The Portland Trail Blazers beat the woefully shorthanded Orland Magic 112-105 Friday. Anything short would have been a disaster, with Orlando suiting up everyone but the coaching and arena staff after shipping off essentially the upper-third of its roster yesterday at the trade deadline. Jusuf Nurkic made his long-awaited return. Robert Covington was great. So was Enes Kanter, returning to his bench role. But that’s not what we’re here for today. Like a child receiving a forgotten Christmas gift in July, all eyes were fixated on the Blazers’ shiny new sharpshooting wing toy.
Despite no practice time with the team, Norman Powell, who was just a freeway commute away from where his former team was relocated to in Tampa, made the trek and slotted right into the starting lineup in place of Damian Lillard, who missed the game due to a “left knee contusion,” which hopefully reads closer to “well deserved rest against a downtrodden opponent.”
Powell played 36 minutes and was as advertised, scoring 22 points on 7-13 shooting, including 5 threes to go along with 2 steals and a block. With CJ McCollum struggling through a rough 8-26 shooting night, Powell all but saved the day for the Blazers. What a debut.
Portland’s new lineup didn’t gel immediately, at least on defense, as the all but forgotten members of the Magic roster went “Island of Misfit Toys” on the Blazers for most of the opening period. Orlando played with an almost cliche level of nothing-to-lose confidence, shooting the ball at a near 80% rate for most of the quarter before falling back to Earth. CJ McCollum, playing the role of leading man, was the point of attack but mostly settled for three-pointers on the way to 11 points. Powell filled in nicely has the Garth to his Wayne, scoring 8 points and looked like he’s been a fixture of the offense all season. It didn’t take long for him to flash to the tools that he brings to the table: outside shooting - particularly from the corners - and a deadly dribble-drive. The Magic led by as much as 6, but Portland kept within striking distance and eventually took the lead in the final minute. Blazers led 35-32 after one.
Portland started ratchet up the defensive pressure and Orlando suddenly couldn’t buy a bucket. With the Magic tossing out lineups of guys who have likely never shared minutes on the floor together outside of practice, much of the action was improvised, which led to some questionable shot selection. For instance, Mo Bamba is a 28% 3-point shooter this season, but that didn’t stop him from attempting 6 tonight, of which he only made 1. The Blazers were happy to let Orlando shoot themselves seemingly out of the game and only had to tread water to push their lead further. Anfernee Simons made his return to the rotation and immediately found his shooting stroke, canning three from outside in an extended run. Portland held a 10-point lead heading into the break at 65-55.
With the game in relative control and a comfortable victory seemingly on the horizon, everything came undone for the Blazers in the third quarter. Instead of putting the game away, Portland suffered a disastrous nearly 5-minute stretch where they went scoreless, and allowed the Magic to come back and tie the game. This included an especially frustrating sequence where Nurkic had back-to-back turnovers on careless passes in the open court, one leading to an Orlando bucket. The drought was finally ended by a three from none other than Powell, because rescuing your new squad from ridicule and embarrassment the first day on the job is apparently something he brings to the table. Who knew? More work would still need to be done, but the Blazers held a small, 80-77 advantage heading into the final frame.
The last 12 minutes were stressful, as Portland broke out of its offensive slump but also now had to deal with an inspired Magic squad with nothing to lose. Powell continued to fuel the offense alongside McCollum, but Dwayne Bacon became a proverbial thorn in side and helped to keep Orlando close the rest of the way. A three from James Ennis midway through the quarter tied the game at 94, but the Blazers were able to keep their composure and rattle off seven straight points that ultimately became the decider.
The return of Nurkic was great to see, but probably filled with more groans than cheers. He got into foul trouble early and never seemed to find a rhythm on offense, but his trademark size and physicality were present on several defensive possessions. There will surely be guys nursing bruises in the locker room. The sequence of bad passes were unforced and careless, and he later looked off a wide open Powell in the corner for a three-point attempt of his own that didn’t find the mark. Some rust is to be expected, so he’ll get a pass here, let’s just hope he bounces back.
The Blazers will get a day off before facing off with none other than Gary Trent Jr. and the Toronto Raptors Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. Pacific.