The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night with yet another mixed lineup. Frontcourt stalwarts Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington returned from NBA Health and Safety Protocols, giving the Blazers size that they sorely missed the last ten days. In horrible karmic balance, Damian Lillard sat to rest an ongoing abdominal injury even as CJ McCollum continued his recovery from a collapsed lung. Portland’s increased mass helped with paint scoring and offensive rebounding, but ended up costing the Blazers every time they switched a big onto Atlanta star Trae Young. Norman Powell (26 points) and Anfernee Simons (a career-high 43) had great games starting in place of Lillard and McCollum. But Young outshone them all with 56 points on 17-26 shooting.
It didn’t matter, though. Double-teaming Young down the stretch, plus some timely plays from Nurkic, gave the Blazers enough room to walk away with a 136-131 victory.
Norman Powell opened up the game shooting and slicing, filling the gap left by the absence of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Nurkic’s presence was also immediately evident. The Hawks had to deal with screens that had been all but absent over the last two weeks. Nurkic’s inside threat also caused Atlanta’s defense to stay home, leaving the wings more operating space. The Blazers jumped out to a 9-0 lead, looking pretty good while doing so. Compared to what we’ve seen lately from them, it was like a miracle.
As the quarter progressed, the miracle turned out to be a little bit more of a mirage. Portland’s switching defense fell prey to Atlanta shooters. Three-pointers from the Hawks brought them back quickly. Then the middle opened up as Portland scrambled to cover. The Hawks started converting layups and alley-oops. This was a familiar story. BUT...Portland’s own threes kept falling, which made everything ok.
Anfernee Simons lit up the twine from distance, but couldn’t keep containment on the other end. Nor could anyone else. Trae Young had 16 at the end of the first and Atlanta shot 65% from the field, but Simons had 11, Powell 10, and the Blazers shot 8-16 from the arc. That left Portland up 36-32 after one.
The tempo got faster, and the play correspondingly sloppy, as the second quarter commenced. This didn’t hurt the Blazers any. Frantic and discombobulated gives everyone a puncher’s chance. For the non-defending Blazers, that’s a blessing. Nassir Little and company went for steals and run-outs. Nurkic went to the post in the halfcourt. Portland couldn’t hit a jumper, but in an inversion from the first quarter, paint points saved them. Many of those came from offensive rebounds, where the Blazers absolutely dominated. When the starters returned and a few more threes fell, Portland opened up a double-digit lead. If the Blazers had a flaw, it was either interior defense or complaining to the referees after every call. Neither was that consequential, but both showed the cracks in Portland’s foundation. Young had a flurry to close the half, giving him 29 points and 9 assists for before halftime. (Switching bigs on him may not have been the best plan.) The Blazers still carried a 70-65 lead into the break.
Damian Lillard Anfernee Simons came out of halftime ready to demolish the Hawks singlehandedly. He scored Portland’s first 11 points on exactly 4 shots: three triples and a two from the top of the key. Some of those were hard too. The Blazers once again opened up a double-digit lead. But Simons couldn’t create a cushion that Portland’s interior defense wouldn’t mess up eventually. The game became almost predictable: Simons hits a three, Atlanta scores in the restricted area. Anfernee’s career night wasn’t a triumphal march as much as a crazy attempt to keep his team afloat.
The Blazers went elsewhere with the ball mid-quarter, probably figuring that Simons couldn’t hit everything. He pretty much was. The other Blazers looked like they were gumming up the offense by comparison. This was particularly true of Nurkic, who went through one of those spells when it looked like he and the ball were complete strangers. The defense was somehow worse, as the Blazers utterly failed to get back on defense over multiple possessions. And when we say, “Multiple”, we mean, “Every second trip down the floor.” Instead of down 10, the Hawks found themselves up 2 with a little over two minutes remaining. Portland’s defense didn’t improve in the final 120 seconds of the frame. Atlanta took a 105-100 lead into the fourth.
In a carbon copy of the second period, the fourth started out with both offenses sputtering. Nassir Little proved the difference, hitting a pair of threes for Portland. That was more than everyone else was scoring, combined. It erased the small deficit, setting up a tight race for the final 8 minutes of the game. The Hawks finally started doubling Simons, making the rest of the Blazers beat them. This definitely made the offense look more janky, but Atlanta couldn’t make good on the other end. The Hawks decided their salvation would come via the three-pointer. and they kept missing them. Portland sat on a 5-point lead midway through the final period.
Portland kept going through Nurkic on offense, posting up for a symphony of awkward attempts, punctuated by the occasional foul. It did have the effect of shortening the game, as possessions took longer, but they weren’t particularly productive. When Simons touched the ball single-covered, he still made good. It just didn’t happen enough.
Playing to a stalemate kind of worked, though, as that small lead looked larger and larger the more the clock dwindled. When Nurkic hit a backdoor-cutting Powell for an and-one, the Blazers led by 8 with 3:00 remaining. Young hit a three, but Nurkic finally made a smooth spinning post move for a conversion. Young missed, then Nurkic hit a much-less smooth burp through Clint Capela’s arms to put the Blazers up 127-118. That should have sealed the game. But the Blazers left Delon Wright wide open for a corner three. Then Young got fouled on consecutive plays, canning four free throws. That left the score 127-125, Portland’s ball, with 47 seconds remaining.
Portland pulled a fast one on the Hawks. Instead of draining the clock. they went to Nurkic on the inbounds. He drove, hit a layup, and was fouled. Hitting the free throw gave him 21 points for the evening and the Blazers a 130-125 lead with 42.6 seconds left. Nurk had finally come fully alive and the Blazers, courtesy of a couple of missed threes from Atlanta on the decisive possession, had finally won the game.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers welcome the Miami Heat to the Moda Center on Wednesday evening at 7:00, Pacific.