The Portland Trail Blazers wanted to go ham on the Sacramento Kings in their first game after the All-Star break, hoping to forge a path to the 2023 NBA Playoffs. Injuries, a delayed plane into town, and late scratches for Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant ensured that the effort was mostly soy filler. Portland started a lineup of Drew Eubanks, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little, Matisse Thybulle, and Ryan Arcidiacono. Nobody in the universe had that on their Trail Blazers bingo card, because most of those players are too new to the franchise for the cards to be printed yet.
Portland got out to a super hot start, taking the Kings 37-29 in the first period behind a barrage of three-pointers. After that, the game went about as you’d expect. The new-look Blazers didn’t defend well man-to-man. They tried to compensate by running a deceptively quick-closing zone defense, but it didn’t take the Kings long to figure it out. After that Portland turnovers, Sacramento rebounds, and a heaping helping of interior points and free throws for the Kings led to a 133-116 victory for the home team.
Nassir Little scored 26 in the loss, shooting 10-19 from the field, 5-9 from the arc. Cam Reddish scored 24 in the start, but that was more of an aggregate collection. He shot only 7-18, 3-11 from distance, with 4 assists and 5 turnovers. Shaedon Sharpe, a highly-anticipated part of the action given who wasn’t playing, shot 4-14 for 9 points in 22 minutes. Seven Kings players scored in double figures, led by De’Aaron Fox with 31.
The loss drops Portland to 28-31 for the season, still outside of the playoffs picture, looking in.
Nassir Little started this game by making the case that he should start in forever mode, scoring 9 points in the first 5 minutes, including a pair of threes. Cam Reddish and Matisse Thybulle joined little in the Triple Parade, staking the Blazers to a 19-4 lead that caused the Kings to call a tisk-tisk timeout with 7:17 remaining.
Portland’s zone defense appeared to confuse the Kings a bit. They ran action as if they were still facing a man-to-man, refusing to own the seams or stake out ground in the middle of the floor. Their shots came hard and they all but abandoned the offensive glass...a traditional weak spot of zone schemes.
Shaedon Sharpe checked in and hit a three, then Little hit another three. At that point, the Blazers were 6 of 8 from distance. With that percentage, you could put in a lineup of Jabba the Hutt, Miley Cyrus, Gilligan, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, and Howdy Doody and still compete.
But the Kings started figuring out the defense a little, striking from deep themselves. Three in a row, with a layup and a dunk peppered in, brought Sacramento back within 10 in short order.
Portland did a good job of forcing turnovers throughout the period. When Sharpe poked away the sixth in the period and slammed down a breakaway windmill with 2:00 remaining, Portland led 33-19.
The Blazers remained quick in their defensive rotations and got shots inside the arc from Trendon Watford and Jabari Walker as the quarter closed. That kept them ahead even though Sacramento continued scoring. A Trey Lyles three at the buzzer brought the Kings back within single digits, 37-29, but it was an unimaginably good opening period for Portland nonetheless.
The scoring dried up for a minute at the start of the second, but that wasn’t necessarily bad for Portland, given their lead. The pace remained moderate, with Portland pushing the ball inside. In contrast to the first period, they neither attempted, nor made, many threes.
But even though they didn’t get tons of shots, the Kings made around 80% of them in the first four minutes of the period. That was far more than Portland could manage. Paint points and free throws gave them a 12-2 run, bringing them back within two, 43-41, when Portland called a timeout at the 8:02 mark.
The Blazers tried to compensate by resuming the three-point barrage, but their scorching first-quarter performance seemed a distant memory. Portland opened the second period shooting 1-8 from range. That wasn’t near enough. A Kevin Huerter three with 4:32 remaining tied the score at 50-50. Sacramento had finally figured out the zone.
Portland got the ball inside in the final few minutes, giving the Kings some of their own medicine with short shots and free throws. But Sacramento got loose on the break, getting their own easy buckets in return. The Blazers had only 6 turnovers at that point, but Cam Reddish had 4 of them. Meanwhile Portland had serious trouble stopping the Kings from passing through their suddenly-predictable defense.
The combination of miscues on one end, free ball-tossing on the other, allowed Sacramento to streak towards intermission. Keegan Murray grabbed an offensive rebound with less than a second left and floated up yet another buzzer-beater, giving Sacramento a 66-57 lead at the half.
Nassir Little brought the flamethrower out again at the start of the second half, scoring four of Portland’s first five buckets, pouring in 9 points in 4 minutes. But Portland couldn’t close down the lane. Sacramento’s layups and put-backs allowed them to keep pace fairly easily.
Little continued to score as the period progressed, but the Kings started stroking their threes. That provided all the separation they needed. Sacramento used Portland’s aggressiveness against them, ball faking, then dribbling past leaping Blazers defenders right into the lane. By the time the rotations came, they were good only for fouls or pulling the ball out of the net.
Sacramento, on the other hand, got back on defense. They weren’t great, but even keeping bodies in front of the young Blazers was enough to keep Portland’s looks difficult. Arcidiacano was the only Portland player inclined to pass, or even capable of it, really. Once the Kings keyed in on that fact, it was rough sledding for the Blazers. A couple nice buckets from Little, Watford, and a high-soaring Keon Johnson late weren’t enough to make a huge difference with De’Aaron Fox going loco in the lane. Everything Portland worked hard for, the Kings got easy.
Portland did clean up the rebounding issue late in the period, though. Limiting Sacramento to one shot per trip kept them from running away with it. Sacramento led 100-91 after three.
Behind Malik Monk and Domantas Sabonis, the Kings tattooed the lane at the start of the fourth quarter. They hit 7 of their first 10 shots in the lane and got fouled on a couple that didn’t show up on the shot chart. Meanwhile the Blazers went 1-6 from the arc. That was enough to sink them right there. Getting approximately half of Sacramento’s strikes in the paint sealed the deal. The lead ballooned past 20 and that was all she wrote.
Stay tuned for extended analysis, coming soon.
The Blazers return home to face the Houston Rockets on Sunday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start. We’ll see if any of their starters return over the weekend.