The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday afternoon, 111-97. It was one of the few double-digit losses the Blazers have endured this season. The game was close until the fourth quarter, but that final period was more the cresting of a game-long wave than a change of tide.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Once you’ve read how Portland lost it, you can peruse the following to understand why.
We can talk all day about defensive schemes—we’ll mention them again for sure—but sometimes you just have to pay homage to the guys who render them all but meaningless. Team play and smarts aside, the NBA has been built on superstars. Durant is surely one of them. Every time he held the ball today, Portland was faced with a dilemma. If they left him against one defender, he found his spot (see below) and rose. He’s 6’10 with the wingspan of a condor. Most of his defenders were 6’6 with wingspans of a mini-fridge. These two things are not the same. That alone gave Durant a huge advantage. That’s not counting his ability to put the ball on the floor. Or spin. Or play off ball and still hit catch-and-shoot threes.
To the extent the Blazers had problems tonight, they could be summarized like this: Kevin Durant existed.
When Durant was off the floor, Portland’s defense looked passable. As soon as his sneakers squeaked the hardwood, the Blazers became 1-ply. KD scored 31 in 37 minutes, with 5 assists besides.
Holes in the Zone
Portland faced an issue today which is likely to resurface as the season continues. They play zone defense as much, and in some ways as well, as anybody. But zone defenses are inherently more predictable than man-to-man. You’re less beholden to the quality and size of the defender, but you’re also limited in the ways the coverage can cope.
Brooklyn exploited those limitations big time in this game. Their tall wings acted like de facto centers, moving the ball in the middle of the floor, in between defenders, forcing Portland to make decisions about how to cover. Sometimes both zone defenders would fill the gap, leading to easy passes for open shots, either layups or threes. Sometimes neither defender (or one halfway walking one) would fill the space. In that case, the Nets treated it like Around the World, dribbling to pre-chosen spots, rising, and hitting shots as if they were uncontested. You could see them pacing the steps to their target zone, then rising without a second thought.
Granted, not every team has Brooklyn’s height and skill combination. Even with Joe Harris playing like crud, they’re near-ideal zone busters. But nobody in the NBA is talent-less or clueless. The Blazers probably need to think about the next wrinkle.
Curry for Three
Like a fabric slowly tearing, you could see Portland’s defense rip from the inside early in the game, out to the mid-range in the middle quarters, then at the exterior near the end. Having seen Durant and Kyrie Irving serve up a buffet of shots inside 20 feet, the Blazers had no choice but to run at them with the house. During the fourth quarter, Seth Curry stood at the arc like a bridegroom awaiting his bride. Curry converted 3 triples and a pair of layups in the final period alone, shooting 7-10 from distance for the game. He scored 29, second only to Durant.
My Poor Hart
The Nets are a difficult assignment for small forward Josh Hart. Though he plays the three in name, he’s often asked to watch opposing scorers from point guard to power forward. In this case, that meant Durant, whom he was too short to bother, or Kyrie Irving, whom he was too slow to stay in front of. The safest assignment might have been Ben Simmons, because Simmons doesn’t look to score much. But even there. the length difference was significant.
Hart was stretched thin in this one, scoring 9 points on 4-8 shooting, but gathering only 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
A Swiss Army Knife is an amazing tool, right up to the time you need a cleaver or a ladle. The Blazers needed both today, but couldn’t quite draw one.
The Nets lead the NBA, shooting almost 50% from the field for the season. That’s a huge number. The Blazers let them get even higher in this one. Brooklyn shot 41-78, 52.6%. They also shot 15-35, 42.9%, from the three-point arc. Portland would have needed a lot more points than they got to overcome that.
Portland shot 12-33, 36.4% from the arc tonight themselves. That’s a decent, not spectacular, number. But Jerami Grant continued his torrid streak, connecting on 5 of 10 triples. Anfernee Simons went 4-10 alongside him. The numbers aren’t the only remarkable part. The ease with which Simons and Grant loft their long shots is remarkable. There’s no hesitation in their stroke. They know how, and where, they’re going to get those looks. The look as unconcerned as if they were converting a layup. It’s really cool to see shooting of this caliber on display, especially from Grant, who wasn’t known as a great shooter prior to this month.
The Blazers make a short pit stop at home on Tuesday night, facing the Los Angeles Clippers at 7:00 PM.