The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Toronto Raptors at least twice in 48 minutes before finally falling 117-105 in a Sunday afternoon matinee. Every time Portland would fall behind by a seemingly-insurmountable amount, Damian Lillard would bring them screaming back. In the end, turnovers and a few fourth-quarter threes from the Raptors doomed Portland to actual defeat in an often-confusing, hard-fought contest.
The Blazers now dip below .500 with a 19-20 record, the first time that’s happened all season.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are more observations from a long, tough game.
The Nurkic Dilemma
This game gave a ramped-up illustration of the yin and yang of starting Jusuf Nurkic at center. With Pascal Siakam opposite him, Nurkic was clearly the biggest player on the floor by far. That presented both advantages and disadvantages. Portland’s job was to accentuate the former and disguise the latter.
Nurkic had a clear advantage in the paint on offense. Portland tried to go to him early. He made a couple nice passes...it was ok. But quicker, smaller Toronto defenders kept Nurkic from making some of his pet moves. He likes to dribble the ball, or at least bring it down to his waist, while developing the play. He couldn’t do that comfortably. Even when he could, he had to pause, look twice. It slowed down the offense.
That’s a legitimate part of the cost. It’s also one the Blazers don’t want to bear every trip down the floor, especially since Nurkic is their fourth scorer under normal circumstances. Since Portland can’t keep their hands out of the Lillard-Simons-Grant cookie jar on offense, they can’t go through Nurkic all the time, or even most of it.
But Nurkic is playing defense every possession, whether that’s good for the Blazers or not. In this case, it wasn’t. The deficit started with Scottie Barnes launching threes. In what HAD to be an intentional scheme, Nurkic simply didn’t go out to guard him. Nurk literally planted his feet in the lane, stood stock still, and watched Barnes shoot completely uncovered.
Nurkic did get out to the perimeter to close out on other shooters or on switches. He fared no better. Gary Trent, Jr. treated him like a traffic cone. And all the court distance traveled kept Nurkic from recovering well back into the lane.
The deficits of Nurkic on defense were more exploitable than his offensive advantages, and there you go.
The Not-Nurkic Dilemma
Here’s the problem. The story didn’t get better when Nurkic sat. Jabari Walker got overwhelmed. Jerami Grant played good defense, but his screens weren’t anywhere near the quality of Nurkic’s. Drew Eubanks always tries hard, but Pascal, Anunoby, and Barnes aren’t names he wants to face. At least the Blazers moved more with their smaller subs in, but the effect wasn’t striking...unless you mean “out”.
Anyone discounting the absence of Justise Winslow and Nassir Little (maybe to a lesser extent Gary Payton II) needs to watch this game. The problems were evident and oft-repeated.
It’s also accurate (and sad) to say that small ball was supposed to be Portland’s bread-and-butter mode this season. To see another team outplay them at their own supposed strength is troublesome.
As the Blazers struggled to figure out their frontcourt issues, Anfernee Simons and Damian Lillard reminded them why it’s sometimes an afterthought.
Simons scored 8 of the first 10 of the game, stroking a pair of threes and hitting two free throws. He’d end up with 14 at the half, 22 by the end of the game, courtesy of 7-8 shooting from the foul line.
In classic form, Lillard took over with his team down 19 in the second quarter, spearheading a run that left them behind by only 5 at the break. He drove hard, converted free throws, and willed his team back into the fray. He did the same with deep threes and twisting layups while trying to bring the Blazers back in the fourth, as he practically has to do at this point. Either way, nobody else comes close to doing what Dame does. He scored 34 on 11-23 shooting, 9-12 on free throws.
Lillard also had 7 turnovers. Be careful how quickly you jump on that number. A couple of them came getting stripped while trying to set up a drive. The Raptors have excellent perimeter defenders, but they also knew that nobody else was going to be able to score enough to bring the Blazers back. They teed up on Lillard. He scored far more than he turned over the ball on those possessions. Also, a couple of his turnovers came from teammates being out of place and/or standing still and staring. 7 TO’s isn’t a glistening number, but the team deserves credit for part of it.
Shaedon Sharpe looked to get big run in this game, returning to Canada with his team in need. He started the afternoon with a beautiful, hesitation-free three. But Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa showed that he could sky just as high as Portland’s young rookie. Precious proceeded to wrap Shaedon in a blankie and send him back to practice. Sharpe actually looked shocked when he got one of his patented sky-high layups blocked. It was like he never recovered.
No worries; it’s all part of the learning process. Achiuwa himself went through it. And hey, Sharpe is special enough to get noticed, even when he’s getting schooled.
Bait and Switch
Lacking ability to stop plays at the point of attack, Portland is increasingly employing a “sucker them in” approach on defense. They fall back and let the action develop, then attempt to strike at the finish of the play, often bringing over help in the process. For example, they’ll fall back on perimeter screens, encouraging opponents to dribble and roll down the lane, then send a third man into the play to try and block the paint shot from the weak side.
In a way, this is smart. The point-of-attack approach relies on a single defender—often overmatched—and the court is spread, so everyone has to guess where the play will develop. If the Blazers guess wrong or the team adjusts mid-play, the defense fails.
With this approach, the Blazers end up waiting to see where the play will develop, make sure it happens in traffic, and extra defenders know exactly where to go, as they’re helping at the end of the process instead of the beginning or middle.
But here’s the thing. It works because the Blazers are usually quicker than other teams. If the initial defenders can stay in front of their men, slowing down the action just slightly, Portland can adjust to the play faster than the now-committed opponent can change it.
When the Blazers aren’t quicker than the other guys—as happened today against Toronto—late-developing defense becomes almost no defense. The Raptors either shot over retreating Blazers defenders or drove on them and got the attempt up before help could come. Portland didn’t even slow them down half the time. It was a bad matchup for the defensive approach.
You know who didn’t give a flying flip about Toronto’s speed, game plan, or anything else? Josh Hart. He drove to the bucket like his mortgage depended on it, ran the floor like it mattered, and did everything he could to stay in front of tough, athletic, and accomplished Raptors scorers. He ended the game with 18 points on 7-12 shooting with 8 rebounds and 3 assist. But his biggest contribution may have been ignoring the malaise that appears to be affecting his teammates. The Blazers would be better off with Hart higher in the rotation, but I understand why he isn’t.
(sigh) The Blazers are trying to be more disruptive on defense, but they’re succeeding more in disrupting themselves. They committed 24 turnovers for 29 Raptors points. When you’re trying to engineer and sustain a comeback, that hurts.
The three-pointer is Portland’s wildcard, their answer to everything that’s going wrong. When the threes fall, the Blazers look good. When they don’t, the Blazers better look good doing everything else or it’s going to be a tough outing. Portland shot 9-30, 30%, beyond the arc tonight. It was like throwing someone a life ring and finding out it’s a bowling ball.
The Blazers just don’t have enough of a bench right now. Portland’s reserves shot 1-7 and scored 3 points in 40 minutes collectively. Compare that to 10-21 shooting and 21 points for the Raptors, and you get the idea. Toronto’s bench wasn’t on fire, but they scored more than three points, for Pete’s sake.
Neither Damian Lillard nor Jusuf Nurkic looked happy after the loss, in body language or facial expression.
The Blazers finally return home on Tuesday night for a 7:00 tilt against the Orlando Magic.