The Los Angeles Lakers came into the Moda Center on Wednesday night expecting a relatively easy win over the Portland Trail Blazers. They didn’t get an easy game, nor did they get the victory. Instead the Blazers played with dogged determination, refusing to bow to the Los Angeles mystique, which on this night held all the appeal of a bottle of glitter spilled on the carpet. The Blazers shot worse than the Lakers, had fewer rebounds and assists, and couldn’t stop LeBron James, who shot 11-22 for 30 points. But Portland brought the hustle, forced turnovers, and got up 15 more shots than L.A. did, which carried them to a delicious 107-105 victory.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. Here are a few observations from the evening to stack on top.
Say what you want about Portland’s lineup, chances, and all that, but it’s FUN to watch Jusuf Nurkic unleashed on the floor. He’s getting all the touches he wants, getting to set up plays, and getting more crisp action off of his screens. His multi-skill game remains impressive. It’s just nice to see him playing with abandon, not looking over his shoulder or waiting for his turn to contribute, making himself available for catches and conversions constantly. He’s showing who he is, in the good way. Love it.
Since there’s not a ton of reasons to scoreboard watch, pick a game to just watch Nurkic operate. Focus on him whether he has the ball or not. It’ll probably show you a little more about basketball, and also remind you what an engaged player looks like.
Nurk had 19 points on 8-11 shooting with 12 rebounds tonight.
You may remember when the Blazers were among the best three-point shooting teams in the league. Like, from 2013 until last week. That’s done now. REALLY done. They used to be disappointed if their triples hit the rim. Now they’re lucky if they do. It’s weird to see a team transform so dramatically, so quickly. That’s the after-effect of the recent trade.
Portland had to go on a furious second-half barrage just to get to 10-32, 31.3%, tonight. For the longest time they were shooting 0% from the arc, Literally.
For about the seventh game in a row, I find myself citing Portland’s ability to crowd the lane, stopping shots and passes. They’re highly dependent on Nurkic for the anchor and they don’t always do it well, even when he’s in the game. But there are moments—usually when the opponent just can’t hit a three—when the Blazers pack it inside and get positively staunch on defense. Nice.
Those Are the Breaks
The Lakers seemed content to play at a snail’s pace tonight, perhaps looking to take advantage of their matchup edges at...well...nearly every position. But Portland was having none of it. The first half, the Blazers were willing to grind it out with the opponent. That kept the score close. In the second half, though, the Blazers took full advantage of young legs and relative freedom, dashing their way to 28 fast break points for the game. The Lakers had 4.
Defensive Identity, Part 2?
They have yet to show it against cohesive teams (the Lakers are not), but if you give the Blazers an opening to force turnovers, they’re showing themselves increasingly adept at doing so. They’re good when the opponent grinds to a standstill, allowing them to read the passing lanes and anticipate. It’s still too easy to get them to overcommit, but at least they’re doing something. They forced 21 turnovers from L.A. tonight, accounting for 28 of their points.
Justise Winslow is getting after it, looking like he plans to earn playing time with this squad. He has a little bit of a nose for the easy score and his body allows him to create space even with a man on him. Teams have been waiting on him forever. It’ll take more than a couple good games for him to establish a place in anybody’s rotation. But there’s a spark of a hard-nosed, scoring-adept energy guy there. In the middle of a weird season, any spark is welcome.
Winslow had 11 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 assists in 33 minutes.
Anfernee Simons not only came up big in the boxscore (11-23, 29 points), he helped the Blazers make a huge stand late in the fourth quarter when the Lakers were trying to take over the game, hitting a layup and a couple of MONSTER threes. This was made more impressive when you consider his 2-12 start to the game. Nice comeback. Nerves of steel.
We’ve mentioned defensive identity twice now, but realistically, the Blazers are not going to get credited with any kind of defense when allowing their opponent to shoot 55.4% from the field and 45.9% from the arc. This is not the first time that’s happened this month, or this week, for that matter. Portland played faster and hungrier, getting up those extra attempts, but that’s the only thing that saved the game for them.
Thank goodness it was good enough. Winning against L.A. feels as good as ever.
The Blazers have a couple days off before playing the New York Knicks on Saturday at 2:00 PM, Pacific.