The Portland Trail Blazers welcomed new players to their lineup against the New York Knicks on Saturday afternoon. Josh Hart, acquired at the NBA Trade Deadline as part of a package for former starter CJ McCollum, scored 23 on 7-12 shooting in an impressive debut. The energy of Hart and company was contagious enough to bring the Blazers through a mighty fourth-quarter run to turn a 23-point deficit into a lead, and ultimately, a 112-103 victory. If the Blazers are supposed to turn losses into lottery picks, somebody evidently forgot to tell the players.
Simons scored 30 in the victory. The Blazers rose to 22-34, keeping them in the thick of the race for the Western Conference play-in tournament.
As usual with their new, revamped lineup, the Blazers began the game by running the offense through Jusuf Nurkic. They ran the entire repertoire in the first four plays: post, double post, pick and roll, kick-out...the whole Center Greatest Hits album. Nurkic hit a shot. Josh Hart hit his first three-pointer as a member of the Blazers. Life was good. Portland popped out to a 7-0 lead. Minutes later it would head up to 12-0 as New York couldn’t find a bucket, and on some possessions couldn’t even get up one.
New York scored after Portland switched to a looser zone-esque defense, but their attempts were labored. They seemed content to hoist semi-ugly threes in isolation. Portland passed the ball to deep cutters, working off of screens. Portland’s approach worked better. The Knicks were in that entitled, veteran, “Play like soggy pudding” mode that infects so many NBA teams. The Blazers taught them different.
Not even energetic play and teamwork could save Portland’s second unit, though. They made the right plays, but their shooting turned half the arena into stone. New York also picked up their rebounding energy, getting second shots against almost no defense. The Knicks finished the period on a 23-8 run. Julius Randle and Josh Hart each posted 10 in the period. New York led 23-20 after one.
The opening of the second period featured more whistles than a Brazilian Carnival Parade. I’d like to say it was because both teams were being aggressive. More accurately, they were semi-inept. Portland’s zone defense isn’t stopping anybody lately. They were late to shots, if they got there at all. New York didn’t move feet well the other way either.
At least those whistles produced a few foul shots. Those were the only kind of shots falling for either team in the first half of the period. 30 points make a really good NBA quarter, Scoring 20 is a poor one. For a while, it was an open question whether either team would score 10. But for a few turnovers and those free throws, they might not have.
A couple Ben McLemore threes saved the Blazers from total disaster. Offensive rebounds against Portland’s stubborn zone sets helped New York with easy scores. Hart also took every opportunity the Knicks gave him, shooting and getting to the rim.
New York finally got a couple of their own threes to fall in the closing minutes of the half. They thrived creating pressure with Randle, then shooting elsewhere when the Blazers were looking at him. It was enough to propel the Knicks to a 53-48 halftime lead.
The Knicks started out the third shooting five straight three-pointers. They hit three of them, including two from Kemba “Does He Still Play?” Walker. The veteran point guard also looked at Portland’s zone defense the way a mathematics PhD would look at an introductory algebra textbook. He had the Blazers solved before they had even stated the problem. The Knicks doubled their lead within minutes.
New York kept shooting deep, and it became Portland’s bane. 7 of the Knicks’ first 9 shots of the third came from distance. 5 of them hit. Suddenly New York led by 16. With Portland scoring, like, 20 per period, the margin looked scary.
The situation got worse as the Blazers missed even more shots and the Knicks upped the pace off of rebounds. Running out earned them fouls, some in the halfcourt before the defense set and others trying to stop fast breaks. That gave them easy points at the charity stripe to complement their torrid rate at the arc. By the 4:00 mark of the third, the Knicks had three players with 20 or more points and a 20-point lead in hand. Simons came alive for a brief spurt late in the frame, but it didn’t help much against a 39-point period for the Knicks. New York led 92-77 after three.
Elijah Hughes said hello to the home crowd at the start of the fourth period, hitting a three and a shot in the lane to pull Portland back within 10. Hart got a couple layups as well, bringing a ray of hope to an affair which had been, to that point, overcast.
As the middle minutes arrived, so did Simons, becoming the prism refracting the light of the new players into a glorious rainbow dancing on the Moda Center walls. He hit a three, converted an and-one, and all of a sudden Portland was back within one with 5:00 remaining. Justise Winslow, who also helped key the run, hit Nurkic from the post for a layup to put the Blazers UP one, 99-98, with 4:23 remaining. New York got it back, but then Simons struck again and the fight was on.
Nurkic and Hart scoring inside propelled the Blazers late. They took over nicely when the Knicks stretched the defense to cover the suddenly-threatening Simons. Portland led 108-103 with 1:09 on the clock when Head Coach Chauncey Billups challenged a foul on McLemore against Taj Gibson. The challenge was successful, with an offensive foul charged to Gibson instead. That change of possession was enough to secure Portland’s spot in the victory seat in one of the most stirring comebacks in recent memory.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming up soon!
Life gets more difficult for the Blazers as they travel to Milwaukee for a Monday night game against the defending champion Bucks. It tips at 5:00 PM, Pacific.