up, the Blazers will be back in Portland to take on the Orlando Magic at the Moda Center. Tip-off is at 7:00 p.m. PT.