The Portland Trail Blazers brought zone defense, forward scoring, quick threes, and rebounding to their Sunday afternoon contest against the Brooklyn Nets. Their entire bag of tricks was on display. The Nets countered with a small batch of premium options: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and a bit of shooting from Seth Curry. It was brand-name basketball versus thrift shopping economy.
The thrift-shoppers did well for three quarters with their creative approach. Smart outfits and quirky style sometimes make up for a lack of haute couture. But Brooklyn ended up smacking Portland with their Gucci bags in the fourth. Kevin Durant scored whenever he cared to, on his way to a 12-20, 31-point performance. Seth Curry hit 7 threes, including 3 in the fourth period alone. He scored 29. That was more than enough to give the Nets a 111-97 victory.
Jerami Grant led the Blazers with 29 in defeat. Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points and 14 rebounds.
Nic Claxton took it to the Blazers early, as Portland helped on Ben Simmons and Kevin Durant, leaving the opposing center to clean up dishes and offensive rebounds. Portland’s zone defense looked, charitably, icky. The Nets came ready for it and knew exactly how to bend it with their stars. They scored on single coverage by getting into seams and raising for uncontested jumpers. When help came, abundant life was a pass or two away. Making those passes allowed Brooklyn free rein in the offense.
Portland wasn’t bad on their own end. The Nets weren’t playing too hard on defense. The Blazers passed willingly, buoying their production via three-pointers from Jerami Grant, Anfernee Simons (twice), and Justise Winslow. Those triples kept the scoring even despite Brooklyn’s easy looks. A couple of baseline cuts that the Nets utterly failed to cover gave Portland the edge.
Then Kevin Durant got rolling. The one-time Portland draft lottery bridesmaid appeared to take the game personally, posting and darting for smooth jumpers over defenders towering under him by at least six inches. If the Nets weren’t busy letting power forward Trendon Watford dribble COAST TO COAST off of an INBOUND PASS to lay in the ball without resistance, they may have achieved escape velocity off of Durant’s heroics.
For perspective, a hobbled and exhausted-looking version of Drew Eubanks outhustled the entire Nets lineup demonstrably.
As the quarter wound along, though, Brooklyn found Seth Curry open at the arc against Portland’s scrambling defense again, and again, and again. Curry’s trio of threes took away one of the early advantages for the Blazers. That allowed Brooklyn a 31-24 lead after one.
Brooklyn’s defense didn’t improve much to start the second period. Jerami Grant scored right down the middle of the floor on multiple attempts, bringing the Blazers right back. When he hit a three with 6:46 remaining AND Eubanks drew an off-ball foul on the shot? Portland’s effort-based, unselfish offense looked chef’s kiss.
Without Durant on the floor, the Nets had little answer. They got the ball in the lane just fine, but they drove into the teeth of the zone instead of working in the cracks. They managed a couple of layups in the halfcourt offense, but they also lofted plenty of contested jumpers. Without a one-man walking advantage, they looked normal. At the rate they gave up buckets at the other end, “normal” wasn’t going to do it.
Curry hit another three to put the scare into Portland briefly, but the Nets left Grant alone in the corner off of lane action through Eubanks. Jerami’s fingers were heated up and he canceled Curry easily.
Durant’s return put dents in Portland’s defense once again, though. Brooklyn worked the ball around to non-Duranters as the Blazers all squished in on KD, leading to ludicrously easy attempts. One team that couldn’t play defense became two. Grant completed a 20-point half as Durant kept scoring on the regular. Brooklyn led 58-57 at the half
Portland started the third period in classic style: smooshing bodies in the lane for multiple offensive rebounds, drawing close shots or fouls after.
To balance that out, Kyrie Irving started coming alive, taking advantage of Josh Hart, who wasn’t quick enough to stay in front of him.
The Blazers adjusted by putting the ball into Jusuf Nurkic’s hands in the lane. They went to the one position where they could find a size and height advantage. Nurk scored with a little post move and flicked passes to teammates. Justise Winslow played Robin to Nurk’s Batman, scoring in the lane while the Nets were trying to cope. Winslow also hit a three, countering Joe Harris, which isn’t a small feat. Once again the Blazers did everything that the Nets did, just with less specialized players.
Over the course of time, however, Brooklyn’s ability to score with height in the mid-range started to tell. It was the one quality the Blazers couldn’t match. When the Nets really needed a hoop, they could always toss the ball to Durant or Irving. Normally low-percentage shots looked bankable in their hands.
Brooklyn led 84-80 after three.
Anfernee Simons signaled an interesting fourth quarter by hitting a contested three in the first minute of the period. Simons has been Portland’s fourth-quarter hero over the last few games and was teed up to do the same in this one.
Just as the Blazers had cobbled together lesser-name contributions to counter Nets superstars earlier, Brooklyn featured Curry at the start of the fourth, captaining his own team, scoring 8 points in less than three minutes, obliterating whatever Simons was trying to do on the other end.
Behind Curry, Brooklyn’s three-point shooting started to skyrocket. At the same time, Portland’s fizzled. Again, the Blazers were working hard for nearly every score. Watching point come by threes on the other end made the effort seem futile.
Brooklyn’s offense ebbed as the middle minutes of the quarter progressed, but their defensive intensity increased. Portland’s tempo slowed, making each shot easier to contest. Critically, the Blazers could not make up ground while Brooklyn’s stars rested. If you can’t score on Joe Harris, you’re not going to be able to make up ground on Kevin Durant.
This left the Blazers in a semi-desperate spot as the clock passed 4:00 with them down by 10. They had to hope Brooklyn seized up while their own offense heated. With Simons remaining quiet and shots bricking, the latter never happened. The Nets walked home with the win fairly easily.
Stay tuned for our extended recap, running down points of analysis from the game.
The Blazers make a pit stop at home on Tuesday night, facing the Los Angeles Clippers at 7:00 PM.