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Lillard-Free Blazers Claw Back from 16-Point Deficit, Shock Spurs

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The Blazers were without their All-Star, but rallied together for a gritty, thrilling comeback win over San Antonio.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

On the road, without their star player, and down 16 late in the third quarter, the storyline seemed written for the Portland Trail Blazers to live to fight for another day. But thanks to an uncharacteristically-ferocious defensive effort down the stretch and big contributions from CJ McCollum and the supporting cast, Portland clawed back for an exhilarating 107-106 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

With 4:56 left in the third, ESPN gave the Spurs a 93.3 percent chance of winning. But try not to say that too loudly in front of a group led by McCollum, a player known for helping lead seemingly-insurmountable charges. In what could become a signature victory, Portland ran a nine-man rotation and survived the Spurs’ best shot.

The win pushes them to 32-23, and 1½ games back of the No. 5 seed. If you missed it, here’s Dave Deckard’s instant recap for tonight’s win.

A Brilli-ANT Performance

In Damian Lillard’s absence, Portland was assigned the unenviable task of compensating his near-automatic 30-point performances and leadership. Each Blazer stepped in to fill the gaps in some form. Among those most notable was Anfernee Simons.

Offensively, Simons more than outpunched his weight, chipping in 16 points on 5-of-10 from the field, 4-of-8 from deep, and made a few excellent feeds. But to these eyes, it was what he did on the other end that deserves the most commentary. Much has been said in regards to Simons’ defense over his career. What he put on tape tonight needs notice. The third-year guard seemed to have an added moxie about himself on defense, be it cutting into passing lanes or by challenging shots with honest closeouts.

Simons had one play late in the third quarter against Derrick White that merits reciting: the Blazers went into their controversial pick-and-roll drop. Simons got swallowed up on a pick, but fought through it, crept back into the play, and got a beautiful rear view block on White’s floater that led to a three-point play moments later. The Blazers were down seven at that point, in a precarious position. Those little plays can sometimes make all of the difference. By quarter’s end, Portland trailed by just two.

When the Spurs ran guard-and-big screens, the Blazers dropped. When it was guard-and-guard screens, they switched. Simons was quick and almost overly-aggressive with his switches. For a defense of this caliber, you’ll certainly take the overly-ambitious, as opposed to the conservative. Simons deserves a note on that end.

Robert Covington Adds to His All-Defensive Case

The Blazers had five different scorers connect with double-figures, but all would have been for naught if not for one game-breaking play from Robert Covington. With the Blazers trailing 106-105 with 22.8 seconds remaining, Covington stretched out to rip away a key steal on Lonnie Walker IV before dishing to Powell on the fast break for what ultimately became the winning bucket.

When the dialogue on awards picks up steam over the next couple of weeks, Covington’s case for an All-Defensive Team nod will be much easier because of his high-profile stops in pressure-packed situations. Just off sheer memory, there’s the game-clinching steal tonight (1), his game-winning deflection of James Harden on Dec. 26 (2), the stone-cold stop of Pascal Siakam on Jan. 11 (3), and the clutch charge taken against Chicago (4), among many others.

Covington had an All-Defensive Team case on the backs of three numbers before tonight’s game: his No. 1 rank across the NBA in deflections (195), the No. 6 spot in steals (85), and he’s tied for first in the NBA in “masks worn” with one. Some put their body on the line — he puts his face in too. He provides strong back line defense when Portland drops and needs to rotate, and his defense on DeMar DeRozan tonight commands note. Chalk it up as another signature performance for Covington. Play him in crunch time every time.

Nurk and Norm Help Weather the Storm

You can pick your poison on the final takeaway here. CJ McCollum seemed to have his legs right, again providing an excellent offensive safety valve for this team when Lillard was out. Carmelo Anthony threw on his button-up flannel shirt, dusted off the textbook, and sent the Spurs’ younger defenders to school in the high post. Meanwhile Enes Kanter gave the Blazers a grit and nastiness in the trenches that would’ve made Brian Grant smile.

But thinking outside the box, how about the connection we’re seeing between Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell? Is it Nurk and Norm, or Norm and Nurk? Regardless, the two have worked up excellent pick-and-roll synergy. Much of it was absolutely necessary to help the Blazers mount the late-game charge tonight.

Here’s one from the first quarter that set the tone.

Nurkic also dialed up a pair of dimes to Powell on two crucial possessions to make it 99-99 and 104-103 late.

On the season, Nurkic has been Powell’s No. 1 assister—with 12 assists exclusively to him—hitting him on some beautiful over-the-top feeds. The two have been an ideal match relatively early into the experiment. It should be fun to see where they stand come postseason time.

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Box Score

The Blazers finish the two-game road trip with a Sunday afternoon battle with the Charlotte Hornets.