On Thursday night, the Portland Trail Blazers walked into Smoothie King Center in the middle of their fifth game on a six-game road trip and without two starters. By the final buzzer, those dynamics mattered very little. Thanks in large part to spirited efforts from Josh Hart and Jerami Grant — as well as an explosive scoring outburst in the middle by Anfernee Simons — Portland again chalked up an impressive win in 106-95 fashion.
As noted, the Blazers have gone 4-1 on the road during their first five on the road, bringing their record to 9-3, keeping them at No. 2 in the Western Conference. Below are a few deeper observations that stood out during tonight’s win.
Simons Says, Heat Up:
Given the absences of Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Shaedon Sharpe and Keon Johnson, the Blazers entered tonight with 42.6 shot attempts per game on the sideline and up for grabs. Did somebody say Anfernee Simons, or are we hearing things?
Over the first quarter and change, it appeared the game’s imprint belonged to anyone but. The talented Blazers star opened 0-of-5, often drawing back iron to the point that even he decided internally that passing the ball might be a better decision. Though, as has been the case throughout the year, when those floodgates opened, they opened big time. Before you knew it, Simons was on his way to a 23-point night on 5-of-18 from the field, with 13 of those 18 shot attempts coming from 3-point range.
The ant’s trail revealed somewhat of a pattern over this first 11-game stretch. Simons’ struggles in the first quarter — and subsequently brilliant play over the next three — have become pronounced on the stat sheet. In 2022-23, he’s shooting 10-of-30 (33.3 percent) with 28 points in first quarters, compared to 19-of-41 (46.3 percent) in the second, and 22-of-47 (46.8 percent) in the third.
Thankfully, an 11-point, three 3-pointer performance from Jerami Grant in the first quarter helped keep the Blazers steady until the cavalry arrived.
Old Friends in New Places:
Players of the past have said it, and tonight offered up quite the example: there’s just something about playing your old team that provides you with a little extra juice. As another beneficiary of tonight’s vacated shot attempts, Josh Hart provided Exhibit A.
The feisty guard’s impact could be found everywhere inside Smoothie King Center on Thursday night. He told Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian (playfully) that he planned to “lock up” Brandon Ingram on defense. The 23-point scorer finished with 12 points in tonight’s game, with Hart playing a key role in the gritty, competitive defensive scheme.
On the other end, CJ McCollum, the well-known former Blazers star, never quite found his rhythm either, finishing with just 13 points on 6-of-17 shooting, along with one three. At the game’s outset, the Blazers went with their trusty strategy of putting the lengthy Jerami Grant on him, to which McCollum and the Pelicans responded by turning up their pace and allowing him to facilitate. Ultimately, the guys in the black-and-red proved victorious in the homecoming matchups on this night.
Box Score Battles:
If there were one statistic that immediately stood out prior to this game, it would’ve been this one: the New Orleans Pelicans — largely due to the mass and aggressiveness of Zion Williamson and Jonas Valanciunas — ranked No. 4 in the NBA in offensive rebounding. With their top rebounder in Nurkic on the sidelines, it was worth wondering how Portland would respond.
As it would turn out, Portland would be just fine, winning the offensive rebounding battle outright, 11-9, and even went a step further, electing to go with a smaller, push-the-pace lineup with Grant and Watford on occasion and didn’t struggle despite it.
It’s also worth mentioning the Blazers’ zone defense and how it kept the Pelicans out of the paint and out of the middle of the floor. The Pelicans attempted to dish some of it back out, and to a degree it worked.
The Blazers should’ve considered themselves somewhat fortunate to be as close as they were; the shot chart showed that they only hit a single midrange shot in the first half alone, along with shooting just 36.7 percent over the first two quarters. Thankfully, an elite third quarter defensive performance helped shift the game for them.
- The Blazers have quietly become masters of hunting out players — often star players — in foul trouble. Midway through the second quarter, they were able to target Zion Williamson in getting him his third whistle, and Brandon Ingram fouled out of the competitive game with 3:32 left in the fourth.
- Each night, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Blazers’ turnover numbers, something that many would consider their Achilles heel at this point. Tonight, they had their first game of the 2022-23 season in which they committed 10 or fewer turnovers. On the other end, they forced 17 of them, including a pair of over-and-back whistles during that huge third quarter run that shook the game.
- Quietly, Portland has become one of the NBA’s best comeback teams. They are now 9-3, with six of those wins coming in which they’ve trailed by double-digits at some point in time.
If you haven’t yet, take a glance at Matthew Legros’ instant recap of tonight’s win.
The Blazers now get a day of rest before finishing off a successful six-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, November 12 at 5:30 PT.