The Portland Trail Blazers probably would have been satisfied with a good showing against the Brooklyn Nets, NBA powerhouses from the East who walked into the Moda Center with Kevin Durant and a relatively fresh Kyrie Irving in tow. Against those two superstars, the Blazers threw out a lineup of stalwarts who wouldn’t make the top two-thirds of a league redraft in NBA2k. But six players in double-figures, a sweet second-half run of threes, and out of this world play from a rotating cast of would-be stars gave Portland a victory that few expected, but everyone outside of Brooklyn enjoyed.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Once you have that down, here are the other factors that contributed to the game.
Both teams played last night, but the Nets also had to fly the length of the country to make it to this make-up game. It showed early. Kyrie Irving was the only Brooklyn player that looked even remotely alert, let alone speedy. Turnovers and clanged shots typified their play.
Portland fared a little better, being younger and not having to travel farther than their respective front doors. Portland’s misses and miscues came organically.
Unfortunately it was easier for the Nets to get over their fatigue than the Blazers to get over their lack of talent. As the game wore on, Portland’s edge wore down. But for a while there, it looked like plucky and lucky would lead the Blazers to a victory. As it turned out, they had to find other ways.
Big vs. Quick
The Nets held two advantages over the Blazers: they were generally taller and their upper-level talent spiked into the stratosphere. But the Blazers were quicker and more eager. Portland succeeded when they could fast break. As the game wore on, they also translated that speed into a cutting and passing advantage in the halfcourt. Being a step quicker to the spot held them in good stead. It’s an ingredient that has been missing for much of the season.
If you’re wondering how Kyrie Irving will adapt after his extended time off, in the face of an erratic schedule, tonight he looked just fine. He was visibly quicker than anybody on the court and his confidence was as high as ever. He shot 9-21 for 22 points.
Kevin Durant didn’t destroy Portland’s defense tonight. He just didn’t care much that they were there. Up until the fourth period, any shot he wanted, he could take. The Blazers did keep him from getting attempts right at the rim. That was to their credit. But most other shots were Durant’s prerogative. His 20 first-half points saved a sloppy start for the Nets. He finished with just 28. Hooray for shut-down defense in the final period.
Anfernee Simons wasn’t at the level of his more famous opponents, but he put some moves on the Nets that they’re going to have to rewind to believe. Simons has developed a legit stop-and-go/hesitation repertoire. If his threes keep falling, that’s going to make him a terror with the ball in his hands. Simons led the team with 23 points on 10-24 shooting, though he shot only 2-11 from the arc. He also had 11 assists and 6 rebounds. Those are Damian Lillard numbers. The Blazers could not have asked anything more than he gave tonight.
Robert Covington had another nice game shooting threes. He hit 5-7 from distance and finished with 21 points. His shots played an important role. The Nets keyed in on Portland’s plan to run offense through Jusuf Nurkic. It worked in the first half, but by the second, Brooklyn was sending an extra man to Nurk on the catch, taking away all his moves. The ball-handler was Portland’s next option. The Nets weren’t afraid of anyone else beating them.
When Covington started stroking threes, it drew a defender away from the ball. That made Simons more dangerous. Once he got loose, Brooklyn was in trouble. Passes started flying everywhere and seemingly EVERY Portland three-point shooter was open. That was down to Covington and the initial spark he gave to the offense from distance.
Covington wasn’t afraid to rough up Durant on the other end either. He didn’t stop KD, of course, but Durant will have bruises tomorrow because of RoCo elbows.
Ben McLemore rounded out Portland’s Big 3 tonight, scoring 20, shooting 5-8 from the arc. As the Nets ran down their fourth-quarter defensive checklist, they said, “Nurkic? Got him. He’s done. Have we got Simons too? OK, that’s most of our work finished right there. But wait, Covington is hitting too. Better keep a man on him. Now I think we’re...hold up. What about McLemore? Who’s got McLemore?!? Oh crap.” Benny Mac hit a pair of three-pointers in the final minutes of the game to squelch Brooklyn’s furious comeback attempt. Even though the Nets made good plays, the margin never tightened because of those six crucial points.
The Blazers wouldn’t have gotten their second-half margin had it not been for a wide disparity in free throws in the first half. Every Portland starter aside from Simons drew 4 or more foul shots tonight. Nurkic started it with his inside play and it just snowballed from there. Portland finished the game 19-26 from the charity stripe. The Nets attempted only 15 free throws, hitting 12.
The Blazers have a propensity to play sloppy, a forgivable trait given their cobbled-together lineups. Brooklyn matched them miscue for miscue tonight. The Nets committed 15 turnovers, tying the Blazers. They also allowed Portland 15 fastbreak points, though it seemed like a hundred. Credit Portland’s pesky defense, but the Nets also looked like they were in second gear, running across speed bumps, for much of the evening.
The Blazers begin an extended road trip on Thursday, facing the Denver Nuggets with a 7:00, Pacific start time.