Before tonight’s game, Jerami Grant told Yahoo Sports NBA Insider Chris Haynes that individually, he was gunning to put himself in the talks for a first-ever All-Star appearance. Anfernee Simons ensured that those discussions wouldn’t stop at just one player.
Though, ultimately, in a twist of painful irony, a night that should have been remembered for the Blazers’ new stars was hijacked by their former players. Motivated by last season’s February trade, the ghosts of Norman Powell (32 points, 22 in the fourth quarter alone) and Robert Covington proved inescapable. And despite leading by as much as 18 — including a 13-point edge in the fourth — the Portland Trail Blazers collapsed at the finish line in a 118-112 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, missing both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
In a nationally-televised game, Simons and Grant lived up to their billing offensively, combining for 69 points. Despite their herculean efforts, Portland dropped to 11-10, falling to No. 7 in the menacing Western Conference standings. Below are a few quarter-for-quarter observations from the loss.
As anticipated in the battle featuring two teams among the bottom-10 in 3-point attempts, Tuesday’s matchup opened with a bit of an old-school feel. Both teams ran offense through their multifaceted big men, providing a steady dose of DHOs (dribble hand-offs), curls off screens, and, as the scoreboard initially reflected, phone-booth tight defense.
It’d be a mistake to go one more sentence without mentioning Anfernee Simons. A few weeks ago, we briefly discussed his struggle with kickstarting games in high gear — he’s shooting 31.8 percent in the first quarter, compared to 44.6 percent over the ensuing quarters — though tonight, with the lights on bright on TNT, he rendered those numbers irrelevant. Before you could even pull up a chair, the talented combo guard had sliced the Clippers’ defense for 15 points on six-of-seven shooting and one 3-pointer.
And speaking of 3-pointers: the Clippers, particularly Ivica Zubac, appeared noticeably comfortable allowing Jusuf Nurkic to hoist away from deep. On multiple occasions, Zubac hung in the paint, allowing Nurkic to get in position, line up the seams on the basketball, make a sandwich or two if he pleased, and then unload. Shooting 47.8 percent from deep (on 2.1 attempts) in November, Nurkic calmly fired away, and the mixture of his multifaceted play, Portland’s zone defense, and Jerami Grant’s versatility helped open up a 30-25 advantage.
(Also of note: Haynes interrupted the program to announce Damian Lillard’s targeted return date. Sunday, Dec. 4 vs. Indiana).
If you’re one of those Blazers fans that has some trouble saying goodbye to ex-Blazers, this may or may not have been the quarter for you. Tuesday’s game proved that the Moda Center rims were, in fact, still friendly for the likes of Norman Powell and Robert Covington, and Nicolas Batum was right there alongside, serving up assists. (More on this later, unfortunately.)
Assuming you weren’t teary-eyed listening to Damian Lillard discuss his relationship with CJ McCollum, there was some high-level basketball being played on both ends of the floor. Though, at one point, the Clippers, as average as it gets from 3-point range, were 8-of-11, highlighted by their Warriors-esque 9-0 run.
In a show of grit, the Blazers held steady. One could sort of feel the energy building around the arena around the three-minute mark during the Blazers’ 8-1 run, highlighted by Jerami Grant. Some of the common problems (the inability to avoid fouls and ill-advised, overly-ambitious passes) kept the Clippers within striking distance. Though, to again use a fighting term, the Blazers, like a great boxer, closed the quarter admirably to take a 61-53 halftime lead.
The Blazers came into the 2022-23 season with 13 nationally-televised games on their schedule, and in a perfect world, you hoped they’d used those opportunities to showcase their talents to a broader audience. Four minutes into the second half, it was evident that Mr. Jerami Grant got the memo.
The brilliant first-year Blazer had a four-play sequence that included: (1) using his 7-foot-3 wingspan to get a fingertip on Marcus Morris’ high-arching shot, (2) throwing down a ferocious jam on the other end, (3) a quick pindown into a pick-and-roll on the way to a 3-pointer, and then (4) another jam out of the commercial break.
Like two cars revving an engine at a stop light for a race, Simons drew fuel from Grant’s hot start, joining in the takeover with a 25-footer, a 30-footer, and then a 32-foot 3-pointer within two minutes of one another. Coupled by swarming defense, Portland was able to open up an 18-point advantage that they were able to sustain throughout the quarter. Simons’ numbers after three: 34 points (on 12-of-16 shooting), eight 3-pointers, and four assists. Together, the two of them combined for 24 points.
Among the key adjustments: at one point in the first half, the Clippers couldn’t miss from 3-point range. Utilizing both that trusty zone and aggressive closeouts, Portland forced the Clippers into contested, corner 3-pointers — in which they shot 0-of-6 — helping ignite their demonstrative third quarter. The result? A 95-82 edge going into the fourth.
True to their tenures with the Blazers, the Covington-Powell duo again scrapped its way into a gritty comeback attempt for the Clippers. Using both physicality and pace, the Clippers, over a four-and-a-half minute span, opened up a 19-3 run to tie the ball game up at 98 apiece. The duel between Tyronn Lue and Chauncey Billups, his former assistant coach, played out as only it could: with small-ball lineups.
Over that stretch, Portland could barely muster one point per minute. Adding in Nassir Little’s injury, the first-half of this fourth quarter couldn’t have started more poorly.
And then, once again, there came that guy looking for his first-ever All-Star appearance and his brilliant co-captain. Sensing the game beginning to slip away, Grant — who scored 10 straight in the fourth for Portland at one point — again found his touch, and then Simons followed, hitting a much-needed 3-pointer to give the Blazers a five-point cushion again with under five minutes to play.
Just when it appeared as though Portland was out of the woodworks, a new wrinkle evolved with Grant fouling out on a charge with 3:32 left in a tie ball game. And ultimately, by virtue of a 22-point fourth quarter from Norman Powell (yes), hustle plays from the likes of one Moussa Diabete, and subsequent defensive stops, the Clippers were able to force a catastrophic collapse, hitting the quarter outright in 36-17 fashion.
The Blazers will seek to put this one behind them, as they prep for another California battle, this time on the road against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 7:30 PT