The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t won often over the last few weeks. As such, a victory against the Atlanta Hawks is nothing to sneeze at, especially when it involves career highs from a pair of guards, both in the same game. Between that, the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington, plus unbridled offense from both sides, Monday night’s Blazers-Hawks tilt was a game to remember.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap of the 136-131 victory here. If you want a quicker summary, well... Atlanta shot 54.5% from the field, Portland 52.8%, so it was a huge score-fest. But the Blazers shot 43.9% from the three-point arc despite missing starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Those deep shots, plus great efforts from Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, and Norman Powell, topped a massive game from Hawks’ superstar Trae Young.
After you’ve digested all that, here are the other observations of note.
Extra size was a blessing and a curse for the Blazers tonight. Improved floor balance was evident immediately. Jusuf Nurkic drew attention in the lane, leaving Anfernee Simons, Norman Powell, and teammates to fire away with far less opposition at the arc. Nurk also set his patented screens, making the offense look at least 25% better than it has over the last couple weeks. Paint attempts soared, as did offensive rebounding. The Blazers looked, and played, BIG.
On defense, Portland suffered. Or, more accurately, still suffered. Interior rotations were slow or non-existent, but that paled in comparison to the disaster that ensued when the Blazers switched against nearly every screen, leaving big guys on Trae Young. The floor became Young’s version of a basketball buffet: shoot it, drive it, dish it...everything worked.
Portland ended up with 48 points in the paint and 12 offensive rebounds, huge numbers. Atlanta scored a whopping 62 inside and got 9 offensive boards themselves. Portland’s big men had moments of brilliance, but there’s still a ways to go. Life is definitely better with them than without, though!
You would think that missing Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum would lessen Portland’s reliance on the three-pointer. Not so against Atlanta. The long ball kept them alive for most of the game. The Blazers shot 18-41 from distance, led by Simons with an incredible 9-16. Those big shots foiled every attempt by the Hawks to take over the game, even when Atlanta was clearly playing better.
Anfernee Simons was THE story for the Blazers tonight. He had a great first half, followed by a spectacular third quarter in which the difference between him and Full Power Damian Lillard was a hair’s breadth. To all appearances, Portland’s biggest offensive sin this evening was going anyone else but Simons with the ball.
There’s a HUGE difference in Simons’ game (and to a lesser extent, Norman Powell’s) when he knows he has the green light immediately compared to when he has to think, and presumably feels the starting guard ceiling above his head. Portland’s reserve guards might not be able to carry the team the way the starting guards can, but there’s potential untapped in the middle of the rotation.
Simons dedicated his career-high performance to his grandfather, who passed away last night from cancer.
“I really can’t take credit for how I played tonight... Sadly my grandpa died last night from cancer. This is all him, honestly. I give credit to him, dedicated this whole game to him.”— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 4, 2022
Sending so much love to @anferneesimons & his family ❤️ ❤️ pic.twitter.com/pVdKHAFB57
Night and Day
For every bit of offensive goodness the Blazers display, their defense is still really bad. Recovering the bigs didn’t help matters; it just made the vulnerabilities look different. Portland’s tall players were all but useless when they got switched onto Trae Young. That’s understandable. Less understandable is the propensity to let cutters get behind the “D”, seemingly without noticing that they were there. Not getting back in transition is the least understandable thing of all. It’s literally just turning, running, and existing. Somehow Portland’s frontcourt turned it into calculus, then barely showed up for the test. The Hawks scored 24 on the break tonight. Yikes.
Secret Weapon: Norman Powell
Norman Powell scored 26 points, hitting an incredibly efficient 9 of 13 shots. Those points certainly helped the Blazers win, but they weren’t the clincher. That came in the fourth quarter, when Trae Young looked nigh-unstoppable. The Blazer opted to double-team Atlanta’s superstar with Powell at the forefront of the defensive attack. Pushing Young out, recovering to him after screens...Powell did it all. Young still scored, but he wasn’t stuck on automatic. On the critical possessions, he was dodging and thinking as much as shooting. That made the difference in this game. Thank Mr. Powell for that.
The return of Jusuf Nurkic from Health and Safety Protocols was the big story before the game. Nurk did not disappoint. He scored 21 points on 8-18 shooting with 12 rebounds and 5 assists. He provided the classic example of the arena yelling, “No, No, No, YES!” The majority of his evening was spent in the post, bringing decidedly mixed results. Sometimes he looked like a ballet master, sometimes a bull in a china shop, sometimes a bull at the butcher. On defense? Well... (See also: the section on Portland’s big men above.)
But when the game came down to just 4-5 possessions, Nurkic was right at the heart of it and acquitted himself incredibly. Playing up high, he threaded a fantastic pass to Powell for an and-one that sealed the game. Diving towards the hoop on an inbounds play with 47 seconds remaining, he caught and converted seemingly in a single, blinding motion, stomping out the embers of Atlanta’s last comeback attempt. On the offensive end, at least, HE was the game-winning force for the Blazers in crunch time.
The game ball might go to Simons, but an honorable mention belongs to Nurkic for the last 3:00 of the game alone. Nice to see.
Go West, Young Man
Despite the loss, Trae Young scored 56, one off of the franchise record held by Dominique Wilkins, Bob Petit, et al. He hit 7-12 threes, 15-15 free throws. Until Powell made his fourth-quarter stands, the Blazers’ defense might as well have been invisible. If they had lost the game, we might grumble about that. For now... way to rope-a-dope them! Go Blazers!
A Little Bonus
This wasn’t Nassir Little’s best defensive game of the year. The whole rotation seemed to devolve into chaos on multiple possessions, and he wasn’t going to save it. But he played “D” as well as any of his frontcourt comrades. He also added a not-insignificant 22 points on 8-14 shooting from the field, 4-5 from the arc. While nowhere near Simons’ production on threes, Little’s triples proved just as backbreaking in their way. He was the outlet when Atlanta’s defense took a stand against Simons and said, “No more!” Little proved that not only WAS there more, the stream of pure scoring fire was not going to shut off anytime soon.
Portland’s starting lineup needed to be overwhelming on offense to make up for the general lack of defense, plus modest production from a struggling bench. Little tipped the scales over the edge that way, frosting the Simons cake with style.
The Blazers will welcome the Miami Heat on Wednesday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.