The Portland Trail Blazers came into the first game of their 2022-23 season, against the Sacramento Kings, with something to prove. Their off-season moves had been more striking than usual, but lackluster preseason play and obvious roster gaps left observers wondering if they could be a credible NBA team.
The road wasn’t easy and the game wasn’t pretty, but the Blazers and Kings fought tooth and nail for 48 minutes. Portland looked slower than their Sacramento counterparts, but they made up for it with hard-headed persistence getting the ball in the lane plus superb energy on the run and the offensive glass.
In the end, all the running, shooting, and boarding ended in a 115-108 Portland victory.
The Blazers started out in gruesome form, letting De’Aaron Fox shoot open threes while his teammates scored inside. They fell behind 11-4, behind their problematic defense. But turnovers proved Portland’s salvation. They started to pressure Fox. He responded by coughing up the ball. When that happened, the Blazers showed aggression on the break. Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant, and Damian Lillard all got breakaways in short order. A 9-0 run morphed into near-60% shooting for the Blazers, which inverted the scoreboard quickly. At the 6:00 mark, the Blazers were up 17-13.
Jusuf Nurkic scored a couple of close buckets midway through the period. The Kings responded by banging the ball inside and drawing fouls themselves. The whistles played a key role in the opening period. Lillard drew three fouls on Kings guard KZ Okpala all by himself.
Portland’s second-unit defense looked fairly crisp, bringing hope for those banking on them doing well this season. The offense consisted of a remaining starting guard—Lillard or Simons—trying to break down the Kings, then passing. The options were hit or miss off of those plays. Nobody got totally clean looks, but shots fell occasionally anyway.
The Blazers continued their commitment to driving throughout the period. They scored a dozen paint points and attempted 14 free throws in the period. Portland led 32-23 after one.
The second period started with a blizzard of turnovers from both teams. Nurkic returned to the floor and Portland slowed down, allowing the Kings to key in as the Blazers tried to feed him. The Blazers also looked a bit slow on the other end, but Sacramento bobbled the ball repeatedly anyway. The first three minutes of the second featured way more running than scoring.
Sacramento got open looks on their jumpers as the period progressed, but they went on a cold streak deep enough to make Santa feel at home. Portland’s defense probably looked better on paper than on the court, but it still worked.
The Blazers continued to push the ball into the lane no matter what configuration they threw on the floor. Center screens came thick and fast, with dribblers looking to dive as soon as they passed the screen setter.
Portland’s offense went cold in the middle minutes of the second. Sacramento started clicking about that same time. Inside-out play fueled Sacramento. The Blazers didn’t have a great answer, especially with Nurkic on the bench.
Then the bottom fell out totally. Lillard proved ineffective at getting past defenders, putting the Blazers offense in molasses. Turnovers and missed shots (with no chance of rebounds) became commonplace. Sacramento picked up the tempo, running with abandon for quick looks before the Blazers could set up. A 16-1 run ensued. The Kings retook the lead with just under four minutes remaining.
Lillard wouldn’t let it rest, though. He went into attack mode as the period closed, which loosened up Portland’s offense considerably. Quick shots became rough shots for the Kings as they tried to match. The turnover-fest resumed for both teams and the proceedings got random. But eventually Sacramento was able to key in on Lillard just enough to blunt the force of Portland’s attack. The Blazers made just enough defensive mistakes to let Sacramento loose. The Kings came back from a deep hole to lead 55-51 at the half.
The Blazers lost containment big time as the third period began. Sacramento scored four times at the rim—including two outright dunks—plus twice from the arc before the period was five minutes old. A couple of inside shots from Josh Hart and a pair of threes from Grant kept the Blazers from sinking into the Mariana Trench, but the Kings doubled their lead with less than a sneeze.
De’Aaron Fox continued his personal campaign of misery against the Blazers. He already had 20 points at the half. Halfway through the third, he was up to 27. Portland had no answer.
Grant continued to try, bless his heart. He remained active on defense and even dunked back an offensive rebound. That energy play appeared to spark his team. They went back to their turnover-forcing, running ways. Layups and pull-ups brought them back within 2 points as the clock closed on 3:00 remaining.
The Blazers made fair use of offensive rebounds as the third wound down, giving themselves extra opportunities to eat away at the lead. This is not an expected product from their roster. Those little edges, and even more inside scoring—multiple shots from Justise Winslow, another obvious spark plug—kept them close on the scoreboard. If they could have defended the three-point arc, Portland might have pushed ahead to a lead of their own. Instead they settled for an 84-84 tie at the end of three.
Both teams pulled out the stops as the fourth period began. They ran frantically, shot quickly. Sharpe hit yet another catch-and-shoot three, his third in three tries. But Trye Lyles returned the favor on the other end. When Simons stroked one from the top of the arc a possession later, the fight was truly on.
Simons continued to spark the second unit, with Winslow, Sharpe, and Nassir Little dashing around on defense. But neither team was hitting consistently. The lead drifted between 3 and nothing for either side. Kevin Huerter hit a long three, then Winslow, of all people, canned one from the side. Domantas Sabonis got a breakaway layup, then Winslow put in a layup off of a halfcourt pass. The period became a game of Roshambo with both sides throwing identical symbols every time.
When the Blazers were in need Simons stepped up with quick scoring. They all managed the rebounds together. Fast offense and solid board work made up for defensive lapses. The score remained tied at 104 as the 3:00 mark approached.
Terrence Davis II got a put-back jam off of a Heurter miss with 2:17 remaining, but the refs whistled him for a taunting foul and Portland got one of the two points back immediately. With the score reading 106-105, Kings and less than two minutes remaining, the teams traded turnovers.
Lillard missed a three badly with 1:20 remaining, but Grant drew an offensive foul on Fox on the next possession. This game was NOT going away.
Lillard looked to make up for his whiff the next time down the floor, but he slipped and lost the ball. The refs called a kicked ball on Sabonis and Portland got the ball back instead of Sacramento getting a breakaway.
Finally, Grant hit a driving layup and was fouled for the and-one. The Kings crowd was incensed at the refs by this point, but Portland still led 108-106 with less than a minute to play.
A game-changing, coffin corner three-pointer rattled in and out for Fox on the next possession. With the guard near the baseline, Hart rebounded and was able to run out for a hesitation layup, which again drew an and-one, sending the Sacramento crowd into conniption fits. Following the free throws, Portland led 111-106 with 22.2 seconds remaining. Huerter hit a deep two-pointer with 14.7 remaining, but Lillard hit the icing free throws. Finally, and mercifully, that was the ballgame.
Check out our extended analysis of the game, coming up next.
The Blazers take on the Phoenix Suns on Friday night in their home opener at the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.