One night after winning their most pivotal game of 2020-21 on Friday, the Portland Trail Blazers quickly refocused, putting forth an all-around performance to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in 124-102 fashion. The Blazers were anchored by standout games from Damian Lillard (30 points) and CJ McCollum (27), but were provided an excellent fallback from Norman Powell (18) and Jusuf Nurkic (17).
The Blazers (39-29) aren’t just winning; over their last seven wins, Portland has blitzed teams by an average of 19.1 points per contest, a more-than-welcome development heading into postseason play. They still trail the Mavericks (39-28) by ½ of a game in for the No. 5 seed, but added some major cushion. If you missed Dave Deckard’s instant recap, take a look here.
Nurk Fever Heats Up
Prior to tonight, Damian Lillard ranked third in pick-and-roll ball handler possessions (760), and despite missing over half of the 2020-21 season, Jusuf Nurkic still cracked the league’s top 25 most frequent screeners. Each of those statistics should soon see a significant bolster. As a convenient means of getting their Bosnian center involved, Portland utilized screens to their advantage, using the Spurs’ focus on Lillard to get quick 4-on-3 opportunities where Nurkic could search for his teardrop, or punish San Antonio’s rotations with passes. This, of course, led to a Nurk-to-Norm connection. Did you even need to ask?
If the over / under on how many times we’d see a Lillard-and-Nurkic pick-and-roll was 50, let’s just hope those in Vegas packed an extra shirt; there’d have been some ‘sweatin going on. Or maybe it’s just that Nurk Fever?
Dating back to his arrival in 2016-17, the Blazers are a healthy 94-43 — a 56-win pace over an 82-game schedule — when Nurkic takes at least ten shots. Portland likely isn’t oblivious to that. This is a gargantuan positive because of what it means for the playoffs. If opponents realize they can’t simply show two on Lillard, it changes the terms and conditions on how they have to defend him. That’s something worth signing up for.
Lillard, McCollum Enter Playoffs Mode
Earlier this week, CJ McCollum discussed his insistence on not being overly high about the Blazers’ late season tear, because as he knows, Portland will be measured by playoffs success. In the meantime, he and his backcourt mate appear to already be in postseason mode. Their shot selection is cleaner, there’s a more acute focus on defense, and they’ve been more aggressive in getting to their spots.
McCollum, historically, attacks the rim and gets to the free throw line more often in the playoffs. He entered that mode early tonight. Lillard discussed his role in the postgame with Brooke Olzendam, noting how important it was to get downhill and put pressure on. His three-point barrage in the second quarter broke the game open, but he added to that with nonstop energy as a facilitator.
Lillard had one play in the first half — a driving-right, right-handed pass to the left-side corner to Simons that won’t make SportsCenter, but epitomizes what he does to a tee. It can’t be understated how difficult that kind of assist is.
Given the absence of Carmelo Anthony tonight, Portland’s balanced attack was much-needed. They got a major boost from Simons and Nassir Little on both ends. But this team begins and ends with the Blazers’ star backcourt. And they’ve come to play.
Blazers Dominate the Glass
The Blazers entered Saturday as the NBA’s No. 4-ranked offensive rebounding team. They were the second-best in the month of April. While it may not be as glamorous as a 50-point game from Lillard or a jab step pull-up from Carmelo Anthony, when the Blazers are having “one of those nights” on the glass, it’s … dare I say, DVR worthy? Portland bulldozed their way into 18 offensive rebounds in their win over the Spurs, a number that would rank atop the entire NBA.
Perhaps most remarkable of all is that Enes Kanter, the NBA’s No. 2 offensive rebounder, only tallied one offensive snag. Thanks to the efforts of Nurkic, Kanter was able to put in some PTO and relax a bit. When Nurkic wasn’t working the back-to-basket or short roll, he was roaming the glass, he was tipping away at shots, bullying the Spurs’ front line of defense.
The reasons for Portland’s center success, as always, will vary. Whether it be teams seeking to exploit the Blazers’ porous fast break defense, the difficulty of covering all of Portland’s shooters out on the perimeter, or just the sheer power of Nurkic and Kanter, it’s a formula that works. Two-thirds of this Earth is covered by water, and the other one-third is occupied by the Blazers’ bulky bigs. That served as a key to victory tonight.
Here’s a look at Dave Deckard’s instant recap.
Facing Houston in May has historically been a positive vibe; the Blazers hope to continue that when they welcome the Rockets on Monday at 7:30 PT.