The Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks engaged in a dogfight of epic proportions on Friday evening...if a scrap between a Chihuahua and a clumsy Labradoodle could be considered epic, that is. To quote a veteran of the assembled franchises, both teams played hard. But “hard” doesn’t mean “well”. Like a turkey that you didn’t bother thawing until Wednesday, no matter how high the heat got turned up in this game, you weren’t ever sure how it was going to turn out.
Despite the fumbles and bumbles, foibles and... uhhhh... well, despite the occasional pain of watching, the score ended up close as the clock wound down. The finish was exciting even when the game failed to be. An amazing array of foul shots provided the basic offense, while spectacular plays from Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons, and Jalen Brunson added spice.
In the end, four periods weren’t enough to decide the game’s fate. The Blazers came alive in overtime, as Simons dissected the Knicks with passes and shots. New York didn’t have the firepower to compete, and the Blazers finished with a 132-129 victory.
Grant led all scorers with 44, hitting 21 of 28 free throw attempts while doing it. Simons added a more-than-healthy 38, despite shooting 4 of 13 from the arc. Brunson countered with 32 for the Knicks.
The game started out sloppy, with both teams committing turnovers and barfing up bricks. The Knicks succeeded when they beat Portland down the floor, but not so much in the halfcourt offense, particularly with their jump shots. The Blazers let Jusuf Nurkic set up plenty of plays, leaving Anfernee Simons off ball. When the Knicks sagged towards the ball. Ant crushed them. A hail of missed J’s for New York allowed Portland a 10-0 run early, leaving the Blazers up by five with five minutes elapsed.
After a, “What are we doing???” timeout, the Knicks got smart, going inside to Julius Randle and company, taking advantage of their height/weight differential. They evened the score quickly, drawing fouls in the process.
The Knicks spent the final minutes of the first pressuring Jerami Grant, completely futilely. Grant either passed out of double-teams or drove easily past the pressure for open looks. Just at that time, though, Portland’s three-point defense started faltering. They went beneath screens or begged off of Knicks triples. New York canned a bevy of them, suddenly hot where they’d been ice cold prior. New York led 31-25 after one.
The second period opened as the first had: kinda janky. Stop-and-start offense was punctuated by a couple run-outs and lots of whistles. The Blazers countered New York’s big man strategy by running the ball through Nurkic, letting him set up and back in, drawing fouls on the opponents. Portland did better pushing the Knicks to the outside on the other end, then keeping a hand in the face of shooters. As jumpers clanked, the Knicks’ lead shrank.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, New York couldn’t miss ALL of them. One or two connections were enough to stave off Portland’s own offense, which still came labored and slow. Portland’s second-unit defense was actually better, but the results turned out slightly worse, exacerbated by the complete lack of offense. New York went on a 10-1 run early, making the job that much harder.
At this point, Simons was supposed to catch fire and bail out his team. He did, a little. Jalen Brunson went full-on bonfire. Once his mid-rangers started connecting, the Knicks’ lead sprang past double-digits.
And then things got worse. The 29th-best three-point shooting team in the league caught fire AGAIN. With Portland buckets requiring approximately the same effort as building the Empire State Building, one Knicks three balanced 3-4 trips down the floor for the Blazers.
Finally, Portland sped up and started rolling in the final minutes of the period. Threes from Nurkic and Grant, plus a break-away dunk by Simons, made up for the earlier scoring by the Knicks. Faster offense, and a couple wheelbarrows full of free throws, cured what ailed Portland. Once down 14, the Blazers led 62-61 at the half.
The third period began in back-and-forth fashion. Knicks get a three, Blazers get a three. Knicks get a layup, Blazers get a dunk. The Blazers missed a ton of threes, any of which could have helped their momentum. Their zone defense couldn’t keep New York from scoring at the rim either, which is a little suspect, as that’s exactly what a zone is supposed to do.
The back-and-forth continued as Knicks center Mitchell Robinson picked up his third foul midway through the period, then Nurkic picked up his fourth a minute later. Portland churned some more offense via own-rebounds, then gave it back on the break.
The game turned into once of those bespoke Christmas presents, mostly created from thrifting. You appreciate it because of the people involved, but don’t judge by overall quality, because it’s not going to compare to the Tiffany’s showroom.
Nothing describes the action as well as Portland grinding for the better part of three minutes between the 6:00 and 3:30 mark: offensive rebounding, passing, getting to loose balls first, driving the lane, trying desperately to pull away. They succeeded in most everything but the last part. At the end of the stretch, a single three by Randle tied the score back. 30 seconds later, another Randle three would give New York the lead again.
Hart and Simons came to the rescue late in the third. Hart hit a layup, while Simons canned a three, then distracted the defense to allow an easy Trendon Watford layup. In this game, that qualified as a scoring streak. When Hart hit a twisting offensive rebound put-back at the finish, the Blazers led 92-86 heading into the fourth.
Mitchell Robinson erased Portland’s lead at the start of the fourth, scoring inside with ease off of catches. Grant tried to captain the offense but got stuck, able only to draw free throws. Meanwhile the Knicks got the bit in their mouth and started running, pounding the ball inside against a defense that suddenly seemed small and rudderless.
Simons tried to keep Portland’s scoring rolling. He caught a pass from Nurkic for a layup, but otherwise couldn’t get the spark re-lit. That left other Blazers trying to make up the difference, largely by driving, frequently getting their shot attempts sent right back into their faces.
The only thing going the way of the Blazers at this point was officiating. The refs blew the whistle every time the Knicks sneezed in Portland’s general direction. That slowed down New York’s momentum, keeping the game close even though the Blazers were getting outplayed.
Grant started coming alive mid-period. forcing the ball inside and drawing free throws, also hitting a three. The steady stream of foul shots for Jerami was enough to keep the score deadlocked with 2:30-ish remaining, despite defensive issues against New York’s big players. This one was going down to the wire.
Simons found Nurkic for a layup with 1:55 remaining, putting Portland up one, 112-111. An errant New York three opened the door for Portland. Grant chopped his way through it, scoring his 40th point on a looping flip, giving the Blazers a three-point edge with 1:15 left.
RJ Barrett got fouled on a desperation layup on the next possession, but the young guard hit only one of the foul shots, leaving Portland up 104-102 as the clock wound past 1:00.
Grant controlled the ball on the next possession, but his foray into traffic got it picked, leading to a Barrett breakaway layup. Score tied at 114.
Simons missed a three on the other end, then Brunson put Justise Winslow in the washing machine in the paint for a lay-in. After controlling the game with 60 seconds remaining, the Blazers found themselves down two points, 114-116, with 14 ticks left.
With the game on the line, Portland went back to Simons. He drove the lane, spun, and put up an awkward shot from eight feet. He was fouled on the play and sank both foul shots. That knotted the game at 116 with ten seconds remaining. Lacking timeouts, the Knicks put the ball in Brunson’s hands. His floater bounced off the rim and the game went to overtime.
Whatever struggles weighed down Anfernee Simons during regulation disappeared when he stroked a three to open overtime. Julius Randle countered with a three of his own. Grant missed a layup on the next possession, which seemed to signal Portland’s intentions: ride their two scorers to victory.
Just when they got the Knicks thinking that way, Simons tossed the ball to Nurkic in the post. Nurk converted an and-one against Jericho Sims, putting Portland up three the hard way.
On the next possession, Portland’s fortunes took a blow, as Josh Hart picked up his sixth foul. The defense had to work harder after that.
On the next possession, Simons executed the offense brilliantly with the ball in his hands. Portland’s strategy was simple: set screens until a New York big switched onto Ant, then let Ant take them. He didn’t even do it via the shot. Instead he found Nurkic, now with a smaller player on him, for another layup. That put Portland up 124-119 halfway through OT.
The refs helped Portland again, calling a carry against Barrett along the baseline. Then Simons stuck in the dagger. Simons hit a three, putting Portland up by 8, and that was all she wrote. New York committed too many turnovers from that point onward, Portland also committed turnovers and missed foul shots, making the final margin closer than it needed to be, but thanks to Grant’s aggregate number of foul shots, the Blazers still had enough to hold on for victory.
Stay tuned for our extended recap with points of analysis from this slightly-weird game.
The Blazers get a return match with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon at noon, Pacific.