March Madness isn’t confined to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Every once in a while, the fever and unexpected momentum that infect the college game also inhabit NBA courts. That was the case tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers faced the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn carried a serious talent edge, a better record, and a dominant player in forward Kevin Durant. Portland fielded no recognizable faces, a mid-major hopeful in the land of Bracket Behemoths.
But Portland gave Brooklyn a run for their money worthy of a tournament tale. Durant scored 38, but Portland forced 21 turnovers, grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, and scored 21 on the break, matching the Nets bucket for bucket.
But dirty work and cheek can only get you so far. In the end, Brooklyn pulled away behind three-point shooting and decent, if tardy, transition defense, taking out Portland 128-123. Josh Hart led the Blazers with 25, guard Brandon Williams adding 24.
The Nets read the scouting report, which no doubt says to take the ball inside against the short, not-exactly-defensively-stout Blazers. They got the ball to Andre Drummond at a range of approximately zero feet from the hoop. He looked like an All-NBA center, going dunkety-dunk-dunk-dunk all over Portland’s crania. The Blazers returned the favor, though, feeding Drew Eubanks and company inside and/or grabbing offensive rebounds for putbacks. As it turned out, the Nets weren’t that interested in defending the lane either.
Three-pointers made a difference. Brooklyn hit them off of their inside action; the Blazers not so much. Portland got down the floor much quicker, though, scoring on the run before the veteran Nets caught up. That evened the scoreboard.
Kevin Durant wanted nothing to do with even scores, however. As soon as the game got tight, he started taking over. He provided enough of a distraction to shift Portland’s defense, leaving threes and alley-oops for Brooklyn. Then the Nets started getting fast breaks, which the Blazers just could not stand.
But Portland got the last laugh. They went two-for-one in the final 40 seconds and managed to get fastbreak buckets on BOTH, the second an and-one for Josh Hart, completing a 10-point period for him. Brooklyn led only 34-33 after one.
The Nets started the second period like they did the first, going pahrump-a-pum-pum through Drummond. He scored, got fouled, and bulled his way around the boards. If Patty Mills could have hit one of his 92,304 open threes during this stretch, the Nets would have gone up by a lot. As it was, the game remained tight. But all of that was predicated on the Blazers shooting 60% while mopping up second-chance points. As soon as the percentage fell or Brooklyn started rebounding harder, the game was bound to get ugly.
That didn’t happen, though. Instead, the Blazers started poking away the ball and running out, causing Nets Head Coach Steve Nash to have a conniption fit on the sideline. As the quarter unwound, Brooklyn became a vending machine, dispensing the ball into Portland’s hands at the slightest provocation. Portland continued to hit the offensive glass, too.
With 8:00 left, break-aways and second-chance points had them up a whopping 8 points. Kris Dunn, in particular, feasted on this turnover-layup Merry-Go-Round. But that was just the beginning. When Ben McLemore hit a corner three off of a last-second desperation break at the end of the half, the Blazers had a whopping 75 points and led by 13, 75-62, at the half.
If the Nets intended to turn around the game in the third, they had a funny way of showing it. They continued to turn over the ball, got in squabbles with referees, and let Drew Eubanks score in the lane like he was Andre Drummond. Brief scoring flurries took the lead down to 9, but Portland quickly got it back again. The Blazers were still up 12 halfway through the third.
But the Nets had plenty of options to deal with their pesky opponents. They figured out that 7’0 Kevin Durant, though not a center, was still at least three inches taller than Eubanks, Portland’s biggest player. Durant found himself well able to guard Eubanks, but Drew could not return the favor on the other end. Around Durant, Nash put speedy shooters and passers. They got back on defense, shutting off Portland’s break opportunities. They moved the ball on offense, alternating threes with deep drives. In a little over two minutes, Brooklyn had the lead down to just 3. If the refs hadn’t been blowing some favorable whistles for the Blazers, it would have been worse than that.
It did get slightly worse. A Durant three with 2:49 remaining put the Nets ahead by 2, having once trailed by 18. That completed a 20-point swing in the period. It was just too much Durant, coupled with too many shooters. A 39-point period for Brooklyn left the game tied at 101 after three,
Durant sat at the beginning of the fourth period. That seemed to cue the Nets that they needed to pick up their play as a team. They started by getting back in transition, forcing steals where they had been giving them up before. They also unleashed Seth Curry, who hit a pair of three-pointers that felt like about 1,000. Four minutes into the period, the Blazers were down 10 and on the brink of collapse.
The Blazers held serve, but as it turned out, Durant required too much attention to allow their defense to cover all spots. They needed two defenders for KD, two more at various points around the arc. That left just one, inevitably undersized, to play inside. Whether the Nets attacked off the drive or in the post, that was too much. Breakaway points kept the scoreboard moving and gave Portland a chance, but they couldn’t score enough of them to make a difference. The Blazers cut the lead to three late, and held Durant to zero field goals in the fourth, but ultimately, their halfcourt scoring just wasn’t there even with the victory in reach, In the end, Portland succumbed to another good-looking loss.
Stay tuned for analysis from the game, coming soon!
The Blazers head to Indiana to face the Pacers at 12:30, Pacific on Sunday afternoon.