The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Washington Wizards on Saturday in need of a win...any win. After getting trounced in Denver against the Nuggets, facing five more games on the road before seeing their home floor again, the Blazers needed to arrest their slide before it became an avalanche.
31 points and 11 assists from Anfernee Simons, plus 23 points and 14 rebounds from a hard-charging Jusuf Nurkic, helped them do just that. A 115-110 victory with tempo and balanced production was just what the doctor ordered. If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap right here. Once you’ve caught up with that, here’s the rest of the story!
Jusuf Nurkic did everything the Blazers needed tonight. He bullied hot Washington center Daniel Gafford early, rolled into the lane for easy conversions in the middle minutes, and set sweet screens for Anfernee Simons and company throughout. His rebounding was pristine, his defense active. He played like a real 7-footer in all ways. Well, at least until the fourth quarter, when he seemed to run out of energy a bit. But all’s well that ends well. Nurkic shot 9-15 to earn his 23, adding 2 steals to the 14 rebounds.
Anfernee Simons returned from his family remembrance just as hot as when he left, if not hotter. Portland’s point guard shot 7-10 on three-pointers, not in the game, in the first half. His two-man game with Nurkic was near-seamless. He’s settled into his role, not just the technical aspects, but the weight he’s carrying on his shoulders. Simons’ line for the night included 11-21 shooting, 2 steals, and just 2 turnovers against his 11 dimes.
Between injuries and protocols, the Blazers know they aren’t going to field the most talented lineup possible. Today they tried to make up for it with tempo. They ran whenever they could. But even when the break wasn’t available, they appeared to be on the “first open shot available” diet. This was particularly true when the attempt came from distance. Portland took 39 threes, many of them early in the clock. This is to the obvious advantage of starting guards Simons and Ben McLemore...a nice evolution under the circumstances.
Similarly, Portland employed a more active strategy on defense, letting Nurkic handle the middle while the guards and wings got busy in the passing lanes. Simons and Robert Covington stole and tipped away Washington passes all game long. You could tell they were reading plays and waiting to spring, more free safety than linebacker. Saying Portland’s defense was good would be an overstatement. Active, though? It was that. The Wizards committed 20 turnovers, and much of it was Portland’s fault.
Portland’s big men played well tonight overall, but boy did they commit a lot of fouls! The DQ Blizzard goes to Trendon Watford, who fouled out of the game midway through the third period, having played just 8 minutes. Before the third quarter finished, Nurkic and Covington would also have four. Coach Chauncey Billups had done a pretty good job salting starters into his bench lineups up to that point, but foul trouble left him few outs as the fourth period approached. Nurkic would foul out in the final minutes; Covington finished the game with 5. Portland survived it, but it’s possible the quicker tempo isn’t great for ALL the Blazers.
Speaking of, with Cody Zeller our, Larry Nance, Jr. out, and every other big man in the penalty box for infractions, Covington played some decent spot minutes at center in this game. He wasn’t world-beating but he made sure he stayed in front of the ball and went hard for rebounds. The Wizards couldn’t post him up with their lineup, so it worked. Covington sneakily saved the day in what could have been an itchy sitch for Portland.
A Little at the End
You know Nassir Little has arrived when he shoots 6-8, scores 18, and we go, “Oh yeah, he played too,” but there we are. Little’s defensive contributions, though not perfect, are energetic and persistent enough that you already know what he’s going to do out there. In this game, the offensive focus was very much on ball-handlers and the center. Wings got short-changed a bit. That didn’t change Little’s approach much. That he hit almost every shot they gave him was chef’s-kiss good. But that’s Nassir nowadays, right?
The Blazers play the Orlando Magic on Monday at 4:00, PM, Pacific.