The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Boston Celtics 129-119 on Sunday evening, earning the fourth straight double-digit road win on their Redemption Tour, 2021. CJ McCollum scored 33 in the victory, shooting 12-20 from the field. That 33 matched Celtics star Jayson Tatum, who is currently on the hottest multi-game run in his franchise’s history. Damian Lillard added 26 and Norman Powell 23.
Steve Dewald had your instant rundown of the quarter-by-quarter action here. Once you’ve read that, here are nine other factors that colored in the lines of this game.
The Blazers now have a definite style coming out of the gate. It’s typified by playing through Jusuf Nurkic in the center of the court, then feeding off of the inside-out action. As the Blazers are finding, starting a scoring play off of a collapsed defense is better than off of a set one.
The other hallmark of their early offense is serious aggression by Damian Lillard. For much of the last month, observers and opponents alike have been left guessing what Lillard will do with the ball in his hands. He’s been walking it, paced steadily, surveying options. In the last few games he’s been creating his own options, which is quite a different thing. Nurkic’s passing and Lillard’s scoring have become Scylla and Charybdis for Portland’s opponents.
Three Productive Guards
For the second straight game, Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell all produced, and off of relatively few attempts. This can be directly related to the inside-out power and All-Star aggression mentioned above. With defenses turning towards the rim and Lillard, McCollum is left a ton of real estate to operate in. Once he gets hot, he’s not cooling down for anything less than a double-team. When defenses catch up to CJ, Powell is next, either hitting a three or driving it right back to the same rim where the initial threat started. Or, God forbid, the ball goes right back to Lillard and the Threepocalypse is nigh.
When the ball is moving and all three guards are hitting efficiently, the Blazers are playing BINGO with a card full of Free Spaces. It’s pretty easy to win that way.
Don’t sleep on the ability (and willingness) of Nurkic, Enes Kanter, and sometimes Robert Covington to free up dribblers with picks. The Blazers weren’t as roll-ish tonight as they were against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, but they hit approximately a million quick-release jumpers off of screens, many of which came from distance. This is one of two aspects of the game they’ve clearly emphasized during their “renewal” road trip.
Here’s the other...
High and Low Defense
The Blazers were not great on defense tonight—Boston shot 48.3% overall, 51.3% from the arc—but they did up the intensity. It shows in two ways.
First, they started the game all the way live in the paint. They were willing to cede the Celtics deeper shots as long as attempts in the lane were doubled. They were spry getting back to the arc after swarming inside as well. This dimmed a little as the game wore on, but the initial intent was there. For Portland, that’s something. In particular, it kicks the crap out of no intensity being displayed anywhere.
The Blazers also extended their defense out to the halfcourt line. They’ve gotten away from waiting flat-footed at the arc to see what the opponent will do, then making the point moot by never getting off those flat feet. Instead they’re sending both guards to pick up assignments as soon as their men cross the time line, starting the defense in motion and forcing the dribbler to work instead of setting up confidently.
In the third period, Portland forced turnovers outside the arc with their extended “D”. But whether they got the steal or not, the effort helped their cohesion and attention. Sure, Boston hit shots anyway, but at least they were contested better.
We should also underline that the Blazers made a concerted effort to get back on defense tonight. They have been embarrassed on multiple occasions over the last month in just this area. Tonight Boston found a minimum of two, often three, defenders when they ran the ball back.
Just as importantly, Portland gave as good as they got on the run. Powell’s nose for layups appears to have infected his backcourt mates. The Blazers don’t have to win games on the break, they just have to avoid losing them there. They did that tonight. Each team scored 16 points in transition.
For all that we’ve just said, this game still devolved into a game of three-pointers. The Blazers hit 19-38 (50%), Boston 20-39 (51.3%). Literally everybody who could shoot them, did. Quick threes, bail-out threes, transition threes...these two teams crafted a Bubba Gump Shrimp menu beyond the arc. Whether that style appeals is a matter of taste, but the Blazers will happily engage in a distance shooting contest with anyone. It’s their bread and butter.
Portland’s overall aggression appeared to pay off at the foul line tonight. They’ve often complained about a lack of respect from the referees, but lo and behold, when the guards forget everything and start scoring hard, free throws follow. Portland shot 22-26 from the line. The Celtics earned only 15 free throws, hitting 13.
When It Falls Apart
This isn’t to say that everything went perfectly for Portland on the offensive end. For large stretches of the game you could predict whether the Blazers would score based on the number of passes that preceded the attempt. Zero passes often resulted in a miss. Two indicated a make.
Portland still drifts into isolation offense against permissive defenses far too easily. We’re not talking Carmelo Anthony buying time for the second unit or the open McCollum “J” here. The Blazers just seem to hit stretches where they forget how they’re succeeding. Everybody wants to get their moves and shots in. That’s so Portland, but it’s still hard to watch when they’re rolling otherwise.
Nurkic at the Rim
Jusuf Nurkic had another fantastic night, with 14 points on 6-10 shooting, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists. He remains the biggest difference-maker on the team outside of Lillard himself. His Achilles Heel—which Boston didn’t take advantage of but playoffs teams will—is his inability to score inside versus coverage. He doesn’t have a decisive move and he doesn’t have a strong finish. Portland’s inside-out attack is going to falter if there’s no “inside” to be had. Enes Kanter is much stronger in this area. The difference between them is noticeable. If Nurk can get even a little bit of that Kanter footwork and touch, he’d be devastating.
The laser-sighted-missile way the Celtics and Blazers hunted threes in this game is one evidence of the New NBA style of offense. The speed with which they lofted up the very first open shot (or half-open shot) on each possession is another.
In traditional offense, teams burned time trying to get the best possible shot available. Let’s invent a team that can do it in 18 seconds. Let’s also make them the most efficient offensive team in history, shooting 50% from the floor.
Because of new defensive rules, offenses score easier. In practice, they can match the percentage of traditional teams easily. Add in three-pointers and the attack becomes even more devastating. But let’s pretend that isn’t true. Let’s take away the extra points from threes and the rules advantage.
Modern basketball sees plenty of teams, including the Blazers, attempt shots in 12 seconds or less. These are shots that old-style teams would cringe at, probably saying, “You can get that anytime.” But that’s exactly the point! If this system works ideally, our modern team can get up three shots in the same time the old guys got up two.
If the old team gets two possessions per minute and shoots 50%, they’re going to score two points per minute. If the new team shoots three possessions per minute, they only have to shoot 33% to match the older team’s production. And that’s without the three-pointer.
If our modern team shoots even 40%, they’re going to obliterate the old guys. Since most modern teams shoot the same or better percentage as those “work for the best shot” offenses did, the tempo really pays off when teams are able to stick to it.
Portland is well-suited to the quick offense. It often pays off for them. This is part of the reason Head Coach Terry Stotts giving the green light to all open shooters is an important facet of the offense.
(Note: This doesn’t necessarily counter the “two passes is better than zero” observation above. Ironically, when the Blazers go iso, they tend to slow down in the halfcourt.)
The Blazers will try to keep their so-far-perfect road trip alive tomorrow night, facing the Atlanta Hawks at 5:00 PM, Pacific. If they can do that, their lone remaining obstacle will be a date with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday. Although the only thing more Portland than them reeling off an astonishing road trip just when you left them for dead would be ending it with a loss in the easiest game on the schedule.