It felt like only a matter of time before Damian Lillard delivered one of those vintage, “He’s back” performances. Setting the table for a storybook performance with a 28-point first half, the Portland Trail Blazers star held off the Phoenix Suns’ attack just long enough for the cavalry to arrive in the second half. On the backs of his 41-point, seven-rebound outing, Portland made just enough of those winning plays to earn a thrilling 113-111 victory.
The victory moves the Blazers to a perfect 2-0, both of which coming in close, single-digit games. Below, we have a few other immediate takeaways from the win.
About Dame Time:
In the lead-up to Friday night’s matchup, there was a little chatter regarding Lillard not looking as spry and speedy as in years past during the season-opening win over Sacramento; the Blazers star needed just one half to make that a topic for the archives.
In a 28-point first half, Lillard showed off the patented sidestep 3-pointer; he showed off the needed bounce to score amongst the trees in the paint against Phoenix — in short, he showed the Suns everything but mercy.
The performance itself couldn’t be celebrated, though, until the reinforcements came along. After one half, Lillard alone shot 8-of-12 from the field, 4-of-7 from deep, and 8-of-8 from the charity stripe. The rest of his teammates? 6-of-22 from the field, 1-of-9 from deep, and 6-of-8 from the charity stripe.
Fortunes changed in that second half; Jerami Grant — who went without a field goal attempt in the first half after his mesmerizing Blazers debut — upped his ante, and the likes of Josh Hart, Nassir Little, Jusuf Nurkic, and Anfernee Simons, among many others, helped balance the scoring load.
Lastly of note is that for the second night in a row, Lillard faced a formidable challenge, this time in 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Mikal Bridges. Though, All-Stars deliver, and Dame Time did just that with express shipping. Not to mention his giving Ayton the “LeBron James to Gilbert Arenas at the free throw line treatment” during those two missed free throws that clinched Portland’s win.
In the Zone:
After the Sacramento game, Justise Winslow noted in his postgame presser that the Blazers didn’t practice their “small-ball lineup” a ton. But, for the second occasion in a row, that impromptu grouping with Grant, Winslow and Drew Eubanks — or some concoction of the two — played a pivotal role in fueling a comeback attempt.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Blazers’ defense ranked No. 1 in zone possessions (749) last season. So, like a customer with a gift card, you just knew that Chauncey Billups would at some point, pull it out of his back pocket.
It didn’t work to perfection by any stretch. Portland parked defenders at the nail, ready to rotate, but Devin Booker was essentially the hammer to that nail. He got to his spots with relative ease, on the way to the 33-point performance on 11-of-23 from the field.
Ayton won the “Who can hit more floaters over rotating guards” battle against Nurkic, pouring on 26 points on 12-of-22 shooting, and Bridges benefitted from the Suns’ matchup hunting, getting over-the-top shots against the Blazers guards throughout.
Though, sometimes, the ultimate goal in a zone is just to slow down a team’s rhythm and give them a different look. And, given the win, that it did successfully. But, 64-win teams as the Suns were in 2021-22 aren’t bred by accident, and they nearly weathered the storm well enough to win.
A Game of Runs and Whistles:
Don’t look now, but the Blazers are officially 2-0 in single-digit games. Despite not taking their first lead until the 10:27 mark of the fourth quarter, the Blazers got a chance to showcase their resiliency in the face of multiple potentially game-changing runs by Phoenix.
One of the benefits of having so many gritty, lunch-pail talents on this year’s roster is that they’re poised to be much more aggressive. Portland ranked No. 16 last season in free throw attempts (21.6); in two games this year, they’ve shot 33 and 36, numbers that by tonight, should put them in the No. 1 spot in the NBA in that regard. Sample size matters, but when you look at tonight’s box score, the Blazers’ 36 free throws vs. Phoenix’s 21 will inevitably stand out.
As noted in that Ayton section above, it’s worth wondering how differently the game plays out if he doesn’t get into foul trouble. But, chalk it up as a potential benefit of that zone.
To the Blazers’ benefit, Lillard tallied up 12 attempts, Josh Hart’s relentless motor helped him make cameos at the line, Nurkic burrowed his way into nine attempts (hitting eight of them, including two clutch-as-ever ones in that second half), and this proved helpful in taking control in the fourth, and ultimately beating last year’s No. 1-seeded team.
— Anfernee Simons struggled with his shot tonight, going just 5-of-17. But part of his “graduation” into ascending to whatever his next level is, will come down to what he does when it truly matters in the fourth. He hit shots down the stretch that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
— Spurs fans are likely to have found lots of enjoyment in this game, watching Jock Landale and Drew Eubanks — endless energy — battling it out along the second units.
— After a somewhat-slow first half, Nurkic seemed to awaken in the second half. The post-ups, one could say, slowed the flow of the game, but once he got into rhythm on those pocket passes with Lillard, he rounded into form with an excellent 20-point, 17-rebound game.
— Shaedon Sharpe’s second game didn’t offer those offensive fireworks, but his plus-minus — a plus-7 — was the highest on the team. Winning plays were there.
— Nassir Little had strong minutes as he continues to round into form. He noted a few weeks ago before the Clippers preseason game that he had only had a few full-court scrimmages to get his wind back. Reassuring is that his energy was there, and he got a 3-pointer to fall; if this becomes a consistent occurrence, look out.
— If you haven’t yet, take a look at Dave Deckard’s instant recap of tonight’s game.
— Portland gets a well-earned Saturday off before a Sunday afternoon matinee with the Los Angeles Lakers, looking for their first win on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 12:30 PT.