The Portland Trail Blazers snapped a four-game losing streak on Friday Night, purchasing a heavily-discounted win over the New York Knicks, coupon code redeemed courtesy of the foul line. Portland’s offense proved just good enough—and New York’s shooting just bad enough—for a 132-129 overtime victory, vaulting Portland to 11-8 for the season.
If you didn’t get to follow the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the game!
If you want to know how much the Blazers have changed this season, look no farther than who’s handling the ball in offensive sets. Yes, Damian Lillard is out. That takes away their normal point guard. That still doesn’t explain the initial plays of the game being keyed by Justise Winslow, Winslow again, Josh Hart, and Jusuf Nurkic. That’s three players, not a one of them the current starting point.
That pattern continued through most of the game until Anfernee Simons finally took over the captain’s seat late in regulation and in overtime. Portland was able to counter New York’s size advantage, and prey on the Knicks’ defensive weaknesses, by choosing to start the offense with various players from multiple positions on the floor.
We’re a long way from the days where the offense started and ended with Lillard, CJ McCollum, and nobody else. Through all the struggles and turnovers, the Blazers remain intent on getting the most out of their diverse lineup.
Jerami Grant Scores
Jerami Grant’s value isn’t just found in aggregate production, though he had plenty of that tonight, scoring a career-high 44 points in 40 minutes, shooting 10-20 from the field. Every recap will mention that, though.
Here’s what else you should notice.
Grant’s sense of space and timing has evolved into a fine wine, appropriate in initial taste and lingering after-notes. He not only gets free for his shot, he sense when he can’t. He doesn’t hold the ball a second longer than necessary. He almost always finds the right, aggressive pass, sometimes the perfect one. Grant’s ability to facilitate, not just provide, offense has been an eye-opener this year.
Grant did break down a little in overtime, when he tried to go one-on-everybody. But that shouldn’t dim an all-around excellent game from Portland’s shiny power forward.
Simons Sputters, Then Soars
If not for Grant, Anfernee Simons would have been the star of the evening, scoring 38 on 13-25 shooting. Simons committed to carrying the offense at various points during the night, but he was an engine with a couple of mis-timed pistons. You could see the pedal going to the floor, but the rumble and slow acceleration were evident.
Then suddenly, overtime hit. All the wobble went away and Simons soared. As our game recap covered, he did damage with the pass off of screens as well as his own shot. Once Ant got going, the Knicks had no answer.
Even without the overtime heroics, though, consider this again: Simons scored 38 while not playing his best. Wow. Not fair.
Hart Chugs Along
Josh Hart was the big engine that could tonight. He only took 8 shots, scoring 13. He grabbed 19 rebounds, though, an amazing 6 offensive. It’s impossible to overstate the importance against a lineup of tall, heavy opponents. The Knicks bring big bodies like Krispy Kreme brings doughnuts. Hart took on all comers and walked away having given as good as he got.
Portland’s defense wasn’t sharp tonight, but their screen decisions were particularly suspect. When they needed to go above, they went under. They played pretty loose and behind all night. Granted, they had some justification. The Knicks shoot poorly enough to justify splicing in the old Nintendo Duck Hunt dog after every three. But the opponent got streaky hot on multiple occasions tonight and the Blazers took a long time to adjust their coverage. New York finished 13-41, 31.7% from the arc, bricking plenty of mid-range jumpers too, but when the Knicks got hot, the Blazers had little answer defensively.
Foul shots played a huge role in this game. New York hit 24 of 28 free throws over four periods of regulation and overtime. Grant hit 21 of 28 all by himself in a little over 40 total minutes of play. That’s right: Jerami Grant shot as many free throw attempts as the entire Knicks lineup combined, in 13 fewer minutes of play.
Portland ended up 38-51 from the charity stripe. The calls were probably justified? (Unless, of course, you ask a Knicks fan.) The sad news is, the Blazers needed 23 more free throw attempts just to beat the Knicks by 3. Take it and run, guys.
Duality of Nurkic
Jusuf Nurkic continues to be one of the best and worst things to happen to the Blazers this year. He shot 7-12 in this game, 2-5 from the arc, for 16 much-needed points. Make no mistake. Without Nurkic, Portland’s only interior attack is driving. See below for a discussion on that. It ain’t pretty.
Nurkic also passed the ball well, except when he didn’t. His post offense worked, except when it was slow and turnover-prone. He had 7 assists and 5 miscues.
Nurk is the only real big body in Portland’s lineup. He’s also the player who throws them farthest out of their accustomed (and successful) style of play. That’s hard to reconcile.
Until, of course, we get to overtime and Nurkic’s screens are freeing up Anfernee Simons for shots, or Nurkic’s rolls are proving devastating as he catches and finishes. Then it seems like Nurk Style should be Portland’s style as well.
Noticeably, Nurkic looks better when receiving and converting than he does catching, holding, and posting. But with Nurk, you either have to take the whole package or none at all. For a while tonight, it was dicey, but in those closing minutes, the Blazers were lucky their center was present and active.
Not since Paris snatched Helen from Menelaus and absconded to Troy has a betrayal been so cruel as Portland’s three-point shooting abandoning them over the last couple weeks. Tonight the Blazers shot 10-32, 31.3% from the arc. They needed a couple in overtime to get that far.
Portland isn’t over-emphasizing the long ball this year, but they can’t do without it entirely. They don’t have the size to play inside consistently. They depend on drives from ball-handlers. As soon as the opposing team knows that’s coming, buckets get harder exponentially. Spreading the floor is crucial to Portland’s success; a large part of their struggles can be pinned on their inability to do so.
Escape from Carelessness
For all the doughty efforts of Portland’s supporting cast, their relative lack of experience showed in overtime. The game should have ended, essentially, when Simons hit a three to put his team up eight with 2:08 remaining in OT. Instead, the Blazers turned over the ball, committed weird fouls, and missed enough free throws to leave the game in doubt to the final possessions. All credit to them for pulling it out, but that method isn’t exactly a safe way to finish. When the games get tougher and more is on the line, Portland is going to need their floor general back, along with a large helping of poise. They can summon it for one play, but for big stretches? Still needs work.
With Damian Lillard and Drew Eubanks out, Head Coach Chauncey Billups went to an eight-man lineup tonight. Bench players Nassir Little, Shaedon Sharpe, and Trendon Watford all had sketchy moments. They aggregated a substantial minus margin, with their main contribution being 5-10 shooting between them for 13 of Portland’s 132 points. Yup...the starters scored 119 tonight to secure the win.
By contrast, New York went ten deep, with Obi Toppin outscoring the entire Portland reserve corps 14-13.
Obviously this is skewed by injuries, but it does underline the caution: Portland’s depth isn’t insurmountable, or even close. They don’t just need all their players, they need them in the right positions and minutes, which means getting back to full health soon.
The Blazers get a return match with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon at noon, Pacific.