The Portland Trail Blazers pulled off a thrilling 109-105 victory against the Boston Celtics on Friday night. They flipped the script on a season-long trend of wilting in late-game situations, turning an otherwise-shaky fourth period into a scrappy slug-fest. Jusuf Nurkic led all scorers with 29 points. Jayson Tatum scored 27 for the Celtics in their loss.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. When you’ve perused that, come back for the highlights that defined tonight’s action.
Coming Up Big
Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington don’t have anywhere near the profile of Celtics forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Nor do they have the cachet of Portland’s backcourt. But Nurkic and Covington saved this game for the Blazers when nobody else could.
Nurkic wasn’t a complete answer for everything that ailed the Blazers. Boston’s bigs scored on him and his teammates on the move; there was nothing they could do about it. But with that one flaw acknowledged, Nurk gave them everything else they needed. He was the only player scoring inside with any consistency. He was a vacuum on the glass. He was also the only Portland player making effective passes. He led the team in points with 29, rebounds with 17, and assists with 6.
Just as importantly, the Blazers crumpled when Nurk had to sit. You could tell the difference whenever he took the floor. The disasters stopped.
From the rebounding in the opening minutes to the incredible put-back on a Simons miss that kept the game alive, Nurkic did it all tonight. It may have been his best game as a Blazer.
Robert Covington’s contributions were more muted, but he had key moments in the fourth. CJ McCollum bailed out to him for a corner three with 32 seconds remaining that put the Blazers ahead. He hit the free throws that iced the game. He also helped make a key defensive stand against Tatum, forcing the Boston star into a tough three-pointer with 7 seconds remaining when Tatum had been scoring in the lane nearly at will.
Nurkic and Covington might not have been the only story for Portland tonight, but they were the main reasons the Blazers won.
As good as the bigs were late, Portland as a team had a serious problem with Boston in the lane all game long. When the Celtics got half a step—which wasn’t hard—it seemed like an automatic layup or foul would follow. It was painful to watch, the memory only wiped clean by the final outcome. Lane patrol is the most basic tenet of basketball defense and the Blazers look like they lost their textbook.
Even in the fourth quarter, when Boston went into a super-drought offensively, it was mostly because they were missing threes (a game-long issue) and failing to go into the lane than Portland bearing down.
Speaking of threes... Portland won in the late fourth because of their bigs, but that scenario was set up by three-point shooting throughout the game. Boston shot 11-37 under very little pressure. The Blazers shot 16-33 (48.5%) under considerably more. Those threes are like Portland’s security blanket. As long as they have them, they’re always going to feel ok.
CJ McCollum hit 5-10 from distance, Anfernee Simons 4-8, and Ben McLemore 4-7 to lead Portland’s attack. McLemore becomes a powerful weapon when he produces like that.
Anfernee Simons Stretching Wings
Anfernee Simons struggled in the fourth period, but otherwise had a nice game with 21 points on 8-17 shots hit. He wasn’t point-guarding much, garnering 4 assists, but his scoring looked good. Here’s the thing to notice with Simons besides volume: he’s hitting a wide variety of shots from multiple spots on the floor. He looks equally comfortable with a baseline step-back and a catch-and-shoot three. He can also pull up at the elbow or drive to the rack. THAT is what makes him special. Honestly, lots of guards could score big on a not-great team. How Simons is generating points matters.
The Blazers played quite well in stretches of this game. During certain minutes, their stars looked amazing, almost unstoppable. But the attack wasn’t sustained enough, nor their defense sound enough, to secure the game until the final moments.
Even playing their best, looking like they’re destroying the other team, Portland creates separation of maybe 7-12 points. And that’s when they’re on fire. They can’t put games out of reach right now. And any NBA team can catch up with a single-digit lead.
When they’re not playing their best, of course, the results are much worse. It ends up being a matter of performing to the max just to stay alive. Yes, they should celebrate this win. At the same time, this is not a sustainable recipe for success.
Fielding a younger, more athletic lineup now, you’d think the Blazers would be good at running. They’re just not. They don’t push the ball for layups, often settling for secondary action and kick-out threes. Those are nice, but slam dunks out in front of the defense would leaven the mix.
It’s not just an offensive issue, though. The Blazers are vulnerable to tempo defensively. Nurkic not being the first defender down the floor is understandable. The utter inability of nearly everyone else to defend quick shots is less so.
Intellectually, you can see it. Portland defenders aren’t tall or intimidating. Unless they force opponents to slow down enough that somebody can rotate and help, NBA-quality players treat them as if they don’t exist.
A running team doesn’t slow down, meaning many of Portland’s defenders might as well be super-tall traffic cones. That doesn’t make watching it any easier. It’s impossible to trust a team knowing that any opponent who gets down the floor a touch quicker is going to shred them.
CJ for CJ
CJ McCollum is a blessing for a team that needs to score. Because, really, how else are the Blazers going to win? His 24 points tonight were important to this victory.
That said, McCollum is clearly, overwhelmingly the #1 option on the court when he touches the ball, a fact that’s becoming increasingly apparent to everyone. He’s gotten that look, like you can pretty much tell when he’s going to take the shot. Increasingly, that’s all the time.
You can almost watch the team shape around McCollum’s game when he gets into this mode. Teammates stop moving around him. Passing dwindles overall, as the Blazers—including Simons—queue up to see who will get the next shot.
In a way, this is understandable. McCollum is one of the most talented scorers in the NBA, let alone on the impoverished Blazers. He’s occupying a role held by Damian Lillard, a role that now belongs to McCollum by roster progression and team style. Portland is mediocre right now, at best. McCollum is the show, also one of the best hopes for them to shine.
But there isn’t enough around McCollum to make an iso-heavy approach viable. At least if the ball moves. there’s hope of open threes or a Nurkic offensive board. McCollum won’t score the 120 the Blazers need to succeed all by himself. The other Blazers probably won’t help enough either, but they can’t show it if they don’t get the chance. McLemore, Simons, and Nurkic all have moments and roles. Even Covington does. Those can’t be reserved for non-McCollum minutes or the Blazers will devolve into one of those teams with a shiny star and no victories to show for it.
NOW...here’s the big caveat. As the game closed, McCollum made some NICE plays that made the victory possible through the hands of teammates. He was also a distraction to Boston defenders throughout. Hopefully everyone will note that they won the game playing a more team-oriented style in those final moments and find a way to evolve that spirit into more of the overall minutes.
You’ve Got To What?
Though they finished at a somewhat-acceptable 21-30, 70% for the game, the Blazers were in the doldrums at the foul line most of the evening. They don’t have a roster full of sharpshooters anymore, but it really hurts to generate foul shots and not take full advantage of the points they might provide. Though Portland ranks in the middle of the pack in free throw percentage on the season, this issue is starting to crop up. Let’s see if it’s just a blip.
The Blazers face the Toronto Raptors on Sunday with a 3:00, Pacific start.