The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Golden State Warriors last night in a tight, hotly-contested tug-o-war. Portland led for much of the evening before Steph Curry and the dynasty bunch took over for the final plays of the game.
Alongside the disappointment about the loss comes an admiration for the Blazers. Not only were they the less-experienced team in the matchup, they played without two starters from the tip and lost a third at halftime. That made this game a fantastic showcase for the remaining players, all young, mostly unproven.
Here’s a bonus look at the performance of Portland’s players against the Warriors, including some favorable comparisons to their elder, and more accomplished, counterparts.
I’m confused, did Anfernee Simons miss the last 18 games or was he playing in some other league? Simons stepped off the plane and was ready to go tonight for the Blazers. He scored 28 points but it took him 27 shots to get there. Nonetheless, it was good to see him feeling comfortable back in the starting lineup. He played 37 minutes and the Blazers needed every second.
Simons has one of the best shooting strokes in the NBA and it was on full display. He finished with 6 made threes, but it was his drives to the hoop that made all the difference.
Simons uses angles so well when navigating how to get his shot off around his defender. It didn’t matter who the Warriors put on him, in fact they went mostly to a zone in the second half. Tonight he was making shots at all three levels: layups, midrange, and long distance. We’ve been wondering what the team would like with Simons back in the fold, and at least with a one game sample size, everything looked good.
Shaedon Sharpe was the second leading scorer for the Blazers, but it was his all around game that impressed me the most. He got the start at small forward because of the return of Simons and did not disappoint. Along with his 26 points, Sharpe added 6 rebounds and 5 assists. He only attempted 4 free-throws, but honestly he could have been at the line 10-12 times. He’s still young and proving himself to the NBA referees, but because he can hang in the air forever when he drives to the hoop, he’s so good at drawing touch or body fouls.
Give it time and he will start to get all those calls. Sharpe is truly developing into a special player. He’s not making dumb mistakes and is taking what the defense gives him. It would have been easy to feel intimidated tonight against the 4 time NBA Champs, but Sharpe takes it all at his own pace and never seems rattled.
I know I know I know. Scoot Henderson only scored 9 points on 4-9 shooting and 0-3 from three point range and was a -15 for the game. But it was his demeanor and body language that caught my attention. He also didn’t get wrapped up in his first matchup against Curry. Young players will tend to take it upon themselves to prove something when playing against former MVP’s and legends of the game. Scoot played under control and explosive. He filled in the Brogdon role of floor general well by committing only 1 turnover in 26 minutes of play. He had a few good looks in the fourth quarter that would have put the Blazers in a position to win the game; he needs to hit those in the future, but for now I was impressed with Scoot’s performance.
Jabari Walker and More
It was impossible to watch tonight’s game and not compare players. Portland has Jabari Walker, a second round draft pick with all the hustle and intangibles you’d ever want in a player. He cleans up the glass, can handle the ball, and creates offense for himself and his teammates. But it is his defense that stands out to me. There was a possession at the 6:18 mark of the second quarter where Walker got switched onto Curry. Walker was on that island for about 10 seconds and held his own, forcing Curry into a tough missed shot. It’s those plays that have me excited about the future of Walker. It’s hard not to compare him to Draymond Green.
The best guard combo tonight was not Steph and Klay Thompson, it was Sharpe and Simons. Maybe the newest version of the splash brothers? Okay...maybe not quite there yet, but from the standpoint of pure shooting from your backcourt, tonight Sharpe and Simons made the bigger splash.
The last comparison I’ll make is about forcing turnovers. When Golden State was at its peak, their defense seemed to always bend and not break. And they did this by forcing turnovers. When you play the small ball lineup, which was most of the game tonight, and if you’re not forcing turnovers, then you’re not able to keep up with the other team. The Blazers, with the help of Walker, Toumani Camara, and Matisse Thybulle, are able to play this style of defense and not give up a ton of points.
Bonus Take: The Third Quarter
Since 2015, the Golden State Warriors made a living in the third quarter. It was always when they would pull away from teams. Down double digits? No problem. The Warriors would come out of the locker room and erase that lead in a matter of minutes, getting the crowd back into games and riding that momentum into the fourth quarter and usually to the victory. I was curious tonight what would happen in this infamous quarter versus Portland. The Blazers entered halftime leading by 7 points, with a fully healthy Warriors squad ready to pounce.
I have to admit, I was really proud of how the Blazers fought in the third period. The first 6-7 minutes belonged to Rip City. They answered every small run the Warriors threw at them. The Blazers kept their composure and did not turnover the ball. And all of this without Malcom Brogdon, who didn’t return after halftime.
However, the Blazers were not able to escape completely unscathed. Stephen Curry did what Stephen Curry does and went on a run. He pulled the Warriors all the way back, scoring 17 points in the quarter, but the Blazers had answers and still led going into the fourth quarter. I say all this to point out the intangibles and growth I see in this young Portland team. Moments where the baby Blazers should fold, they don’t. Being down Brogdon, Grant, and Ayton should mean an easy win for the Warriors, at home. But that did not happen. The Blazers weathered the third quarter Golden State storm and came up just short.