The Portland Trail Blazers have struggled through their recent homestand, but they finished it strong on Monday night in a COVID make-up game against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn’s big stars both topped 20—Durant in the first half—but they were battling fatigue and a surprisingly active Portland defense all night. The Blazers forced turnovers, rebounded, and went big from beyond the arc, playing around the Nets defense instead of going through it. Brooklyn, and frankly everyone in the crowd, kept waiting for a Durant-led barrage in the second half. It never came. The Blazers kept making opportunistic plays until the final horn sounded. When it did, Portland had earned a 114-108 victory.
Six Blazers hit double-figures in the win, led by Anfernee Simons with 23, Robert Covington with 21, and Ben McLemore with 20, including the threes that sealed the game.
The Blazers’ plan to overcome the Nets early on was pretty clear. A little bit of Nurkic, bulling his way inside to draw fouls, and a lot of outside shooting. Kevin Durant alone was twice the threat of anyone the Blazers could field, but by shooting below and beyond the Brooklyn defense, Portland hoped to equal their production. It worked for a while. Power forward Nic Claxton got tagged with 3 fouls in the first 5 minutes. Durant missed a couple. Voila! Portland led 16-10. Their quickness was as tough to handle for Brooklyn as the Nets’ height and talent were for the Blazers. The Nets settled for a ton of shots when they couldn’t find the range accurately. That and a really nice quarter from Kyrie Irving (one of the talented veterans with as much speed as Portland’s young players) served to keep them in the ballpark, though turnovers pushed them back to the warning track. The Blazers led 33-26 after the first.
The not-so-sharp shooting continued for Brooklyn as the second period commenced. A mini-flurry from CJ Elleby kept the Blazers rolling. The game began to feel like the Nets lying in wait, just cruising within shouting distance of the Blazers, not too low or not too high, until they could strike. One wanted the Blazers to kick in like a marathon runner trying to escape the pack early. Their shooting couldn’t support the desire. Instead the Nets hit a couple of threes and the game was all but even again. The scary thing for Portland was that Durant and Irving were muted for most of the period, yet Brooklyn’s shooting percentage kept climbing and climbing, especially beyond the arc. When Durant did hit a couple, it felt like the end of the world. Even more so when the Nets started grabbing offensive rebounds too. But the Blazers plugged away, running out when they could, scoring from the mid-range when all else failed. Anfernee Simons pulled out a trick or two and, along with Portland’s hard work, it helped the Blazers survive the storm. The Nets led 62-55 at the half.
The third period came not to bury the first-half trends, but to celebrate them. The Nets committed turnovers, but got enough points from Durant and Irving—plus enough offensive rebounds to make up for misses—that they stayed in gear. The Blazers moved quickly and shot deep, their threes punctuated by an occasional acrobatic play from Simons. Dumping the ball in to Nurkic got less and less effective as the Nets keyed in on him. The Blazers couldn’t draw the same free throws they had in the first two quarters. Those were about the only big changes.
Robert Covington woke up as the quarter progressed. His triples made Portland look formidable. The Nets were no longer free to devote all their attention to the strong side. Being fatigued, rotating wasn’t their forte. Those extra points brought the Blazers even again, then, with three minutes left, ahead. Aggressive defense and three-point shooting kept Portland’s momentum going through the final minutes too. They took an 87-82 lead into the fourth.
Portland’s bench came into the fourth period with bad intentions...meaning for the opponent, not their own team. (It’s Portland’ so you have to ask.) They poked away turnovers, rebounded hard to clear up that pesky leak on the defensive boards, and moved the ball quickly enough to find open shooters. They lapsed on defensive plays frequently, which is both expected and understandable, given the quality of opposition. But they did not give up the lead. That set up the game for an exciting finish.
The script called for Kevin Durant to check in and take over the game. He checked in, but the control part eluded him. He remained mostly on the perimeter. The only place the Nets scored was inside. They did a ton of that, but it was only enough to keep pace with Portland. Plus Brooklyn couldn’t overcome their chronic turnover issue. All the Blazers needed was a few buckets to remain ahead. Nurkic provided those against a spread defense and the home team was in business.
In the final minutes of the game, Portland knew the offense was coming through Durant and they knew he was probably going to take it inside. They set, prayed, and threw everything they had at the Brooklyn Hall-of-Famer. Covington stripped him and banged against his body. Ben McLemore got a help block late. It seemed like every possession the Blazers got by without Durant hitting was another breath of air. Their oxygen level remained high.
When the Nets did make a furious run, it was too late. The lead was big enough that a single McLemore three-pointer put the game out of reach. And then he hit another. That was it...time to party in Portland.
Stay tuned for extra analysis coming up soon1
The Blazers head out on a looong road trip now, beginning Thursday night at 7:00, Pacific against the Denver Nuggets.