The Portland Trail Blazers could not carry on the common theme for their season thus far — late game heroics — as the Brooklyn Nets did just enough to pull out a win in Portland on Thursday night. Kevin Durant led the brigade with 35 points. Five of his teammates answered the call beside him, scoring in double figures.
In the wake of some press conference verbiage that raised antennas, namely the usage of the full names of his teammates when deflecting over their eye-opening loss to the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, as well as comments about his leadership, the entire Nets squad came out like they had something to prove, and earned the victory. They had to scratch and claw for it.
The Blazers were riding high prior to this game after claiming sole possession of the number one seed in the west. While they started the game off slowly, they picked things up and transferred leads with their opponents overcoming widespread turmoil. Watching the contest gave you a better feeling than reading the box score, as Portland lost most of the head-to-head battles. This includes points off turnovers (30-13), shooting from the floor (50.8 percent - 38.7 percent) and assists (32-22).
A late tip-in from Royce O’Neale sealed the affair, and put Brooklyn in the much needed win column.
Portland opened the game with three off-ball screens along the free throw line extended, and Anfernee Simons blew a runner off a dump-off from Jusuf Nurkic. Going the other way, they commenced their defensive efforts in the worst possible way by giving up a four-point play to Joe Harris. Next possession down, O’Neale galloped down the lane for a layup over the outstretched arms of Jusuf Nurkic. Brooklyn was the team that came out with a wild card defensive scheme from the onset, as Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn called for a full-court press.
Each of the Nets’ first four possessions culminated in points — either from the field or the charity stripe. While this was a positive for the KD-led ball club, Simons’ two early fouls within the first 1:24 of the contest was an early blow to Rip City. Jerami Grant’s corner 3 was the first field goal for Portland and got them going.
Joe Harris was bombing away from distance. He had three triples by the halfway mark of the quarter. The Blazers were able to weather an early storm from the team in white thanks to Damian Lillard. Whether he was pulling a hesitation dribble out of his bag and taking Kevin Durant to the rack, or rising up from 30 feet for nothing but net, it was his contributions that were a major catalyst in Portland keeping it close. KD did a beautiful job of distributing the basketball, making simple yet effective passes to the likes of O’Neale in transition, and Nic Claxton off the rim run.
Four straight crowd-pleasing plays forced Vaughn’s hand to call a timeout. First, Shaedon Sharpe dropped the gavel off the lob in transition, commanding all to rise in the Moda Center. Then, Nassir Little attacked Durant going baseline for an easy layup, considering the one foul on the Texas product. On the other end, Little didn’t want the party to end early, so like a New York DJ he brought out a crowd-favorite: a block pinned off the glass that ignited a fast break. Sharpe ran the show and did it all himself, pulling up from 17 for his best DeMar Derozan impression.
The game was tied at 28 after one.
Ben Simmons came out active to start the quarter. He had two layups in close, as he helped Brooklyn hang on to their lead by a thread. Sharpe proceeded to say, “hold my beer.” He spotted weakness in the defense and hit a step back trey. He would go on to lose the ball on the next offensive possession, leading to a fast break deuce from Brooklyn. He must’ve felt some type of way about that, because once Portland came down, he caught the ball on the left elbow and drained the trifecta. Damian Lillard fed off of the energy and hit a step back triple from the left elbow also.
For Brooklyn, O’Neale threw a lob on the money to Nic Claxton that he went up to the rafters to throw down with authority. Sharpe turned into a walking instant replay machine, as he hit another step back 3 from the same spot that made everyone watching have a curious case of Déja Vu. In transition, Durant stepped through and threw down a Statue of Liberty dunk to keep the lead in single digits.
O’Neale hit a 3 later on, continuing his streak of 3 pointers made in every game played this season. It also further cemented his team lead in the department with 36 on the campaign. Brooklyn played good defense, but were conventional in their style, and eased off of the press somewhat, although Seth Curry was a man on a mission, still putting on-ball pressure on the Rip City point guards on occasion. Toward the end of the quarter, it was all Dame. He had one of the most exaggerated step back triples you’ll ever see. So much so, it garnered imitations from his teammates on the bench and notice from the play-by-play announcers. It rattled home to break the tie and put Portland back up 57-54.
The Blazers went 2-for-1 to end the quarter to much avail. Lillard first slashed baseline and drew the foul, knocking down both. With seven seconds left, he came charging down the court, and got past two defenders before going up strong like a grown man for the contested lay. Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups elected not to go with a zone for the entire half — something Blazers fans have been getting used to from their early candidate for Coach of the Year.
The Blazers led 61-57 at the half.
The third period began with the Simons Show. Anfernee had a catch and shoot 3 from the top of the key. Anfernee tickled the twine with a triple from the sideline. Anfernee caught the rock and upped his stock with a triple to beat the shot clock. Anfernee went behind the back and took it all the way to the rack, plus the hack. Simons was cooking throughout the duration of the quarter. He put icing on the cake with a lefty layup off the glass when met with two defenders. The heat check went on two plays too many, as a jump-ball and errant layup which clanked off of the glass costed Portland two scoring opportunities.
Ben Simmons was nonchalant with a scoop pass to Joe Harris cutting for two. As time progressed, Jusuf Nurkic put Yuta Watanabe on his derriere with a clean block at his apex, which was called a foul — a pure travesty. Damian Lillard probably got away with a foul when he stripped Durant from behind, leading to a fast break “gimme” from Jerami Grant.
Yuta Watanabe gave Vaughn some good minutes. He dialed in a corner 3, drew a foul and went to the line, had two consecutive assists to Kevin Durant — one for a corner 3 along the right sideline, and the second a two handed pass to KD who finished plus the harm, and capped off the quarter splitting the pair from the charity stripe after being aggressive, and hitting a second corner 3 off the feed from Royce O’Neale.
A 28-21 quarter left Brooklyn ahead 85-82 heading into the final period.
The Blazers did well on the defensive glass for the first four minutes of the last quarter. On the other side of the token, in those same four minutes, Brooklyn got into the bonus with five fouls. Meanwhile, Shaedon Sharpe added to a career-high scoring night (finishing with 20 when all was said and done).
Four straight points in the paint from Durant tied the game, and then gave Brooklyn the lead once more with a little over six minutes to play. Jerami Grant proceeded to do something that was once as rare as seeing a UFO, but is now as rare as seeing a UFO, and that’s block a Durant jump shot. That exemplified his defensive prowess, which has been appreciated since his Denver days.
Unfortunately for Portland, Watanabe picked up right where he left off from his red-hot third quarter, and drilled two key treys. The first was at the top of the quarter, as both teams were jockeying for the lead. The second was more than halfway through, giving the Nets a two-possession lead.
Just when you thought it was a conventional game from Billups, he brought out the hack-a-Ben. Simmons split the pair the first time. The second time, and yes there was a second time as Vaughn decided to keep Simmons in, he split the pair again. He was good at buying himself more playing time and giving his team something on each possession. Watanabe did what he was doing all night, and connected on his umpteenth corner trey that muted the Moda Center crowd momentarily. Justise Winslow was able to come away with two phenomenal defensive plays. First, he broke off the passing lane and raked in a steal, which resulted in a missed patented Lillard sidestep 3. Secondly, out of the inbounds, he drew the foul on Durant, giving the Blazers hope. A loose ball foul against Brooklyn sent Nurkic to the line where he missed one and made the other.
Even rarer than spotting a UFO was seeing KD miss his first free throw off of the intentional foul, keeping Portland in it. And keeping up a common theme for the season, was a spectacular circus shot from Nurkic, plus the hardware free throw after. Game on the line, KD rose up and missed the attempt, but there to save the day: O’Neale for the tip-in to break the hearts of the city of Portland.
Want more analysis of tonight’s game? Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s breakdown of Portland’s narrow loss to Brooklyn.