The Portland Trail Blazers wanted to honor Damian Lillard during his first home game since breaking the franchise record for scoring, a seemingly-easy tilt against the Charlotte Hornets. They paid tribute to Lillard all night on the scoreboard, then let Charlotte show their appreciation by scoring in Lillard-like fashion. The Hornets put up 67 points in the first half, with Portland playing defense like geriatric tree sloths. But Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic spurred the Blazers to a furious second-half comeback, striking from deep and dunking with abandon.
When the smoke cleared, the Blazers had earned a 124-113 victory. The final two quarters of the game were good enough to make everyone forget how miserable the first two were, so all’s fair in “W” Land. Grant finished the game with 30 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 12-19 from the field. Nurkic added 28 points on 5-7 three-point shooting, 7-10 from the foul line, with 15 rebounds and 6 assists. That duo saved Lillard’s big night. Lillard himself had to play 38 minutes to secure the win. He scored 17, shooting 1-10 from the arc, but he dished 9 assists.
The Blazers had one mission starting this game, and they chose to accept it. Anfernee Simons took the first three shots, hitting a pair of threes and a mid-range jumper for 8 points in 90 seconds. Apparently, they had had enough of his slump, complaints, and etc. Simons was the early hero by design.
Unfortunately, the Blazers defense didn’t make the barrage count, as Charlotte got plenty of open looks, scoring 7 themselves in return. The story looked all too familiar: big fireworks, slim margin. At the 7:00 mark of the first, Portland led only 13-12.
The point was underlined on the next two possessions, when Jusuf Nurkic hit a corner three, followed immediately by Charlotte’s P.J. Washington canning his second in a row. At that point the best three-point shooting team in the league and the worst were both 3-5 from the arc.
At that point, the bench checked in. The good news: they played the game to a virtual standstill, as the defense got more active and turnovers started heading Portland’s way. The bad news: they played the game to a virtual standstill because nobody could score anymore and turnovers started heading Charlotte’s way too. The all-offense tie morphed into a no-offense tie. It became apparent that Portland would have to earn separation from the Hornets later in the game, if at all.
Keon Johnson tried to be aggressive on both ends, which at least provided a spark of energy. But a thousand more Portland turnovers led to a 10-0 Charlotte run late, stemmed only by another pair of makes from Simons. Anfernee had 13 in the period but Charlotte led 34-30 after one.
Johnson scored a couple to start the second for the Blazers, but Portland couldn’t stop the Hornets inside or on short jumpers, so Charlotte actually pulled ahead by a point more. So Johnson stroked a side-step three. Then Kelly Oubre hit his own triple. Then Portland turned it over and Charlotte scored on the break. With his team down 8 and sinking, Head Coach Chauncey Billups called a timeout. 9:25 remained on the clock; no patience remained for the Blazers’ performance.
If Portland was looking for a boost, they didn’t get it. Lillard came back in, but couldn’t convert much more than free throws. Jusuf Nurkic stumbled and bumbled around like a blind toucan in a snowstorm. The rest of the Blazers stood around and watched Dame try to work against the entire Charlotte defense. It wasn’t a game plan as much as a withdrawal of your last $1000 at a casino ATM. Portland trailed by 10, 55-45, with 5:42 left. Given the disparity between the teams so far this season—give or take a LaMelo Ball—the result was mind-boggling.
Portland needed a big surge before intermission. Instead, they got last year’s fruitcake on a platter. Jerami Grant was the candied cherries, putting in a couple of isolation layups in the halfcourt. The rest was hard, tasteless slop. The defense was pure mold. Charlotte extended their lead to 14 with just over 2:00 remaining.
Two free throws from Grant, then a stocking-stuffing dunk finally gave Portland a dose of excitement. They also cut the lead to 10. Lillard and Nurkic drew fouls and free throws on the next two possessions. Charlotte obligingly missed open jumpers. Then Lillard converted a layup—his first field goal of the half—to cut the lead to 6. The Blazers had life and enough room on the clock to get the last shot of the quarter. But Lillard was snuffed on that attempt, which led to a final Hornets attempt. LaMelo Ball missed it, leaving Portland’s 10-2 run at the end of the half intact. Charlotte led 67-61 at the half.
That’s right, the Hornets scored 67 in a half. Were it not for a couple bricked gimmes, they would have topped 70.
The Blazers turned “ugh” into “hug” in the third quarter with a barrage of three-pointers and a whole lot of energy. Grant started it off, just as he had in the latter minutes of the second period. He hit a trio of triples, drawing the defense outside. Then, like an old Western sheriff, Jusuf Nurkic came striding out of swinging saloon doors, six guns ablazin’. He started with a bevy of shots in or near the restricted area, then headed outside to hit three threes himself. All of a sudden the stalled scoreboard rang like a pinball machine.
Portland’s defense also stiffened. They switched between man-to-man and zone, appearing to confuse, then stall, the Hornets. Charlotte missed 16 of their first 20 shots in the period. For those counting, Grant and Nurkic had three three-pointers apiece, while the Hornets hit four shots total.
When Lillard hit his first three of the game at the 2:54 mark of the third, Portland led by double-digits, 93-83, returning the favor Charlotte had granted them in the first half. It was a marvelous turn-around, like a daredevil putting two wheels off the car over the cliff before turning the wheel and cruising onward, tilted over onto the remaining pair.
When Drew Eubanks hit a three with 1:30 remaining in the third, Portland had 100 points, a 13-point lead, and the game (apparently) in hand.
LaMelo Ball had something to say about that, though. He hit a pair of deeeep three-pointers to close the final minute of the frame. Portland led by 6, 101-95, but with the memory of the awful first half only 12 minutes behind, the margin was too thin for comfort.
The opening minutes of the fourth featured a pair of Charlotte turnovers that led to Jerami Grant dunks. That gave the Blazers oxygen as their offense started to flicker away again. Charlotte looked disorganized offensively; scoring even a few was enough to keep the Blazers ahead. Charlotte pulled within 6, but another Nurkic three with 8:50 remaining kept them at bay once more. Nurk was also pounding the ball inside every time he touched it in the lane, leading to his best overall offensive game of the season. When he wasn’t scoring, Grant kept the ball in hand, then through the twine. Portland led 112-101 halfway through the period.
With 5:10 remaining, Ball tried to set up action inside, but Nurkic stood up to him—and every Hornets player who came into the paint—magnificently. After a couple failed attempts by Oubre and Plumlee, Grant and Simons got the ball on the run. Grant flipped it to Anfernee, who flipped it back to Jerami, whose alley-oop slam started the jubilee. Seeing credible defense coupled with awesome, opportunistic offense for the first time all night, the Blazers faithful breathed a sigh of relief. A 13-point edge with 5:00 left on the clock was too much for Charlotte to overcome, and Portland finally put their 18th win of the season in the safe.
Stay tuned for our extended recap with analysis from the evening, coming up next!
The Blazers have an extended rest before coming face to face with the Golden State Warriors on Friday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.