Even in a loss, there’s just something about these Portland Trail Blazers, isn’t there?
Something that captures your attention. Something of relevance.
The Blazers fell 111-106 to the Memphis Grizzlies last night in a contest that Chauncey Billups called a “dogfight” at the postgame presser. Trailing by 15 with less than 7 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Portland stormed back behind a 17-2 run to tie the game at 96 with 3:39 remaining. It was a furious comeback without their best player against one of the best teams in the Western Conference, led by stout defense, big shotmaking and a whole lot of fight. In the end, the Blazers didn’t make enough shots to complete what could’ve been another magical episode in an unexpected start.
“When the going got really, really tough and it was a moment of truth, we stood up and did what we had to do,” Billups said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Blazers fell just short, making Billups think back to missed opportunities — be it a host of missed layups or Portland’s 20 turnovers on the night (a season-long struggle thus far). It was an ugly game of fits and starts.
“We was kind of out of rhythm,” Anfernee Simons, who had a game-high 31 points, said after the loss. “Silly mistakes on turnovers. We didn’t have no flow to the game.”
Yet, Portland was right there again, locked in another battle against a quality opponent, losing its first crunch-time game in a season that’s featured four in seven games. The Blazers played hard, competitive basketball last night. As a unit, they’re displaying something that goes beyond just fun. “Fun” in the NBA is typically engaging in shootouts every night, hoping to outscore your opponents half the time while your fans are delighted at 3-pointers. This was painful. This was gritty. The type of fight that had the long-dormant Moda Center roaring in response like a rising tide, while also spitting venom at officials. When looking at last night’s loss through the lens of process over results, the Blazers are displaying winning basketball — even if it’s in its infant stages — making this basketball city feel like it matters again.
Damian Lillard can see it. The Blazers’ injured captain wasn’t taking it easy at the back of the bench last night. He even went above cheerleading duties. Donning a green sweatsuit and a black letterman’s jacket over the top, Lillard was dialed into the game. Whether it was instructing Simons on how to attack Dillon Brooks, fist-pumping his way to timeouts or popping up to talk to an official near mid-court. In a PR league where players are trained to say the right things most of the time, analysts and fans are often left to read between the lines or look for nuggets that hint at the truth. “Coach Lillard” was an enduring image from last night’s action. You can tell he’s invested in what this team is building. You can tell he sees the potential.
This process of building comes with the good and the bad. Ultimately, it must come with time.
Objectively “good” last night was Jusuf Nurkic. The big man was heavily criticized by fans in the season opener for sloppy play and poor conditioning, a far cry from his performance against Memphis. He carried the load on offense while his teammates suffered through cold stretches, finishing in the paint and knocking down 3-3 from deep. Maybe more impressive, he did an admirable job playing up against Ja Morant in the pick-and-roll, covering ground and protecting the rim to make life tough for the All-NBA guard. His 23 points and 13 rebounds (6 offensive) marked the fourth time in seven games Nurk has recorded a double-double with over 20 points. He has earned his flowers after the slow start.
Nurkic, who did a lot of heavy-lifting in the first half on offense, handed off the load to Simons in the latter half. After going scoreless in the first and scoring 7 in the second, Simons popped off for 10 and 14 in the final two frames. That production included massive back-to-back triples to tie up the game late that had him mean-mugging his way back on defense. This is clearly a major educational year for Simons in his star progression. He’s learning how to be Lillard’s sidekick, how to be a lead guard who needs to score and distribute, how to react when the defense is giving him all the attention. It’s a delicate tap dance that comes with growing pains, but he almost did enough to secure a win.
“I feel like I just gotta figure it out faster,” Simons said of his performance. “I think got going a little bit too late, personally.”
And on a night where the others had trouble coming through on offense, sophomore pro Keon Johnson stepped up for a mini coming-out-party. Johnson hit two big triples in the third quarter, then had a thunderous alley oop jam and a wicked spin move for a layup during the late surge, as he closed the game. Playing that type of inexperienced, hungry talent comes with its highs and its lows (Johnson also had a maddening double-dribble late in the game), especially this early in the season.
“I was proud of Keon,” Billups said. “Keon came in and gave us a great spark...He deserved to finish [the game].”
KEON JOHNSON FINISHES THE LOB pic.twitter.com/nl69GOTKis— NBA (@NBA) November 3, 2022
Johnson had an open 3 from the corner that could’ve given Portland it’s first lead of the night with under two minutes left. He took it with confidence, it looked good, but it careened off. Memphis went on a 7-0 run and that was basically that.
After the game, the cool demeanor of the Blazers was noticeable when they spoke to the press. This wasn’t like last year after losses when Billups was publicly blasting players for effort and people seemed to be throwing up their hands in exasperation. There was a sense of disappointment at the missed opportunity, but nothing negative to read between the lines about. Instead, Billups, Simons and Nurkic calmly mentioned areas of improvement and talked about how they would get better in a matter-of-fact type of way. The proclamations were believable because they mentioned small things that can get better with practice and as a new team continues to jell. Things like closing quarters better, not hesitating to shoot and making simpler passes.
Still, on an off-night without Lillard, in which Memphis shot better from the field and 3-point line — and Portland didn’t get much help from the refs — the Blazers showed enough fight on defense and offense to almost win.
In the cutthroat world of professional sports, there’s no such thing as moral victories. Last night was, at the least, a loss the Blazers can live with. They’re trying to build something special and appear ahead of schedule. They still know it’ll take some time.
“We gonna get there,” Nurkic said. “Obviously it’s not great to lose, but it was a good fight.”