The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings 115-108 on opening night of the 2022-23 NBA Season. The contest was neck-and-neck throughout, the virtual tie broken by the play of Portland’s forwards against overwhelming scoring from Kings guard De’Aaron Fox.
If you want to see a quarter-by-quarter description of the action, you can find it in our Instant Recap. After you’ve perused that, here are a dozen or so factors that influenced the game.
The Blazers showed a clear, persistent commitment to getting the ball in the lane in this game. They attempted 28 three-pointers, but scored 56 in the paint. That’s an inversion of their customary norm. They didn’t run from the long ball, but it wasn’t their first option. Instead they pushed for layups or step-back jumpers inside. The sustained lane attack had a side benefit of drawing fouls. Portland attempted 33 free throws tonight, frustrating the HECK out of the Sacramento crowd.
Pushing tempo off of rebounds and turnovers was a huge part of Portland’s attack. They played opportunistically whenever the ball changed sides. It was as fast and hard as we’ve seen a Blazers team run in forever. Fast breaks have long been a dead zone for Portland. Tonight they scored 20 on the run. Not bad.
16 forced turnovers didn’t hurt matters. To say Portland played good defense would be a stretch, but they kept their hands busy and tried to force steals. When they got one, they were off to the races.
When they got stuck in the halfcourt, the Blazers did run into a bit of a problem. None of their ball-handlers could get past Sacramento’s young, active defenders individually. When it came to one-on-one play, the Blazers fell short, with free throws off of whistles providing the only real relief.
They solved that problem somewhat with center screens. The Blazers are neither deep nor overly talented in the middle, but their bigs can stand straight and absorb a blow. With centers setting picks from multiple places on the floor, Portland’s guards found seams that they couldn’t have created themselves. For Anfernee Simons, that was enough. It was sometimes for Lillard too. Alternatively, the guards made passes against a collapsing Sacramento defense, finding forwards at the arc or rim.
Screen setting was one of the most consistent aspects of Portland’s halfcourt offense tonight. They deserve plenty of credit for sticking to the scheme and making it work.
Lillard Up and Down
Damian Lillard certainly looked confident as he took the floor for the first time in ten months. His shot did not follow him onto the court. His infrequent three-point attempts looked decent leaving his hands, but roll a die to see where they’d hit the rim. His drives were hampered by a lack of speed compared to his defenders. When he could get inside, he ended up forcing shots over outstretched hands.
To be fair, Sacramento keyed in on Dame persistently. He made them pay with the passing game. He seems committed to setting up teammates and counting their scores as his own.
Lillard shot 5-18 from the field, just 1-8 from the arc, tallying 20 points and 8 assists in his season debut.
Simons In and Out
Anfernee Simons helped lead the charge on the interior attack. He didn’t take many threes early, concentrating on finding the rim instead. He shot confidently when he did have an open look at the arc. It just didn’t happen as much as in prior years.
Looking comfortable on the floor is testimony enough, though. Simons didn’t in preseason. It’s a good sign for the Blazers that he appeared to feel confident in his role.
Simons scored 22 on 9-22 shooting, 3-10 from distance.
Shaedon Sharpe got separation on almost every driving attempt, but had trouble finishing. His first two steps seemed effortless, but as players closed he appeared to glance sideways.
He had no such problem on catch-and-shoot threes, though. Those looked sharp and instant. The rookie scored 12, hitting 3-3 from the arc in his NBA debut.
Jury out on Nurk
Jusuf Nurkic was part of the impressive screening mentioned above. Full marks for that. He also did fine on the boards, with 7 in 25 minutes.
The rest of the evening was mixed. Nurk looked slow. Both defense and offense appeared to slow when he took the court, let alone when the Blazers tried to work through him. Nurkic had 4 turnovers and shot 3-9 from the field.
The experiment needs more time, but this is something to watch. There’s no option to sit Nurk. It’s just tough when the less-talented centers behind him appear to play much quicker, and at least tonight, better.
If rebounding is going to be a problem for this height-and-mass-challenged team, it didn’t show up tonight. The Blazers had 11 offensive rebounds, the Kings just 4. Granted, Sacramento isn’t a giant team either, but it’s still hopeful.
If you’re hoping for a return to the Terry Stotts, three-point-heavy offense of the past, you’re going to be waiting a while. Portland shot 11-28 from distance, a respectable 39.3%. They just didn’t generate the attempts, preferring to go inside.
The Kings had no such problem. Portland did a credible job getting in the face of shooters one-on-one. They weren’t able to close off of any action. Sacramento shot 17-44 from the arc.
If you’re counting, that’s an 18-point deficit from the arc. That’ll be a stat to watch this season.
Jerami Grant had a nice debut for Portland. He was as active on defense as advertised. The Kings scored, but not that much in his section. Plus Grant made the most of opportunity buckets. He stayed on the sideline for catch-and-shoot threes, becoming one of the few Blazers who actually hit from distance. When he got the ball, he drove quickly, either converting layups or drawing fouls with change of direction. He even grabbed a few boards, including an impressive offensive-rebound stick-back dunk in the third.
Grant’s stat line read 23 points on 5-11 shooting, 3-3 from the arc, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals in 35 minutes. If the Blazers get that from him every night, they’ll be ecstatic.
You Gotta Have Hart
Josh Hart was all over the floor tonight, in his usual style. His biggest contributions came in the third period. When Portland started falling behind by double-digits, Hart ran the floor and got the ball inside. His layups and short shots provided a consistent stream of points when nothing else was working. His continued aggression was evident. He and Grant really sparked the team in the second half. Hart’s final stat line read: 19 points, 8-11 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists in 38 minutes.
And Justise For All
Justise Winslow was a key to the third and fourth periods for the Blazers. He played defense, converted layups, grabbed rebounds, and even hit a three-pointer. Coach Chauncey Billups kept him in for extra time late, even when the starters came back in. Some of the starters DIDN’T come back in as Winslow played power forward and center during crunch time. It was quite a testament to his effort. Winslow notched 11 points and 8 rebounds (3 offensive) on 5-9 shooting in 26 minutes. That’s one more minute than Nurkic played.
In case it wasn’t clear, Portland’s forwards—Grant, Hart, and Winslow—won this game for the Blazers in the second half. Their energy, rebounding, and commitment to driving gave Portland the spark they needed.
If Portland’s guards vacillated during this contest, De’Aaron Fox had no such trouble. Sacramento’s point guard shot 12-21, 5-9 from the arc on his way to 33 points. The Blazers had no answer for him on defense. Get well soon, Gary Payton II.
The Blazers take on the Phoenix Suns on Friday night in their home opener at the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.