Game 23 at UTA: "A pleasant surprise in the event..."

Last night the Blazers took to the court in Salt Lake City, while those of us who knew no better had already pencilled in the loss.

It was not a loss. The final game score was 116-111, thanks in great part to a career scoring performance from Anfernee Simons: 15 of 25 (60%) with 7-12 from three (58.3%), for 45 total points.


Anfernee Simons delivers the surprise

Just when people have their torches and pitchforks out, Anfernee Simons turns in a performance that peels off some of the susceptible. In fact, with those make percentages, that scoring performance is superlative by multiple criteria.

Among fans, only the most cantankerous of technicians refuse to enjoy oustanding offense in action—defense wins championships, but offense sells tickets. On the video promos a fantastic block or steal will sneak in from time to time, but the rhetorical melody of those pitches is composed of offensive brilliance.

It is those fans whom Anfernee Simons is paid to please, but this writer could not resist the impulse to channel his Inner Cantankerous Technician and run straight to the plus-minus, expecting to find Simons responsible for the tightening of the margin in the third quarter.

He was not. What's more, the adjustment to his defensive contribution was a tiny bit comedic, but no less effective:

In zone defenses he's glued to a point almost but not quite in the center of the left block, while the other four guys are rotating and cutting corners. His job, it appears, is to keep himself between the ball and the men in his area of responsibility, with freedom to help on drives. This he appears to do effectively against some offenses, at least.

Simons' teammates are meanwhile happily keeping up with switches as needed.

He looks for all the world like a man desperate to defend the ball one-on-one—and he's much more engaged in man-to-man defense—so we can guess that what we have here is someone who really hates zone defense.

Naturally, when the chance to seize glory presented itself on defense, he rose to the occasion. That happened a few times, most significantly—to the game result—on the final play of the game.

Watch this space. It's too much to suppose that there's much glory-hound in Simons' nature, but it clearly appears that he's more engaged by the individual game than the team game—for both better and worse.

Jerami Grant strikes again

From "strike" please take the meaning of a properly-wielded hammer evenly and relentlessly driving nails, in its way providing an excellent metaphor for Jerami Grant's consistency during the team's rough sledding.

Grant also delivered an extraordinary scoring performance—again—that was not nearly as spectacular from distance as Simons' turn, but was still effective enough out there to keep the Utah defense on its toes.

Grant was one of the primary outlets in transition, along with Nurkic in the post and Simons on the catch-and-shoot. When Simons finally dialled it back for fear of drawing repeated traps, Grant became the primary scoring option, and followed through.

Long arms all over

Halfway through the first quarter Coach Hardy established a lineup construction requirement: make sure Utah's lineup is longer than Portland's.

The problem—which is beginning to shine through for the Jazz just like road trip realities and other siphons of focus are for the Blazers—is experience. Kelly Olynyk is a veteran, but the rest of Utah's length attaches to guys who are not.

That inexperience gave the Blazers opportunities to cancel out with speed and strength the advantages length usually brings otherwise.

The Blazers even outrebounded these bigger lineups at +5 for the game, and usually because Blazers established position in the post ahead of their opponents—usually after transition at a pace established by the Blazers and maintained by force of habit.

This writer was wrong when he suggested that things would go with Utah as they had with Brooklyn, partly because of some attitude adjustment, but mostly because where it comes to net experience—with apologies for the unintended and clumsy pun—Brooklyn eclipses Utah.

Even so, Hardy's call to focus on setting screens for jumpshooters was nearly enough to win the game for Utah, since after all the result remained in doubt until mere seconds remained to play. It's not that Utah's lineups were bad, just that they weren't better.

About all those free throws…

Jerami Grant was awarded 14 free throws for a third of his net scoring, but the great majority of those came during the second half. Credit for part of that change in fortune we can assign to Grant's craftiness, but there was something else going on during the first half.

Nurk accepts the role of enforcer with grim determination rather than relish or bellicosity, which makes perfect sense when you possess knowledge of Nurk's basic biographical details. What, then, encouraged him to put a beatdown on Collin Sexton—with the tacit cooperation of the officials, no less?

Why was the crowd at times audibly hostile, and was that on the Blazers' account, or the officials' account? How much did that sentiment have to do with the Blazers' woeful capacity to get many 50-50 calls for the whole of the first half? Finally, why were the officials so maladroit about making it up?

For all intents and purposes the Blazers won this game at the free throw line. That's not how that's supposed to work. Do better.

Bench production

The Blazers are up against two challenges. First, most of their second options with any experience at all are off the board, through both injury and promotion. It's safe to say that the resulting lineups approached the game with uncommon enthusiasm. Second, when guys are pouring on offense like Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant have been, the smartest move is to stand back and let them work until the magic gets used up.

It's right to worry that the present heavy tread will lead the present 35- and 40-MPG players to suffer injury later in the season. It's appropriate to wonder if development opportunities are being squandered; one is especially curious about the relative disappearance of Shaedon Sharpe, monster dunks notwithstanding.

It's not at all clear what the Blazers can do about any of that until they can get more healthy bodies into the rotation. Tonight that includes Dame's, so that's something.


The Blazers are back in Portland and play the Pacers at the Moda Center tonight, with the broadcast scheduled to start at 6 p.m. PST. Like the Blazers and Jazz the Pacers are figuring themselves out, winning close games and losing blowouts in tolerable but unimpressive proportion. The Pacers' unshaded bright spot surrounds Benedict Mathurin, who's producing game averages of 19/4/2 in 22 career games played.

After tronight's game come three full days of rest, then a visit from the Nuggets on Thursday night. Denver is currently one game behind Phoenix for the West lead, so apart from the occasional stinker they're doing all right. They're the Association's best shooting team for the season to date, so the Blazers can look forward to a lot of picks and switches.