The Portland Trail Blazers had their 12th win of the season in hand versus the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night...until the exact moment they didn’t. Up 13 to start the fourth quarter, Portland allowed Clippers wing Norman Powell to spearhead a 36-17 rush, culminating in a 118-112 victory for L.A. In dizzying, occasionally disgusting, fashion, Portland’s 12th win became their 10th loss instead, their 7th in the last 9 games.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap from the always-illustrative Marlow Ferguson Jr. right here. After that, here are analysis points from the game, good and bad.
If you want a single reason the Blazers lost this game, it was Norman Powell. He hit 7 of 8 shots in the fourth quarter: 5 of 6 layups and both of his three-point attempts. That pushed him to 32 points overall. The close-in shots hurt the worst. Even when not accompanied by fouls—and some were—Powell’s drives exposed deep rifts in Portland’s defense, which they never bothered to close.
For perspective, the rest of the Clippers went 1-6 from distance in the fourth around Powell. They hit only two field goals total, aside from him. For a while, Portland’s defense had one job. They didn’t quite do it.
Battle of the Zones
Before the Normpocalypse, the Blazers were actually doing well defensively. Both they and the Clippers tried to disguise their lack of defensive “oomph” by running zone defenses. Portland handle L.A.’s with relative ease, mostly due to the scoring prowess of Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant, plus some nifty play from Jusuf Nurkic inside. Los Angeles didn’t have that kind of scoring in return, nor did they have centers who could break the zone by passing or scoring from the middle. It looked like a home run for Portland. But the fourth period got faster and less zone-ish. That’s when individual Blazers started to fall apart.
Jusuf Nurkic excels when the opposing team doesn’t field centers bulky enough to bother him. When he’s the biggest man on the floor, Nurk is able to use his body to hold space on defense, create it on offense. His rebounding tonight was superb. His moves at the basket were nearly as good and his passing was superlative. Though he ended the game 6-15, he started it on fire. He scored 13 total, with 10 rebounds and a team-high 7 assists against only 2 turnovers.
The Blazers had Nurkic “ice”, or fall back towards the rim, against Clippers screens tonight. Part of that was an homage to their poor shooting. It fits Nurkic better either way. He looks much more comfortable filling the paint, then running out against a shot if needed, than he does switching and chasing an opposing perimeter player. The game gets easier and his size matters more when he doesn’t have to move as much.
Curiously, Head Coach Chauncy Billups brought in Nurkic relatively late in the fourth period, even with Powell slicing and dicing his way to points with no defensive backstop for the Blazers in sight. When the Clippers went small, the Blazers stayed small to match them. That went against the trend of their earlier success.
Simons the Blowtorch
I’ve seen a few people muttering about Anfernee Simons’ predilection towards isolation ball. Tonight he showed why that’s a good thing, scoring 15 in the first period alone on the way to 37 points on 13-24 shooting overall, 9-16 from distance.
Simons scores off the bounce by design. The Blazers need a player like that to move the opposing defense. With Damian Lillard in street clothes, no player is as natural or accomplished at it than Simons is. He’s supposed to threaten the opponent every time he touches the ball. Most of the time, the defense leaves him single-covered. Getting free is pretty easy under those conditions. If he gets into traffic, he’s still capable of passing. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be looking to score on every possession.
When Simons has an off night, the approach masquerades as selfishness and futility. It’s easy to say, “Why didn’t he play team ball, passing to all the other accomplished scorers?” Without him threatening, those other scorers wouldn’t look so accomplished. They wouldn’t get the same opportunities.
I love Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, and Shaedon Sharpe, but if Lillard and Simons are both out at the same time, we’re going to see that those three just don’t create the same kind of offense—for themselves or the team—as the regular starting guards do. That’s not in spite of their isolation scoring ability, it’s because of it.
That said, Simons is not yet Damian Lillard. With the game close and his team desperately needing a bucket, Simons got two isolation layups sent back and missed two contested three-point heaves in Portland’s final possessions. It was a painful way to end an otherwise-stellar outing.
Along with the Simons praise, we should acknowledge that the Clippers were running plays at Simons on the other end. He has to be able to defend stoutly on every play, even if he is a red-hot streak scorer. Los Angeles was missing all their key scorers tonight, but had they been fully-stocked, their approach might have broken the Blazers.
Jerami Grant had another superb night with 32 points on 12-24 shooting, 5-11 from distance. He fouled out on a charge with 3:52 remaining. That finally provided the prompt that Billups needed to return Nurkic to the game, but the Blazers sorely missed Grant in crunch time, both helping against Powell and providing an alternative to the eminently-clockable Simons during the key offensive possessions.
Pick Your Poison
The Blazers had real trouble getting to the corner to defend threes tonight. The Clippers took full advantage, shooting 8-14 on triples in the first half and 13-31, 41.9%, for the game. Portland is just a tick slow—both in speed and reaction time—at several positions...the price for fielding all-around players more than super athletes. That said, banking on L.A. missing threes is a safer bet than letting them control the lane, where scoring comes easy.
The Blazers found that out in the second half, where their defense fell apart against penetration. The Clippers wings went bonkers, getting to the rim for layups. Norman Powell destroying the Blazers in the lane is way worse than Norman Powell shooting deep. One annoyed Portland, the other doomed them.
Portland took care of the ball well tonight, especially given their slightly-depleted lineup. The Clippers don’t force many turnovers, but that doesn’t always matter to Portland. Tonight they committed only 11.
The Blazers shot a phenomenal 17-35, 48.6%, on three-pointers tonight. Unfortunately, those shots abandoned them in the closing minutes. Justise Winslow and a defender-draped Anfernee Simons did not get the same results as the loose-and-confident lineups that played through the first three periods.
The Blazers head back on the road for a game tomorrow night against the other Los Angeles team, beginning at 7:30, Pacific. I guess if you can only beat one L.A. franchise...