The Portland Trail Blazers came into Saturday night’s contest against the Washington Wizards owners of a six-game losing streak, averaging deficits in that streak so shocking you’ll have to add to cart to see them. With Washington providing a brief respite at home before launching on another extended road trip, the Blazers needed a breath of renewal...badly. They got it. Behind 44 points from Josh Hart, Portland vanquished the Wizards 127-118, breaking their tragic losing streak and injecting life into Blazers Nation once again.
The Blazers started the game asking Drew Eubanks to play the part of Jusuf Nurkic. They fed him inside, let him get up a couple shots, depended on him for offensive rebounds. He filled the center spot decently under those conditions... or more accurately, he filled center duties better than his counterparts were likely to fulfill their duties at other positions. That made it a smart move. Portland scored big in the lane and looked good on offense.
The defense was not so spry. Coach Chauncey Billups opened up the game with his team in the ever-more-present zone defense. The Wizards ate it up with astonishingly-open corner threes (plus one from the diagonal). The long ball allowed Washington to counter Portland’s 67% shooting. On one hand, it was exciting. On the other, when you have to hit 2 out of 3 shots just to stay afloat, that’s not a promising sign.
Josh Hart hitting back-to-back threes in the middle of the quarter WAS a promising sign, though. A quick six points from the struggling forward gave even more life to the offense and appeared to build his confidence instantaneously. He’d hit another jumper and then yet another three in short order. Meanwhile Portland got out of the zone and pressured harder man-to-man. They gave up more shots inside, but at least those were semi-covered instead of wide open. Washington had trouble converting.
Combined, these trends led Portland to a surprising 12-point lead as the quarter marched to a close. Their inability to close out at the arc was the only thing that kept them from going up 20. The Blazers led 38-26 after one.
Keon Johnson came out in the second period doing his best Josh Hart impression, hitting a pair of threes. The Blazers continued to run at every opportunity. They hit the offensive glass as well. That was enough to expand their lead past 15, proving they weren’t going to be a one-period wonder.
Then Real Josh Hart elbowed Imposter Josh Hart aside, canning another three, converting a layup, and playing stout defense. He’d end up scoring 11 points in a row. No, you did not misread that. One game ago, the Blazers were basically averaging 11 points in a quarter. Now Hart gave them that in a 5-minute span.
A three by Brandon Williams right after Hart’s barrage gave the Blazers that long-awaited 20-point lead. They would keep almost all of it through to the break. Washington just couldn’t score enough to keep up! Portland led 72-54 at the half. Hart had 28 points.
The Blazers came out in the second half scoring right down the heart of the lane. Eubanks and Hart led the attack, but CJ Elleby also chipped in. The strategy wasn’t complex. If Portland could just keep scoring, the chances of the Wizards catching up were practically nil.
Not that Washington didn’t try. Like Portland, they focused on scoring at the rim. Turnovers hampered their efforts. Even when they did manage to put it in, they couldn’t do it quickly enough to dent Portland’s lead much early. With them having played last night, the clock worked against the Wizards too. If they weren’t going to mount a big comeback in the third period, it probably wasn’t coming in the fourth. Foul shooting helped Washington along, but the Blazers fended them off with those interior shots.
Still, Washington’s easy points started nibbling at the margins of Portland’s edge. The lead got as low as 13 mid-period. But Josh Hart was having none of it. He captained the team through the precarious closing minutes of the third, pushing his team above 100 points in just three periods. Despite giving back points, Portland still led 103-91 after three.
The Wizards threatened Portland at the beginning of the fourth, getting the lead as low as 7. The Blazers fought them off the same way they had all game: scoring big at the cup. But it was a shaky thing until Hart hit a three-pointer with 6:49 remaining. He was fouled too, converting the four-point play. That made the lead 15 again.
At that point, the Wizards started getting desperate. The drifted outside, launching ill-advised three-pointers. That made the situation worse.
In the end, Washington couldn’t muster enough moxie to take the game. Every bucket they score, Portland matched. They needed that ratio to be 2:1, and the Blazers just weren’t going to let that happen.
Stay tuned for extra analysis of the game, coming up soon!
Portland will take to the road once again, facing the Atlanta Hawks on Monday at 4:30 PM, Pacific.