The Portland Trail Blazers earned a relatively easy 115-110 win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday, squashing them early, then holding on through foul trouble with a barrage of deep shots and quick play. Both lineups were broken, but the Blazers played with more energy and poise. They also had Anfernee Simons (31 points with 11 assists) and Jusuf Nurkic (23 points and 14 rebounds). Those two starters provided them firepower too strong for Washington to overcome. Forcing 20 turnovers from the Wizards didn’t hurt.
It was a good win for a team that hasn’t seen that many of them this season. Here’s how the game transpired.
Jusuf Nurkic was active early and, as is their habit, the Blazers took full advantage. He drew a foul on Wizards center Daniel Gafford, got a bunch of rebounds, and collected a couple points. Washington responded with nearly the opposite approach: spacing the floor then cutting with anyone whose defender wasn’t alert. Portland also tried to push tempo when possible, getting shots early in the clock when they couldn’t break outright.
The Blazers got a big advantage at the 8:02 mark of the first when Gafford was whistled for his second foul. It should be noted that Nurkic was getting ALL the calls on both ends of the floor. The Wizards’ bench had a good case for frustration.
Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little did their usual routine: getting active in the passing lanes and shooting threes when available. Robert Covington was aggressive looking for his shot. Overall, the starting lineup played as actively and opportunistically as we’ve seen them.
Portland’s starters pinned the team to a 20-12 lead with a little over four minutes remaining. The bench came in and tried to give the lead back, but Simons fixed that problem by hitting a pair of threes by his own self. Simons’ scoring kept the Blazers above Washington’s cutting, slashing attack. Portland led 29-24 after one.
Portland’s second unit played disastrously in their loss against the Nuggets in the first game of this road trip. Perhaps learning from the experience, the Blazers kept starters in with the bench players today, featuring them heavily. Running was still the first option, but Nurkic, Little, and reserve guard Dennis Smith, Jr. dominated the ball when the offense slowed to halfcourt. The Blazers didn’t defend well during the second-unit shift, but they scored well enough to avoid a repeat of the Denver performance.
Not that things were completely rosy. Even though technically they were running a faster lineup, Portland had a devilishly hard time getting to the corners to close out on three-pointers. When the Wizards did spread the floor, the lane opened up for them regularly for layups and/or and-ones. Portland scored, but Washington scored a little more. The Wizards closed the gap by the middle minutes of the period, making the game brand new again.
In the midst of all this, Nurkic took advantage of the lack of Washington big men, rolling to the hoop repeatedly for conversions. He played BIG, opening up the floor for his guards and shooters. And speaking of shooters, Simons tortured the twine from distance, pouring in three after three after three. He scored 11 in a row mid-period to help take the Blazers into intermission in healthy fashion. Between them, Nurkic and Simons turned into a devastating duo.
Simons’ blistering pace and Nurkic’s big play brought the Blazers to a 68-57 halftime lead. Simons had 26, shooting 7-10 from the arc.
The Blazers came out of halftime ready to shut the game down. Washington had a pretty simple list of adjustments: take care of the ball, stop Simons, limit Portland’s easy shots. They did OK with the first two, but utterly failed in the “easy shot” department. Nurkic opened up the half with a dunk, then Ben McLemore canned a huge three on which he was fouled. Portland was off to the races, stretching out to a 17-point lead.
The Blazers hit a small bump around the 8:00 mark of the third, when Nurkic picked up his fourth foul. That took away Portland’s inside scoring game, which allowed Washington to watch the perimeter better. Even worse, Trenton Watford fouled OUT just 90 seconds later, drawing his 6th foul after just 8 minutes of play. The Blazers were forced to go with a miniscule lineup.
Fortunately, Washington was missing most of their scoring as well. They ran good plays and took advantage of Portland’s weaknesses, but they just couldn’t pour in enough points to matter. It was a good thing too, because Robert Covington picked up HIS fourth foul with 4:00 remaining in the third.
Even though Washington rebounded, defended better, and drew fouls against every Blazers player over 6’5, all of the energy and drama in the third cut 3 points off of Portland’s lead. The Blazers led 94-80 after three.
Out of options, the Blazers were forced to go to the DEEP bench, buying a few minutes at the start of the fourth. That went about as well as you’d expect it to. Aaron Holiday hit a pair of threes, Portland messed up easy sets, and the Wizards pulled to within 10. At that point Head Coach Chauncey Billups said, “Enough rest.” Nurkic and Simons checked back in to secure the game.
Washington seemed determined to make up the gap from the three-point arc as the fourth quarter wound on. The only problem was, they couldn’t hit them. They succeeded when they went inside, or inside-out, but bombing away wasn’t getting them there. Instead they found more bricks and turnovers, each one making Portland’s confidence that much stronger.
The Wizards did put up enough of a fight to get the lead back down to 10 with 4:00 remaining, 9 within the 3:00 mark, 7 as the clock drained past 2:00. Portland tried to cough it up, playing sloppy. Nurkic even fouled out with 1:54 remaining, helping the Wizards cause. But Washington just couldn’t hit shots, even when open. They missed four unguarded three-pointers on just one trip down the floor. As I often say, if you’re not guarding the arc and you’re not getting rebounds at the rim, what exactly are you doing on defense?
The Wizards did end up cutting the lead all the way to 4 in the final minute, but they couldn’t catch up off of intentional fouls alone. The game may not have ended pretty, but it was all Portland’s.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers travel to Florida to face the Orlando Magic as part of the NBA’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day lineup. The game starts at 4:00, Pacific on Monday.