The Portland Trail Blazers faced one of their stiffest challenges of the season on Monday night, facing the Denver Nuggets and their MVP center, Nikola Jokic. As it turned out, the challenge was as stiff as overdone pasta, as the Blazers steamrolled Denver 135-110.
Damian Lillard ruled the first half of the game. He finished the night with 31 points on 10-16 shooting with 6 rebounds and 8 assists. Anfernee Simons took over in the third period, which saw Portland turn a 6-point deficit into a 13-point lead. Simons scored 29 for the game, shooting 7-12 from distance. With Jokic spending most of the game on the bench with foul trouble, that’s all the Blazers needed to win their fourth in a row to start the season.
If you missed the action, shame on you! Fortunately Matthew Legros has you covered with our quarter-by-quarter recap. After you’ve perused that, here are seven observations from Portland’s victory.
Smart Nuggets...For a Half
Field goal percentage is one of the ways to tell if a team’s offense is clicking. But percentage doesn’t tell everything. Where the shots come from also matters (and often contributes to percentage). Denver had no problem getting shots just where they wanted them in the first half. They feasted in the lane off of layups, posts, and offensive rebounds. In between, they generated enough kick-outs to make the Rockettes jealous. Even on their lower-percentage three-point attempts, they simply rose over the shorter Blazers. Credit to the Nuggets for the veteran know-how, exploiting matchups without having to feed a star for isolation attempts. Denver ended up 49.5% from the field for the game.
The Blazers had a couple tricks up their sleeves too. Tap-out rebounds for second chances have become a staple of Portland’s offense. Portland can’t necessarily grab boards, but they can poke them away from the opponent. Fast break points also provide a source of easy buckets when the offense dries up. Those extra, easy points take away the over-reliance on the three-pointer.
Portland got 9 offensive boards tonight, almost matching the 10 that the much-bigger Denver team corralled. 26 points on the break highlighted the effort the Blazers put in.
The Blazers have run zones against every opponent they’ve faced so far. It hasn’t worked very well. Tonight, it did. Zoning up against the Nuggets forced them to shoot in the seams. The openings came from mid-range. This was about the only time all night that Denver’s efficiency wavered, but boy did it waver. They got only jumpers against the zone and pretty much all of them missed badly.
The third period was won on the back of distance shooting, but Portland’s zone made the margin significant instead of ceremonial.
Normally “zone defense” and “good defenders” don’t belong in the same sentence, but there’s something vaguely attractive about the mobile Blazers keeping themselves in the vicinity of plays rather than getting dragged out of position and having to recover.
Third Quarter Adjustments
The third quarter was a nightmare for the Blazers last year. It’s been an intermittent issue for a while. Under-talented rosters tend to excel early, then wilt when the better team starts paying attention.
If early-season third periods are any indication, the Blazers just might be the better team this year. The Blazers trailed 61-55 at the half, but it took them about three minutes to erase that deficit with their shift in defense, running, and a barrage of Anfernee Simons threes. By the time the smoke cleared, Portland led 99-86. It was a 19-point swing in a single period.
Stay tuned, but halftime may just turn out to be a benefit this year.
Portland started the game sketchy from distance, but when then warmed up, they warmed UP. The Blazers hit 11 second-half triples, blowing the Nuggets out of the water. They’re better as an inside team now. When the outside shots are falling too? Watch out.
The Blazers had no answer for Denver’s forwards. Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter, Jr. were just too big for Portland’s defenders to manage. Porter, Jr. had 18, shooting 50% from the field and 4-8 from the arc. Gordon scored 26 on 12-16 shooting.
Portland’s guards did their own damage, though. Denver didn’t come out far enough on Simons and couldn’t stay in front of Lillard. Dame fed Simons in the third period as Anfernee hit 6 of 7 three-pointers. Yes, in the quarter. At a certain point, it was like a video game out there. Portland was on the good side of it. Simons had 22 points, yes, IN THE QUARTER.
If Nikola Jokic is The Joker, the referees were Batman tonight. Jokic spent pretty much the entire evening in foul trouble, picking up his fourth midway through the third period. He earned his fifth with 9:00 remaining in the fourth. Jokic attempted only 4 shots in 27 minutes of play. No matter who else Denver has, that’s a big advantage for the opponent.
If you’re counting, the MVP ended up slot-machining the evening with 9 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists. Theoretically coins should have spilled out of Denver’s locker room at that point, but given the final score, it was probably more like tears.
The Blazers welcome the Miami Heat to the Moda Center on Wednesday night, with tip-off at 7:00 PM, Pacific.