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The Night That Was: The Anfernee Simons Game

A Simons’ inferno blows away Denver on a night Portland was expected to lose.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

First, we learned the Portland Trail Blazers are fun this year. Then, we learned Damian Lillard is back. And now, we have the Anfernee Simons Game.

The fifth-year shooting guard is the emphatic storyline of Game Four, shaking off a three-game slump to unleash one of the hottest scoring sprees in recent Blazers memory. For about four minutes of game-time in the third quarter, Simons turned Rip City into a madhouse, a shining spectacle, bright enough even for the King to see.

When all three factors listed up top are rolling at once — inspired, fun play combined with a vintage Lillard and a red-hot Simons exploding onto the scene — you get what happened last night: a 135-110 beatdown of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

“Everybody has one common goal and that’s to win, so we’re going to do it by any means necessary,” Simons said in the postgame press conference. “If somebody’s hot, we’re going to find a way to get him the ball. Today, I guess I was hot, and they kept finding me the ball.”

But before Simons turned the Moda Center floor to ash and the game into a blowout, the Blazers were losing. Nobody would’ve blamed them for losing, either.

This was supposed to be the first loss of Portland’s young season. Yes, the Blazers had escaped with three gutsy wins in three games, but doubters could detract merit from those wins if they wished. The Sacramento Kings, even with a retooled roster and De’Aaron Fox making 3s, have been a laughingstock for years. The Phoenix Suns, even with all the talent and last year’s great record, are apparently dealing with dysfunction. The Los Angeles Lakers....are just bad. Portland barely squeaked past them all.

So going into last night, this was supposed to be Portland’s toughest test. It was the second night of a back-to-back, just hours after an emotional win in Los Angeles. The opponent was a Western Conference stalwart, featuring an MVP surrounded by loads of talent and shooting. It presented a perfect, rest-on-your-laurels opportunity that fans wouldn’t have batted an eye at, so long as Portland didn’t get obliterated. Take your 3-1 start, take your cookie and move on.

On top of all that, Denver was playing well in the first half, shooting 7-16 from deep. Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Bones Hyland all hit two apiece in the first 24 minutes, some in the face of solid closeouts. Jokic struggled with foul trouble for much of the night (9 points, 3-4 FG), but Porter Jr. scored 18 and Aaron Gordon scored 26. Denver shot 49.5% from the field for the game.

With 4:16 remaining in the half, Denver had its largest lead of the night at 53-40, leading to a Portland timeout. In the postgame press conference, head coach Chauncey Billups said he told his team in the huddle to cut the lead to seven by halftime. He understood they were tired because of the back-to-back, but he felt like if they got it to seven, they’d “be in good shape.”

That’s when the Blazers’ motor to “keep coming” at opponents — something Lillard called the team’s identity last week — kicked in. Assisted by Jokic’s foul trouble, Portland pounced to close the half on a 15-8 run. Lillard’s driving layup at the halftime buzzer cut the deficit to 61-55.

“We had got it to six, so we came out with energy in the second half,” Billups said. “And then Ant did what he did.”

The Anferno. The Anfurnace. Call the moment whatever you like, it was Simons’ show.

His first bucket, a driving right-handed layup past Jokic, tied the game at 64-64. Less than a minute later, he found his rhythm with a midrange pull-up. A few possessions later, he rained in his first 3-pointer from the right side.

Then he hit another. And another....And another.

Simons hit 3s on catch-and-shoot bombs from Lillard-like range. He hit 3s off the dribble and running full speed off screens, with defenders nearly running into him. Each time a shot banged through the net, his teammates looked for him more and the arena swelled into higher hysterics.

“I was looking around at the crowd, like, ‘Man, this is crazy. He is blowing the roof off this place,’” Lillard said postgame about his protege’s performance. “Just seeing Ant’s development, from the moment he got here until now, it was special to watch.”

All in all, Simons hit six consecutive shots from distance, while Billups flexed with intensity, Drew Eubanks clutched his palpitating heart and the bench danced around like they just saw a man levitate. He had entered an unconscious scoring zone, finishing the quarter with 22 points on 8-9 shooting. After the game, he said he knew something special was happening after his fifth straight 3-pointer.

“I shot at the top of the key, the one where I fell down. That’s the one that I was like, ‘Okay, I guess it’s one of those nights,’” Simons said with a smile. “Yeah, I shot that one blindly, it was like a blur at that moment.”

By the time Simons went to the bench at the 2:24 mark and the smoke cleared, Portland led 90-80 with all the momentum and Denver still had Lillard on the court to deal with. Portland ran away with the win.

Simons finished the game with 29 points on 11-17 from the field and 7-12 from deep. Lillard still led the team in scoring with 31, as the Blazers’ high-powered backcourt played elite and made Portland the only 4-0 team in the NBA.

With the season so young, it’s unclear what the Anfernee Simons Game will mean in the long run. Could it be the breakout game in an All-Star campaign, delivering Lillard that legitimate second star he’s been waiting for since LaMarcus Aldridge left town all those years ago? Could it be the Blazers’ first statement game in an out-of-nowhere season, accelerating where this team stands in its timeline? Could it be both? Or is it just a flame-throwing performance by a talented player in October, in a season where Portland eventually regresses to average?

Potential is ripe. For now, we’ll just call the performance what it was.


Song of the night: “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads