The Portland Trail Blazers looked like they were going to lose convincingly to Julius Randle and the New York Knicks on Saturday afternoon. The announcers believed it. The crowd believed it. Heck, the Knicks believed it. With some justification too, being up 23 in the third period. But the Blazers had other ideas. Anfernee Simons and a cast of trade-deadline pick-ups lifted Portland out of the dumps and sent them shooting to a 112-103 victory.
If you missed the action—or turned it off early—you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from a thrilling afternoon in the Rose City.
Gotta Have Hart
Josh Hart began his Trail Blazers career by going after every open opportunity he could find. He didn’t force shots, he just didn’t turn them down. He hit his first two three-point attempts, scored off of drives, and even notched a couple assists. He also hit a couple layups in the run that ultimately brought the Blazers victory. It was an impressive debut for a guy who hadn’t played with any of his teammates before this. Doubly so since Hart is known as a defensive glue player. Seeing an opening and going for it? The Blazers need more of that.
Hart had 23 points on 7-12 shooting, hitting 3-6 triples in the process.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work...or the nightmare
You have to give the Blazers credit. They aren’t fracturing at all on offense. They run their sets, keep their heads up, and make appropriate passes. There are no prima donnas in this lineup. They make plays.
One of the reasons that they don’t feature individual scorers is, outside of Anfernee Simons when he gets on a roll, they don’t have any. Portland’s utter lack of ability to create off of the dribble is blatent. When the defense pressures them, they’re done.
The upside: they’re going to be an unselfish team. That’ll teach them the right things when they’re young. The downside: they don’t have much of an alternative.
Here’s another issue: even when Portland’s ball-sharing creates the right shot, they have trouble hitting it. You trust Simons on most shots, Ben McLemore on threes. Outside of those two...ouch. Every attempt is an adventure. Portland is likely to be streaky the rest of the season. They shot 47.6% from the field today and 37.5% from the arc. Those numbers rose like hot air balloons in Portland’s 35-point fourth period. Before the big run, they were nigh unprintable.
Aside from a couple shots, Anfernee Simons had a muted first half of this game. He was there, but he also let others have most of the on-ball time. When the second half arrived and Portland was getting housed, he rose. He ended up shooting 6-12 from distance, scoring 30 with 8 assists. He didn’t start the comeback, but he brought his hammer and extra nails to make sure the Knicks weren’t getting out of the box the Blazers stuffed them into.
Everyone I’ve talked to about Simons around the league is incredibly impressed with his growth this season. There’s a near-reverence in their voices too. He still has holes in his game, of course. The Blazers are in a place to absorb them too. But if you want to point to ONE thing the franchise has going for them right now, Simons is it.
Nurkic Right at Home
When Portland started Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic often got lost in the shuffle. With the ball now moving on every play, Nurkic has become the perfect pivot for Portland. His ability to post up and pass is priceless. It’s the ONLY way Blazers shooters are going to get open. Ditto his screening ability above the key, He frees up three-point shots with the initial screen and by causing a serious distraction with his rolls to the hoop.
Will this be a winning combination? Not likely. But for what the Blazers are trying to do (and/or are forced to do) right now, Nurkic is the key. No Blazers center in recent memory could fill the role he’s filling. That he’s also the only thing the Blazers have going on the defensive end is a huge bonus.
Nurk had 12 points, 6 assists, and 20 rebounds tonight.
The No Zone
The Blazers are trying to mask their inexperience, lack of height, and general defensive deficiencies by throwing lots of zone defense against opponents. It’s just not working. The Knicks got plenty of open looks in the mid-portions of the shot clock. In the second half, they started to get quality threes in the early parts of the clock too. The zone also left Portland out of position for rebounds. The most devastating blows of all came when the Knicks shot like... well... the Knicks, but grabbed easy offensive boards and dunked it home anyway. Even THEY couldn’t miss those looks. I don’t know how the Blazers become better defenders without more personnel and time to put it together, but this zone defense experiment isn’t it.
Justise For All
Forget Justise Winslow scoring 14 while shooting 50% from the field today. Forget him rebounding and helping launch the Blazers into comeback mode too. Winslow had a half-dozen assists against the Knicks, just as many as Nurkic. Except it’s only his fourth game with the squad. The Blazers are making basic basketball plays available. Winslow appears to be resetting his performance accordingly, participating in ways he’s capable of, but still matter. Ultimate significance remains to be seen, but this is one of the cooler stories of Portland’s CTRL-ALT-DEL trade deadline.
And the Rest
Elijah Hughes only shot 2-6 in his Portland debut, but those two makes came at the start of the fourth. They put the Blazers into striking distance for what would eventually become their winning comeback.
Ben McLemore hit only 3-9 triples, but he shot 6-12 from the field overall for 17 points off the bench. This is one of the hiccups in his “threes or nothing” trend this season. Those points were important for the Blazers today.
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.