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Nurkic Dominates, Pushes Blazers Past Magic in McCollum’s Return

Blazers star CJ McCollum played his first game since Dec. 4, and he played “Robin” to Jusuf Nurkic’s “Batman” in a wire-to-wire win over the Orlando Magic.

Portland Trail Blazers v Orlando Magic Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When the Portland Trail Blazers welcomed back star guard CJ McCollum for his first game since Dec. 4, the more-than-likely expectation was that their 11th-ranked offense would hum as it previously had. Instead, the Blazers clamped down on defense in a wire-to-wire 98-88 victory over the Orlando Magic. In the process, they tied season-bests in points allowed and their second-best defensive rating of the year.

In his return, McCollum chipped in an efficient 16-point performance on 7-of-13 shooting, playing a secondary role behind Jusuf Nurkic, who pieced together a 21-point, 22-rebound, four-steal, two-block masterpiece. Portland, now winners of five of their last eight, moved to 18-25, and back into that critical No. 10 spot in the Western Conference.

If you missed Ryan Rosback’s instant recap of tonight’s game, take a look. Here’s a look at a few additional notes from the Blazers’ second-straight win.

Inspiring Shot Distribution:

Prior to Monday’s game, there was a real possibility that Portland could welcome back both CJ McCollum and Norman Powell, two players who’ve combined to average 39.4 points per game, 32.4 shot attempts, and 49.5 possessions occupied. Though only McCollum returned tonight — and he played well, everything considered — there was at least some sort of question as to if the Blazers’ rhythm would be altered. After all, they’d been playing winning basketball over their last seven, with Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Jusuf Nurkic and Ben McLemore all having four-game streaks of double-digit scoring.

As it turned out, the Blazers eased their way into a fluid offensive channel that saw opportunities for each star. Jusuf Nurkic bruised and banged his way into a 10-of-21 shooting night, earning frequent post-ups, short-roll opportunities, and even a few garbage-time 3-point attempts. As expected, Portland sought to get McCollum early looks, and he finished with 13 shot attempts. Simons (11), McLemore (11), Robert Covington (10), and Little (9) weren’t far behind. How Simons re-pivots from showcasing tantalizing, offensive star potential to retaking a backseat role could be must-watch going forward.

It’s a Cole, Cole World:

It hasn’t taken Cole Anthony long to be the No. 1 focus on the opposing team’s scouting reports, but thanks to a breakout Year Two, he’s become exactly that. The Portland native entered Monday with seismic jumps in points (19.2), rebounds (6.2), assists (5.8), and even upped his efficiency with the added volume. For that, the Trail Blazers came with a simple strategy: size, size, and even more size.

Throughout much of the night, Anthony was hounded, mostly by either Robert Covington or Nassir Little. Together, they had the foot speed that made it difficult for him to turn the corner, and the size needed to challenge his shot attempts. On the night, Anthony shot just 3-of-13 from the field.

To his credit, Anthony did contribute in other ways, but the Blazers’ decision to chop off the head of the dragon proved beneficial and could continue going forward. Little, in particular, is beginning to earn some praise for his defensive efforts against the NBA’s top offensive stars, and while Anthony isn’t quite a star yet, he’s a borderline 20-point scorer who had some difficulty against the Blazers’ size and versatility. Who would’ve thought?

Statistical Trends and Anomalies:

Perhaps it’s just what happens when you face an injury-riddled team who just so happens to be the NBA’s worst (record-wise), but the Portland Trail Blazers won this game despite a handful of noteworthy statistics trending against them.

Tonight, the Blazers’ 3-point percentage (20.6 percent) was their worst of the 2021-22 season. They had 27 of their 34 long-range attempts clank off the rim, with an airball or two in the mix, and still found a way to get a double-digit victory.

Portland also entered Monday winless in games in which they hit fewer than 10 3-point shots. They also entered Monday winless in games in which they scored fewer than 100 points … both of those streaks ended tonight. It’s, for a night at least, inspiring to see the Blazers get creative in how they won this game. The decision to feed Jusuf Nurkic to no end has been a point of contention, but it certainly worked wonders tonight. Above all else, it provides the Blazers with positive omens during the second game of their four-game Eastern Conference roadie.

Up Next:

Box Score

The Blazers get back to work in the second game of the four-game road trip against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, January 19th, 2022 at 4:30 pm PT.